The 99-week syndrome (5×8 – 1/27/11)

Why don’t long-term unemployed have a job, Tim Pawlenty: the sequel, heroes and zeroes, and the joy of human hibernation explored.


MIT’s Philip Greenspun dares ask the question “why don’t people get jobs after 99 weeks of unemployment? “It seems strange to pay someone for 99 weeks and hope that somehow the employers that didn’t want them when they were fresh out of work would somehow want them after two years of idleness,” he writes today.

He doesn’t stop there. He’s compiled a list of what someone could do over the course of 99 weeks:

* earn most or all of a bachelor’s degree if done at an efficient school such as University of Phoenix where courses are self-paced and/or in session all year rather than the lazy half-the-year calendar of a legacy university

* earn an MBA (1 year at a modern school; 2 years at a legacy school)

* become a competent video editor in Final Cut or Adobe Premiere (two weeks?)

* become a competent photo editor in Adobe Photoshop or The Gimp (two weeks?)

* develop reasonably fluency in a foreign language, even without an instructor, using tools such as RosettaStone (one year, possibly including a trip to Guatemala or China or wherever)

* start and finish an aviation maintenance degree and FAA certification (typically about 1.5 years)

* learn heavy equipment operation

* complete almost any trade school, e.g., plumbing or electrician

* go from zero computer knowledge to being a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer or a Cisco network engineer

You get the subtext, right? If you’ve been out of work for 99 weeks, you haven’t worked hard enough to make yourself marketable.

Greenspun asks, perhaps rhetorically, what’s wrong with his thinking?

Who’d like to take that one?


You had to know this was coming. After Tim Pawlenty’s fabulous cinematography wow’d ’em in Hollywood with his trailer for his book, the spoofs are beginning. That’s just the way it works on YouTube, governor. The first comes from an old nemesis of the governor’s — Alliance for a Better Minnesota:

.. and another…


If you’re looking for a “what would I have done?” story, this is it. The Duluth News Tribune this morning has the unbelievable tale of two ice fishermen, stranded on broken ice on Lake Superior in a storm.

It was awful,” said Popko, 61. “It was like a bowl of Jell-O with all this busted-up ice. He (Wick) and I would be in troughs between the waves, and we couldn’t see each other. … I really didn’t think I was going to make it.”

The heroes? Members of the Ashland Fire Department — government workers, you know — who braved white-out conditions because someone needed help.

Did someone say heroes. More grandparents are raising their grandchildren, MPR’s Tom Robertson reports today. “They’re trying to figure out how they are going to have a secure retirement,” an AARP spokesman says. “They’re worried about the cost of health care, and now many of them are now faced with helping their children and their grandchildren get back on their feet, too, so it really is a tough time.”



Sgt. James B. Hurley was off fighting in Iraq. While he was, a bank swooped in and foreclosed on his home, even though a law there — like one in Minnesota — barred the bank from doing so. It is, sadly, a typical story of banks calling the shots. It should have been an easy fix. The law is on Sgt. Hurley’s side, right? It didn’t matter.

A new report, by the way, says this and the economic meltdown were entirely avoidable.


If bears can hibernate, why can’t humans? Researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth are studying hibernation therapy that might benefit transplant recipients, trauma survivors and surgical patients.

All of which is nice, but many people are wondering if we can just sleep through winter? No.

One thing to think about: Bears have dangerously high levels of cholesterol when they hibernate.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that Minnesota seems to be at the heart of hibernation research.

Almost 12 years ago, a U of M researcher claimed he’d discovered the “switching gene” that tells the body to store fat for hibernation. And yet, here we are… up early and heading for work.


President Obama on Tuesday called the present time “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” But he also noted that the United States ranks ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees. Does America have what it takes for a Sputnik moment?


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: Friday is the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Midmorning examines what lessons the nation has learned about coping with disaster since the Challenger exploded before our eyes in 1986.

Second hour: Much has been written about George Washington, but less is known about how George Washington’s upbringing and private life shaped his view on politics and leadership. Historian Ron Chernow’s new biography aims to change that.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Gov. Mark Dayton’s senior advisor for job creation, Kathy Tunheim

Second hour: An international radio town hall from PRI, connecting Kabul, Afghanistan and Washington DC. The broadcast is called “Joined by War: A Conversation Between Afghans and Americans.”

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Brooke Army Medical Center is the Pentagon’s only burn center. Dr. Ian Black sees wounded soldiers and Marines with horrific injuries. He’ll discuss advances in military medicine.

Second hour: . Telling the stories of Mexican-Americans, voices of Chicano literature The House on Mango Street gave Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros a voice.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Despite the Minneapolis school district’s decision to honor all credits received at Broadway High School, and the district’s insistence that students are not to blame, students say they still feel like they’re being punished. With the disclosure that some credits might have been improperly awarded, the district says all credits will stand, but some might no longer count towards the core classes needed to graduate. The students interviewed say that will leave them in school longer and make them the innocent-but-punished bystanders in a school or district snafu. MPR’s Tom Weber will have the story.

  • GregS

    “You get the subtext, right? If you’ve been out of work for 99 weeks, you haven’t worked hard enough to make yourself marketable. Who’d like to take that one? – Newscut”

    I know three people who have been laid off.

    – My daughter was laid off from a social service agency. She is taking a welding class and hopes to become a plumber.

    – A nephew lost his job working as a Test Engineer. He is now parts manager at a John Deere Dealership and has a promising career path there.

    – A step-son lost his job as a drafter. He invested his pension in a new computer, large screen television and an X-box. He played video games until his unemployment extensions ran out then got a job punching out parts on third shift. He has six kids.

    In the first two cases, unemployment insurance worked fine, in the third it was a curse.

  • Greenspun asks, perhaps rhetorically, what’s wrong with his thinking?

    Who’d like to take that one?

    For openers, people who are unemployment may not have the disposable income or be able to afford the loans to get some of that training. And even if they did, that is no guarantee they are going to be hired in the next week.

    Being unemployed IS a full time job and I speak from experience: it is extremely taxing on the heart, mind and soul.

  • Pat

    99 weeks and unemployed. Most of the options for training mentioned cost more money than the unemployed people I know have. More importantly, not one item on the list would lead to employment. Construction and aviation? No jobs there. Technology-no one will hire you without years of experience in very specific and narrow niches. Microsoft certified engineers are a dime a dozen. I suggest Greespun check the real world job listings.

    No job=no experience. No experience=no job.

  • Ana Lorenz

    Just to add my 2-cents. I am one of those 99-weekers and oddly enough, I did complete a 9 month CS/MIS/IT/Software training program. You know what it got me? A $5,000.00+ debt and no job. I’m at a loss as to what to do next. I’m living off the last remnants of my 401K now. I guess I could try the construction industry, but as a minority woman in a large unionized town, Chicago, I don’t like my chances of actually breaking into that industry. As Pat stated, if Mr. Greenspan can come up with some real-world solutions, I’m all ears.

  • Having worked with over 7,000 job seekers after having gained far too many painful lessons in being unemployed myself, the chief gap in Greenspun’s faulty logic is that no one knows in advance they’ll be out of work for 99 weeks. If they did, everyone would sign up for college classes.

    Greenspun also demonstrates a profound failure to grasp our unemployment laws. The moment you sign up as a full-time student, you lose your unemployment benefits because you’ve shown you’re not serious about hunting for a job. I don’t know the laws of all 50 states on this one, but I’d be surprised if any let you keep collecting checks while sitting in a classroom full-time.

    Many states require you to consult with your unemployment office before traveling to look for work, much like a probationer has to do with his/her probation officer.

    It’s not 99 weeks of sitting on your butt. It’s 99 weeks of waiting for the phone to ring, and having virtually no control over whether it will.

  • Jamie

    I agree with Paul, Pat, an Ana. And even if you are in a position to get loans knowing you may not (PROBABLY won’t) have a job later with which to pay them back, I’m pretty sure that you cannot get unemployment benefits while going to school. So you’d be able to pay for school with loans, but you wouldn’t have any money to live on.

  • Joanna

    Thanks to other commentors for sharing the eye-opening stories and experiences. I’d like to add that if one does not have access to childcare, many of these opportunities for retooling are out of reach. GregS’s example of the guy with six kids who sat around and played games leads me to wonder who was taking care of the kids (I presume it was the rest of the family? the mom, the grandparents?). If you are single parent who loses a job, many of the training opportunities are not only expensive in and of themselves, but out of reach if they don’t match up with school schedules or child-care possibilities. People manage to do it anyway, but I suspect Greenspun’s hypothetical unemployed person is able-bodied and not the primary caretaker of small children.

  • Noelle

    I read through Greenspun’s post several times, and I just hope it was written sardonically. I kind of doubt it, though. While unfortunately there are people out there who use the unemployment to fund their couch potato lifestyle (how terrible for those 6 kids in GregS’s example…), so, so many people out there are trying as hard as they possibly can to get jobs, and to no avail.

    My husband is currently a full-time student, and was working two part-time jobs to help us make ends meet (I work full time). He just got laid off from one of those jobs. Since he’s a student, and still technically employed, unemployment isn’t even on the table. Our options are for he or I to take on another part time job, or take out additional student loan $ to help make rent.

  • Kat

    I agree that lots of Greenspun’s suggestions are unsuitable for the majority of unemployed people, too expensive (travel to China? Really?) and not really helpful, especially since they ignore the current job supply issue.

    Since a couple of commenters have mentioned that you can’t get unemployment insurance while a full-time student, I just wanted to add that it is possible to get unemployment insurance while taking classes.

    The catch is that you have to be willing to quit your classes if you are offered a job and your class schedule can’t be re-arranged to fit. It’s a big catch if you’ve put significant amounts of time and money into a full-time on-campus day program, but it leaves leeway for full-time night courses or online course.

  • GregS

    A number of comments have suggested that the unemployed in Minnesota cannot attend school. This does not seem to be the case.

    Here is what the Unemployment Minnesota Website says.

    “If you are:

    – a post high school student you may be eligible to receive benefits if you are:

    available for employment for the hours and days normal for your occupation,

    seeking work each week, and

    willing to rearrange or drop classes if your class schedule conflicts with the hours of an offer of suitable employment.

    – a post high school student who is attending full-time training approved by the Unemployment Insurance Program, you do not have to seek work to be eligible for unemployment benefits.”

  • GregS

    On another matter…

    When we discuss hot-button issues such as this, there is a tendency to create a rhetorical shield by pulling either the deserving or undeserving into the line of fire.

    The reality is, with any of these issues there is full range of possibilities. There are slobs who simply party on the public dole and there are those who for various reasons have a hard time getting a job.

    However, the majority of the unemployed are somewhere in between the extremes.and in that context Mr. Greenspun is quite correct, 99 months is too long a time.