Nobody Cares and Please Don't Say "Thank You"
By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
From 2010 to 2012, I chronicled the hardships faced by older workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, and, in 2013, I began making a documentary about the readjustment experiences of women veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The two groups share one key characteristic – an uneasy relationship with the greater American public.
At the end of this past February, a long-term unemployed older worker sent me via social media an essay of anguish called, "Nobody Cares":
There are millions of baby boomers out of work right now this minute and they remain INVISIBLE … These Over 50 and Out of Work boomers worked their entire lives, striving for higher positions to establish greater success and have all kinds of professional backgrounds and are losing or have lost every damn thing they worked for and have absolutely nowhere to turn! And nobody cares.
It is hard to know what touches Americans and persuades them that a situation should be corrected or that people should be helped. Traditional and social media occasionally spotlight certain individual cases and the public responds generously.
In 2012, Karen Klein, a bus monitor, then 68, was bullied by middle schoolers. The videos of the seventh grade boys taunting and threatening Klein on the bus went viral, prompting an online donation campaign that raised over $700, 000. Klein used her share of the funds to retire and to start an anti-bullying foundation.
Similarly, the Detroit Free Press greatly aided James Robertson, 56, when the media outlet reported that he walked 21 miles every day back and forth from Detroit to his job in a suburban auto parts factory. A local car dealer gave him a Ford Taurus and an online campaign raised $350,000 for Robertson from many individuals who wanted to make his life easier.
In these instances, the need was clear and a solution was reasonably straightforward. Ironically, setting individual cases in a broader context of greater need, which would seem to motivate more people to respond generously, in fact, mostly does not, according to researchers from the University of Oregon and Linköping University in Sweden.
Their studies demonstrate that the good feeling donors receive from helping one person can be offset by the negative feeling that is associated with their inability to help large numbers of other people who also need assistance. Individual donors become demotivated when it seems that there are too many people they cannot help.
One employer made one job offer to one unemployed older worker out of the 100 we profiled. Just one.
There were dozens of skilled, educated 50-plus workers on our site who had never been out of work previously, and their plight was shared by millions of other older Americans who lost their jobs in the Great Recession. Why were there so few offers to help?
Were individuals demotivated to help because the number of unemployed was so great? Was it that the unemployed lacked jobs, not simply money, and their problems seemed too complex? Was it placing blame on the jobless for being out of work during the economic downturn? Was it ageism? I don't have the answer.
The consequence, though, is that the long-term older unemployed believe that the general public did not make an effort to understand them or their suffering and does not care enough to help.
Similarly, many post-9/11 veterans believe that most civilians do not understand them and are unwilling to make the effort to do so. In the post-World War II era, about 12 percent of Americans had served in the military contrasted to less than one percent today. The general public often finds it hard to understand or imagine what military service means for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially if they are female.
Last year, we filmed Amanda, one of the main characters in Soldier On: Life After Deployment, my new documentary, in a restaurant where she was eating dinner with a friend. While we packed up our equipment after the shoot, a waitress approached me and whispered, "Is that the veteran you were here to film? She's so young."
Amanda celebrated her 21st birthday in Afghanistan where she participated in deadly firefights, and she is only 27 years old now.
Recent veterans do not face the bitter attacks that Vietnam veterans confronted when they returned to the United States, but they often resent the bland "Thank you for your service" that they do receive. Some veterans believe civilians make this comment simply to avoid thinking directly about what military service means for the Americans who volunteer today.
Amanda texted that it makes her feel appreciated when someone says thank you to her. "It's important for me to hear that because it reminds me that I didn't sacrifice those years of my life for nothing." But she also wrote, " I think that some may not know what else to say for lack of knowledge about the subject. They may think 'Thank You' is all they can say."
Lyndsey, who deployed to Afghanistan for a year, does not let people know that she served in the military when she first meets them.
"I usually just don't like the assumptions that come with being in the military, the good or the bad," she said.
Natasha, a former Marine, who was deployed twice to Iraq, texted that she does believe that most, not all, Americans who say thank you use it as a way of not really thinking about or honoring her service. "But I say you're welcome and that it's my pleasure. I would have done it regardless," she texted.
Curiosity about the impact of the Great Recession on baby boomers and what readjustment to life at home means for today's women veterans inspired me to make my documentaries. These projects have opened my eyes, helped me to imagine walking in their shoes, and connected me to people across the country that I would not have met in the ordinary course of my life. If you have a good job to offer an older worker or want to reach out to a veteran, let me know and I can connect you.