What are the stereotypes of the unemployed?

Lazy. Dead beat. Poor providers. Irresponsible. Moochers even.

But the recession has changed the game up. So again I ask, what are the stereotypes of the unemployed?

I was out to dinner catching up with an old friend last week after a year of not seeing each other. It was one of those nights where the stories were comedic and our wine glasses were full. Youth and high energy were our muses for the evening.

We were briefly interrupted by an old acquaintance from way back who stopped to say hello. The customary how-you-doings and who-you-be-with chatter ensued and as it was happening, I noticed my boy—over the span of the five-minute conversation—deflate.

I am not being metaphorical in saying this. His shoulders slumped over, his chin slowly made its way to his chest, and his cheeks sunk in. I could almost hear the high pitched “whoosh” balloon sound coming from his direction.

I found out later that it was talking about being unemployed that crushed my buddy.   He has two degrees and was let go by his firm just over six months ago.

“I guess it sort of felt like I was a zero talking about it,” he later explained to me.  “I didn’t want her to think I was just some lazy dude.”


That dinner had me thinking about the stereotypes that we place on the unemployed.  How do we re-evaluate the connotation behind the word?  My buddy is not unique with or without his degrees. We all know enough people from different educational levels who are struggling to find a full-time job.

Pop culture has a number of varying references of how we look at the unemployed. Take Jazz for example; Will Smith’s best friend from the 90s hit-sitcom, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Jazz never seemed to have a job and it can be ambiguously assumed he never went to college. He was characterized as a moocher, seemed lazy and was somewhat dim-witted (with the recurring gag of him being kicked out of the house). Is Jazz the example of how the unemployed are seen or is he an extreme caricature for comedy’s sake?

There was also Lynn from “Girlfriends” who was a career student and abhorred the idea of getting a “real” job. But we loved her free-spirit. And then there was Denise Huxtable, a college drop-out, who skipped from job to job, a clear juxtaposition of her successful parents.  How was the unemployment of these two characters viewed?

The difference between those fictional characters and many recent graduates is that Jazz, Lynn and Denise each had the option of buckling down and getting a job if they wanted.  Many recent graduates don’t have that luxury. So many of those characteristics donned on them, don’t fit us.

The recession has changed things. And I will be redundant in saying the black population is suffering hardest because of it. National labor statistics put black unemployment at 16 percent for September 2011, a good 7 percentage points higher than the 9.1 percent national average.  That number includes college and non-college educated people.

“I’m so sick of people acting like a degree is a magical cure-all,” a commenter in my last article said. “So many people with degrees are BARELY working at fast food places.”

But in fact, it does make a difference. Though not broken down further by race, statistics show that only 4.2 percent of those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher are unemployed. This compares to the 9.7 percent of those with a high school diploma and 14 percent of those without a high school diploma (September 2011).

The degree apparently makes a difference, YET the unemployment rate for each group has increased through the recession.

What these numbers show is that each group is struggling. The unemployed today are both educated and uneducated. They are male and female. They are responsible and deadbeats. Despite their various difference, one thing is clear: There are no jobs. And whether you have no degrees or three degrees, the job recruiter is not calling either of you.


So how do you make sure that you are never placed with those negative stereotypes? If you are still job-hunting, keep busy, not just for your sanity, but also your resume as well. Volunteer. Set up informational interviews. Take that unpaid internship. Meet new people. Take multiple part time jobs.  Side hustle the side hustle. You have time, now what are you doing with it?

The guy sitting across the restaurant table from me was no Jazz. And neither are you.

What do you think the stereotypes of being unemployed are? Have they changed with the recession? If unemployed how do you think people judge you when meeting you?

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  • GA

    I graduated in 2009, the height (or beginning?) of the recession. After job hunting for about 1 1/2 years, I finally found a full time job, in my sector, no less (it’s a psychology research job and I get to work with teenagers, YAY!)

    If I can pass on any tip about job hunting, it is this–learn when and for which jobs you MUST pare down your resume. Overqualified is just as important as unqualified. Now that I am on the other side, I have seen people get turned down for jobs because they had too many degrees and my boss was afraid they would leave if something better came. Also, applying online and job fairs isnt enough. Find a name to attach to.

  • I just got my bachelor’s degree in communication studies this past June, and I have been job hunting ever since. It’s not only frustrating, but depressing, and I think staying busy is the only way to not get into a funk. Part time internships, part time jobs, anything to add that extra something to your resume that makes you stick out when applying for jobs! And, most importantly, never lose hope, there are so many people in the same boat!

  • DLovin

    b4 i graduated from school i was let go.. my temp job assignment had ended. i finished school and 6 mos after graduation i finally got an interview (had 1 b4 that). i had job offers but they pd under $10 and were so far away that i’d be using the $$ i made on transportation. I called in 3 times to interview w/3 different levels of mgmt.

    i felt blessed when they offered me the job.. i’m still here.. keep your head up and pray, pray, pray..

    also, offer to volunteer in your field.. that may help..

  • The best advice I can give for the “unemployed” is to forget the word in conventional terms. After I have personally experienced 3 lay offs, I have learned that you should always “over employ yourself”. Meaning that in our era, you should always be working in some form or fashion. You should always have multiple income streams, and never just one. If you happen to have a 9 to 5 or corporate job, look at your employer as a “client”.

    So when I hear anyone say unemployed (like I once said to everyone knew). I now know that in our era, with all of our resources — and all of our various backgrounds and talents… that the term unemployment is an optional word. Our jobs should be like our clients and nothing more or less.

    I learned the hard way many times before and I now know how I need to maintain myself. I don’t believe the hype I read, and so I work with what I was born with to the max. It can be challenging, but bills, meals, and my life is at stake. I don’t have time for the term, “unemployment”. I prefer — employed by any means.

    – Masha Dowell

  • JS

    I do think the unemployed stereotypes are changing but it also depends on whether or not you are exposed to or know someone who is unemployed. It used to be that unemployed people were seen as lazy but now, because people who have always worked hard or kept jobs are now unemployed I think the general population views it differently.

    I am in graduate school and I am unemployed but to keep money in my pockets and household, I do independent work in my industry for people who need it. I’ve had the internships, the experience, but it is hard to find something steady and permanent now. I live in a college town, so even finding retail jobs and other odd jobs is a struggle.

    Sometimes I get bitter because I think back to my undergrad days when professors urged us to do this or do that because we would have a better chance of getting jobs, but then i think about the fact that times have changed and we have to change with them. So I’m just looking forward to the day I can have something steady and I definitely don’t take employment for granted anymore – no matter what the job is.