Nearly 90 per cent of respondents said the CEOs of large companies had benefitted most; 63 per cent identified financial sector employees as the winners; 40 per cent chose public servants; 18 per cent chose blue collar workers, and just 8 per cent picked middle-class households.
Initially Schuppert says he felt marginalized but not hurt — an interesting word he chooses: without a job, he felt pushed to the sidelines of life.
In the first six months after being restructured, he sent out about 100 resumés and got three interviews, none of which led to anything. By August 2009, he had run out of money and needed financial help from his parents. He realized at the same time he was going to have to take whatever job he could find and not wait for something commensurate with his skills and experience.
Within a week he had a job at a Tim Hortons outlet a five-minute walk from his house in Alliston, just north of Toronto. When his friends and neighbours came in, “I could see the click in their eyes when they recognized me, and then they moved on pretty quickly.”
In addition to standing for an eight-hour shift taking orders, Schuppert had to move boxes around. He has a bad back. The work gave him constant pain. He lasted a month and then quit.
The local McDonald’s offered him a job. He asked if there was a chance to move into management, was told yes, and was then assigned to be the overnight cleaner starting at midnight. He declined.
At this point he started to cut off his social connections.
He went to work for Swiss Chalet, again asking for an opportunity to move into management. He was told yes. He worked for nine months, was given periodic management training but never got beyond minimum wage.
He then went to Harvey’s, where he was actually offered a management position. He asked the owner for $16 an hour but never was paid more than the minimum wage of $10.25. Meanwhile, he had to put his house up for sale because he could no longer afford the mortgage payments.
“George saved me from full-blown depression,” Schuppert says. George was his dog, arthritic and going blind, and Schuppert loved and cared for him.
He’d saved for 20 years to buy his house. His house was part of who he was in his community, in his circle of friends. His house was where he once gave parties and cooked dinners until he could no longer afford to do either. The For Sale sign stood on the street in front of his house for eight months, proclaiming his downward journey.
“My emotional state was pretty bad, but I faked it,” he says.
And then the house sold and he decided to move to Toronto and live in the Beach neighbourhood because he had heard it was a good place for dogs.
Before he left, a neighbour offered him a one-month job building kitchen cabinets. “That was as fulfilled as I’d felt in a long time,” Schuppert says. “It was meaningful. In aquatics I had taught kids to save lives. That was meaningful.”
That’s what work is about. Either meaningful or not meaningful.
Schuppert found an apartment in the Beach where he could take George for long, healthy walks. He kept looking for a job. He was turned down for a City of Toronto posting that involved working on its 311 municipal service, which irritated him, because he had led the project to design the service at Caledon.
And then he got the college porter’s job.
The college staff, he says, are wonderful. The students he enjoys. He likes the opportunity to help people. He’s provided with dinner. “I’m underutilized but there’s dick-all elsewhere.”
There’s also the night shift. “I didn’t realize just how lost you are. I live at home alone. I get up in the morning and everyone else has gone to work. By the time I get home, it’s 11 o’clock and everyone else is in bed. I spend the whole day alone and that’s depressing.
There’s the fear — the fear that’s made him say he’s no longer middle class. “I still don’t see anything more than $30,000 a year in my future. That’s not a lot of money for a single person in Toronto. My biggest fear now that is that I’m going to wind up on the street. I’ve just got to get back to trying to find jobs. If I don’t I’m going to be well on the path to the working poor. I think progress has passed me by.”
There’s what Eric Schuppert identifies as the middle class things that are gone.
“I used to go out for dinner
“I used to throw dinner parties at home. I love to cook.
“I used to have parties all the time.
“Dating. How can I take someone out at 14 bucks an hour?
“I don’t get to see concerts and events any more. I used to see live music all the time.
“I have lost the ability to buy new clothes of some quality. I did get used to wearing a jacket and tie for 10 years and looking sharp. It is definitely a status thing.”
All things that middle class people do in middle class society.
Middle class people own houses, or at least a condo.
“I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a meaningful job using my skills and experience again.”
Middle class people have meaningful work.
George died two months ago. Schuppert is now looking for a smaller apartment “down the chain.”
Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year’s recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at email@example.com