Work and Unemployment in 50s

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

July 25, 2006


            “The only thing worse than work, is not having any.”  Anybody who is unemployed knows the frightening truth of this old saying.

            When my father was 52 years old our family moved from Chicago to Baltimore. My dad gave up a good teaching job in Chicago. He never again found good work. Nobody ever wanted to take a chance on a man of his age. He had not connections and no friend network in our new home. After a succession of temporary jobs, all beneath his skill level, he just lost heart.

            Toward the end of his life he was discouraged and depressed. 

            Recently a similar thing happened to another family member. It is a crisis. The specter of my father’s experience haunts us all.

            The prospect of unemployment for people in their 50s is frightening. But, it happens to thousands of people every year.

            This past year in the US, airlines and auto companies laid off thousands of people. Thousands of manufacturing and service jobs moved overseas to cheaper labor markets. Many people were left unemployed by hurricanes and natural disasters.

            The young can pick up and move. They can get retrained. For older workers this was not just an economic tremor. It was an earthquake.

            It is true that the economy grew “over all.” But people don’t live “over all.”

            While many new jobs were created, those jobs generally went to younger people. The young have strong backs for hard labor. They also have newly minted skills and degrees for our high tech economy. They can shake off a job loss and move on.

            Older workers are rooted. They have family commitments and responsibilities. They have outdated skills and are not so physically attractive.

            The lucky ones may get a “buy out” (like at GM) or can take early retirement. But with pension plans evaporating like the morning dew these days, unemployment is devastating because there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

            Work is about much more than money. It is about self worth.  

            Work is at the center of our human identity. The Bible says we are made in God’s image and likeness. Part of that likeness is to work, just as God did in creation. The catechism says that human work continues the work of creation.

            Freud said, quite rightly, that people live their lives for two motivations: love and work.

            If people can’t work, they die spiritually. Just talk to people on welfare.

            The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Unemployment almost always wounds its victim’s dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family.” (CCC 2436).

            That was certainly true in my father’s case and for our  family.

            As a pastor I am also an employer. Our parish has more than a dozen employees, full and part time. I always try to consider how important the job is to each of them. I have never fired anyone. I just can’t do it.

            Whenever I counsel people who are unemployed, I see my dad sitting across the desk.  

            I think that many priests do not understand what unemployment means. After all, very few people enjoy our job security.

            I think that no one should be ordained to the priesthood unless they have worked for a while. I call this the “W-2 test” for ordination.

            Why? Because priests should know in their souls just how important work is to people. They should know how much it hurts to be unemployed.

            A job, especially late in life, represents not only material support but spiritual dignity.