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A STORY HALF-TOLD:
Putting A Spin On The Long Term Unemployed

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 30, 2014

We’ve never met Abe Gorelick, but Annie Lowrey at The New York Times has made him the poster child for the long term unemployed in a piece titled Out of Work, Out of Benefits, and Running Out of Options:

BOSTON — Abe Gorelick has decades of marketing experience, an extensive contact list, an Ivy League undergraduate degree, a master’s in business from the University of Chicago, ideas about how to reach consumers young and old, experience working with businesses from start-ups to huge financial firms and an upbeat, effervescent way about him. What he does not have — and has not had for the last year — is a full-time job.

Five years since the recession ended, it is a story still shared by millions. Mr. Gorelick, 57, lost his position at a large marketing firm last March. As he searched, taking on freelance and consulting work, his family’s finances slowly frayed. He is now working three jobs, driving a cab and picking up shifts at Lord & Taylor and Whole Foods.

“I’m not in my basement, unshaven, unshowered, drinking a bottle of Scotch a day,” Mr. Gorelick said. “I’m out there working these jobs, meeting people and trying to make something happen. But it is exhausting. It is stressful. It is difficult.”

We wish Mr. Gorelick well, but Ms. Lowrey did a disservice to her readers in simply running the parts of the story that seem to have fit with the narrative she wanted to present, because something is very wrong with this story.

First, she didn’t ask any of the logical and obvious questions that a reader would want to know to determine if this is really a public policy problem or if this is really a choice that Mr. Gorelick has made. Simple questions: Is Mr. Gorelick willing to relocate? Has Mr. Gorelick insisted on a salary minimum for accepting a new professional position and what might that be? Is he willing to change professions, say, from marketing to sales?

Second, if Mr. Gorelick is willing to do all that might be necessary to get a new professional position, there is still something off about this report. Mr. Gorelick attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and has a master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Chicago. These are among the top business programs in the world. Since he is 57-years-old, many of his classmates are wealthy and in important positions in business.

Mr. Gorelick is in marketing, so we can assume he has cultivated and retained many relationships. So if he is willing to do what it takes to reestablish himself, what does it say about the way Mr. Gorelick is perceived by people who have known him a long time that not one of these captains of industry is prepared to offer their friend and classmate a position? The reporter here didn’t seem to interview anyone to find out why they were choosing not to extend Mr. Gorelick any offers of employment.

Third, it is not clear why Mr. Gorelick needs a job at all. Marketing involves lots of project work, and an esteemed professional active in the field for 30 years — now able to offer bargain prices as he works from his house without rent or overhead — should be able to make a living with his own firm. Look at a guy such as Dick Spezzano. Had Vons not been acquired by Safeway, he would have probably stayed employed, but when the luck of the draw turned against him, he leveraged a lifetime of knowledge, contacts and connections and made his own luck. That Mr. Gorelick can’t make this happen is odd and tells us that there is more to this story than we are being presented.

Fourth, the piece is quite oblique about Mr. Gorelick’s financial situation. It says that he is the family’s “primary breadwinner” but not whether his wife made 49% of their earnings or 2%. It says he has had to wipe out his retirement accounts, but not what kind of cash reserve he had built up over his decades in business. It says he has struggled to cover his mortgage but not how much the mortgage is or whether he had a mortgage at 57 because he had bought an extravagant home or refinanced to use the money imprudently or anything at all about why he is so broke at 57 when he supposedly had such a successful career.

There is mention that Mr. Gorelick has considered selling his home, but there is no mention of how much equity the family has in the home or of whether it is larger than they need or in a very expensive neighborhood.

The piece doesn’t identify Mr. Gorelick’s wife but an obituary in The New York Times for Samuel Eckstein mentions his son-in-law, Abe Gorelick. Mr. Eckstein’s daughter, now named Laurie Gorelick, appears to own Laurie Gorelick Interiors. Now we have no way of knowing how profitable a business this is, but it seems well established and it seems that Mr. Gorelick could at least take over marketing this family business and help make it more profitable.

And the family does seem to have options. Laurie Gorelick not only went to Wharton undergrad herself, but she is an attorney, having graduated from New York University School of Law, but she has elected not to practice.

They don’t seem to be facing destitution. Laurie Gorelick has tweeted about her intention to become a snowbird in 2016. And Jordan Gorelick, who seems to be their son, studies at Colgate University, an elite private school and has won recognition as a DJ.

Fifth, there is no mention of family or friends. The fact that he and his wife both went to Wharton out of high school indicates a high achieving family. It seems odd that nobody should have any position or projects to give Mr. Gorelick or any ability to extend any help so he doesn’t build up credit card debt. If family and friends know something about Mr. Gorelick that makes them not want to extend help, this tells us something important to know in evaluating the situation.

******

The article discusses an experimental program in which some long term unemployed are given career counselors:

Mr. Gorelick was paired with the career coach Edward Lawrence, whom he has met with about 10 times to talk through his résumé, outlook and job search over coffee at Panera Bread or in the local library. So far, Mr. Gorelick has not landed a full-time position. But he says the sessions have helped him remain an attractive candidate, with phone and in-person interviews taking place.

“He knew nothing about me and had no preconceived notions,” Mr. Gorelick said. “He could look at my work and give me constructive comments in a very objective manner. I think that in and of itself is extremely valuable.”

This is all very nice and might be of some utility. It is, however, odd that a mature marketing professional would need this much help. And although it is good to know how people who don’t know you might perceive you, it is much more likely that a 57-year-old professional will find a job with someone who does know him, has many pre-conceived notions, etc.

Basically these pre-conceived notions, based on decades of watching someone work, are a 57-year-old’s greatest asset — unless of course the preconceived notions are negative.

For individuals, it is easy to draw lessons from a story like this:

Save money — both so you can live if your income gets cut off and so you have the flexibility to take a new job. You might need money to relocate or to carry family expenses until a new job, which might be commission-based, can start to kick in.

Minimize fixed costs such as home and car payments for the same reasons.

Maximize learning and networking. If you look at people such as Dick Spezzano, Bruce Peterson, Bob DiPiazza, Reggie Griffin, while actively employed, they all became chairman of PMA or United. This certainly broadened both their learning and their contacts which enabled them to build consultancies when they ended full time employment.

Conduct yourself — at all times — in a way that would make people want to be associated with you and want to hire you. Lots of us are now teaching our children about the dangers of posting things on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — we warn that one day images of debauchery could come back to haunt them. Here is another secret… Although worrying about what strangers think is prudent, it may be even more important what your friends and family think about you. Do they perceive you as honest, hardworking, prudent, thrifty, willing to go the extra mile, loyal, etc? Would they gladly vouch for you because they see the risk as minimal? Or do they think you are fundamentally lazy, not interested, counting the days until vacation?

For society, the story is hard to read without more information. The author of the article seems interested in making it a federal case:

In Washington, the plight of the long-term jobless has largely faded from the policy conversation. At the moment, the federal government offers virtually no help to the 3.8 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months. The maximum duration of unemployment insurance payments fell from as long as 73 weeks to 26 weeks in most states in January.

Yet this couple, a husband with an MBA from the University of Chicago and the wife with a law degree from NYU, seem a particularly weak case for federal aid. They have already been given a blessing in terms of an elite education that we will never be able to offer most people.

Of course, it would be nice if everyone could make a lucrative living doing whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. But this couple has been given many tools to make a living — an Ivy League education, law degrees, ownership of a business, etc. The reporter just didn’t dig deep enough to tell us why Mr. Gorelick is in such a difficult position.

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