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The Underemployed by Taryn Cooper

February 26, 2014 by Lady Unemployed

I am so glad to share this story because it offers such a unique, eye opening perspective on the current state of affairs. I encourage you to email me your story so I can share it with my readers.

“A measure of employment and labor utilization in the economy that looks at how well the labor force is being utilized in terms of skills, experience and availability to work. Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers that are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers that are highly skilled but work in low skill jobs and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time. This is different from unemployment in that the individual is working but isn’t working at their full capability.” — Definition of Underemployment by Investopedia.

I am a student of finance and economics. I find the science and the art equally as fascinating. Yet, I was not a traditional student, as I do not own a degree in those fields, but I was a student on the fly. Mostly because I went to college a hundred years ago (in technology years), and I was an English literature major.

You see when I graduated, I had to do things like look up job listings in the classifieds. I had to physically print out and mail my resumes out to human resources departments in response. (I did not, however, have to walk a mile in the snow to school, barefoot.) It used to be that you got a job based on the soft skills one possessed, and a company would invest in educating their human capital.

The landscape of the job market has changed dramatically since I graduated, craptacular economy notwithstanding.

Though I may describe an era that seems long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I’m only in my 30s. I don’t just have a bachelor of arts degree, I also earned a masters degree about seven years ago. When the real estate market was booming, and everyone was buying houses, I was gainfully employed. Then the market went into the crapper. I went from being unemployed to a contract worker to now one of the ranks what we call the “underemployed.”

Let me repeat. I am a 30-something year old woman. I have two degrees, including one advanced degree that I earned not too long ago. I worked at a top tier investment bank on the merger and acquisition desk for eight years, and I have a total ten years of experience in financial services. Yet I’m certain that because of this pedigree, my name is mud for jobs (especially since the types of jobs I had, mostly in back office, support and marketing), and now I feel as though I am being age-discriminated too. I am told I am “overqualified” for jobs which begs the question, would they rather have someone “underqualified” for the role? Or is “overqualified” as nice way of saying I’m too old, and they can hire new graduates for a fraction and they won’t complain? (I think the latter).

I had to not only start a home-based business (don’t knock it till you try it), but I also had to take a part-time job on a retail floor doing some brand marketing. So now I’m in a position that I am overqualified for a job that I work for a lot less money than jobs for which I am qualified.

In short — I have joined the ranks of the underemployed. Investopedia describes a person as having an engineering degree working as a pizza delivery guy. I feel as though there are many like me out there, we are being silenced for many different reasons, or perhaps being silent for reasons like shame.

Though is there shame in taking a job that doesn’t pay as much or give you “full time hours”? Or is it because you work, and everyone feels like they’re making a meaningful contribution to society?

I know many people like me. At the store, I work with many of them. In the home based business networks, I know many walks of life trying to earn extra money because the economy has hit them in many other ways.

The common thread is that we’ve either left, been laid off or jobs no longer exist in our home industries.

I work with a woman who worked in law for 20 years and is now a floor rep at a retail store about 30 hours a week.

My cousin worked in the same industry as I did basically, and he too is working in a completely different industry, selling cars.

Another woman at the store ran a chain of gyms and lost her job several years ago. Now she teaches classes for a higher dollar amount per hour at the store.

Someone I used to work with in finance moved west, but is now working in a job that is entirely commission based. If you like those types of jobs, that’s one thing. But it’s more than just survival now. The landscape is changing.

But the common thread you see here is that most of these jobs have no growth opportunities. I won’t be a manager or a supervisor because there are no real roles for me to grow into. But mostly I’ve put my eggs in the basket of growing my side business into a full time career.

The last guest post on Lady (Un)Employed talked about how there are many hard-working individuals out there who deserve a little more respect than having people judge us by thinking we just want hand outs. And I agree with that. I’m sure that underemployed people fear that judgment every day. In fact, I took a job that pays essentially 10% of the last highest salary I had working on Wall Street just so I could tell people that I have a job (but also let’s be fair: it’s so I can pay some bills that got high too). In New York City, that aint paying the rent. I’m one of the lucky ones: I have a husband who adores me, and is able to support the both of us while I carve out this path of doing several things, like eBay selling, part time in retail, blogging and doing my wellness business. We call these “slash careers,” and I’m seeing a lot of that too. Mostly because of the changing landscape of business and employment.

Yet, I feel as though if I qualified for unemployment and collected (my benefits ran out after my last job), I’d be judged. Yet, I made more collecting unemployment than I do at the store.

What you’ll see from the underemployed though is we’re willing to adapt. That’s something your resume won’t say. The Catch-22 is there, concurrently. The underemployed typically take these part-time or low-paying or low-skill jobs to buy time, put that “empty space” on your resume to rest, but at the same time, taking a job that’s part-time/low-paying/low-skill is the Catch-22.

There’s that saying that once you’ve settled for less than you expected, you get less than you settled for.
Forgive me for being a little cynical. While I like the way the unemployment numbers are going, let’s face facts: the world the way it used to be isn’t coming back. However, we’ve proven time and again that the next great industry is right around the corner, and hiring will be back and everyone will have jobs, and there will be a car in every garage (if you should have one) and a chicken in every pot (as long as you are not a vegetarian).

I feel as though the underemployed are in a different boat. That there is that fear of pigeonholing ourselves into these part-time jobs that we won’t get out of them.

I’m no spring chicken, but I am way too young to have to worry about this stuff, like wondering if I’ll ever work again. Then I snap out of it and look at the opportunities around me and think, that I used to believe that when one door closes, another one opens. I still do, to some extent.

Yet, for a culture that ties so much of ones individual personality and worth to what they do, it’s easy to see why the underemployed are so underrepresented. If you are underemployed, you’re certainly not talking about it. It’s almost more taboo than not having a job at all.

By Taryn Cooper
Cofounder of Coop Dee Ville and Founder of Gal For All Seasons
Twitter @TarynitupNY


  1. Vinny C says:

    You’re right about there being many of us out there. Tweak one or two minor details & you just described my life. Like you, I’m in my 30’s, I was in banking & lost that when the economy suffered. Then I had a three-year struggle going from unemployment to underemployment. [sarcasm]Good times…[/sarcasm]

  2. Jess says:

    This person would be a perfect project manager or project coordinator. She’s got the perfect background for this type of work which can be especially lucrative as a consultant.

  3. Taryn says:

    Hi there, I’m the original guest author of this post from three years ago. This popped up onto my twitter feed this morning, I re-read it because three years ago, I was in a much different situation than I am Today. I wanted to Give an update on it! First I had to realize that the type of work I used to do, well It’s not available to me anymore. I had to make peace with that. But the other end to the equation was that I had to start from Scratch. That wasn’t easy. I had a lot of friends and former colleagues, yet when push came to shove, it was still just me in the end. I also did freelancing and “sharing” work, and I’m actually working now as a territory manager for a large pet caretakong company inNew York City. Not exactly where I thought I’d be with a masters degree but I’m very happy and had to let go of who I was. In the end, we can help Ourselves and get out of our comfort zones. But I followed my heart. I’m Making a third of what I did on Wall Street. But the amount of satisfaction I get on a daily basis, well, can’t price tag it. 🙂

    • HI! I’m SO happy to hear things are going better for you! Following your heart is always the way to go and I’m so happy you are in a much better place. If you ever want to write a new post, let me know!

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