J.R. Childress is up before the sun, bustling about in the French colonial brick house he built. He helps pack his wife's lunch, downs some eggs or cereal for breakfast, pores over online and newspaper job listings and hopes -- even prays -- this will be the day when his fortunes turn around.
He's determined to stay busy, job or no job, for sanity's sake. Maybe he'll help a neighbor. Exercise. Or check out computer blueprints of construction projects around Winston-Salem, N.C., to stay connected to the world where he thrived for three decades. Childress has been laid off twice since late 2009, most recently for 10 months.
"Every day is a struggle," he says in a soft drawl. "The struggle is the unknown. You've worked your way up the ladder and you get to a point in life and a position in work where you're comfortable ... then all of a sudden everything goes away. It's like being thrown into a hole and you're climbing to get up, but it's greased. There's no way of getting out."
The frustrations of one 53-year-old North Carolina man are multiplied millions of times over across time zones and generations in a country still gripped by economic anxiety, despite increasing signs of recovery. And they resound in a presidential campaign pitting an incumbent defending his economic record against GOP opponents who are attacking it.
Unemployment in January was at its lowest level in three years -- 8.3 percent -- and 1.8 million jobs were added last year, compared with about 1 million in 2010. But there's still a long way to go: There are 5.6 million fewer jobs than there were when the recession began in late 2007.
About 12.8 million people are out of work and what's especially troubling, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, is the large number of long-term unemployed -- more than 40 percent have been jobless more than six months.
The long-term unemployed don't fit into any neat category. They're young and old. They have high school diplomas and master's degrees. Some become so discouraged, they stop looking for a time or become mid-life college students. Others find temporary jobs, then return to the jobless rolls for long stretches. In 2011, the average length of being out of work was 39 weeks -- about nine months.
But statistics tell only part of the story. They don't gauge the despair of a thirtysomething office manager who has stopped counting how many resumes he's sent out. Or the apprehension of a 60-ish tool-and-die maker who lost his job, returned to school, but still can't find work -- and doubts he ever will again.
Or the rejection J.R. Childress feels, declaring that unemployment "makes you feel you're not a part of society because you're not earning your way."
Childress started working after high school, first in factories, then in construction, eventually earning a six-figure salary as vice president of operations at a company.
In October 2009, he was laid off when road construction and building projects came to a near halt. After a year without work, Childress took a huge pay cut to be a construction foreman, but that job ended last April. He's convinced he has two strikes against him: his age and lack of college degree.
"I'm putting out resumes, but they're going into a black hole," he says. Prospective employees, he says "want 33, not 53. ... They say, 'We really like you, but if we spend our time training you, when construction comes back, you're going to leave.'" He pauses, and adds: "That's not paying my bills."
Childress' wife works and their 24-year-old twins are out of college so that eases their financial burden, but he says he asks himself: "'Am I going to be 75 or 80 and not be able to retire? ... What did I do to deserve this? When is it going to turn around for me?'"
Jerome Greene doesn't mince words when he describes life without a steady paycheck for more than three years.
"It's been like hell," he says. "It's very hard to see people leave and go to work in the morning and come home every night. It's hard to see people spending money, going out and having fun and you can't. It's very stressing. But there are people in worst situations than I have and I feel sorry for them."
Greene, about to turn 50, worked for 16 years as an Oracle software developer, most recently at a Pennsylvania company that made electronic components for cars. When he was laid off in June 2008, the recession was just taking hold, and he still had job interviews. By fall, with the economy in free fall, his phone stopped ringing.
Greene hoped the downturn would be brief and he'd weather it with unemployment benefits.
But the jobless rate hovered above 9 percent and Greene's 99 weeks of unemployment expired. He had trouble sleeping. Depression set in. Without health insurance, he took precautions -- carrying hand sanitizer and his own pen when doing errands to avoid getting sick and having to pay $65 for a doctor's visit.
"There's no room for error," he says "There's no extra money."
At the same time, Greene, who is single and lives outside of Pottstown, Pa., has become an active social networker, online and in person. He participates in several groups, looking for job tips, sometimes doing presentations himself, perfecting his "elevator speech" -- the 30-second pitch to prospective employers.
"Emotionally, it helps," he says. "You see that you're not alone. ... I guess you can say misery loves company. But there are positive people, too."
Mingling has other benefits, too. One holiday party led to freelance work on web development projects.
Greene is encouraged by the improving economy and has been getting calls for interviews, though they're outside the Pennsylvania area and he'd prefer to stay put. "Maybe," he says, "there is an end to this."
No matter, the experience has changed his outlook.
"It has made me very cynical when it comes to the work environment," he says. "People have to take charge of managing their careers. They should prepare for the next round of layoffs ... The rest of the world is beginning to catch up with the U.S. Companies are going to continue to outsource, they're going to continue to do stupid things ... and I don't think recessions are ever going to go away. Having a job just interrupts a job search."
The memory stings even now for Jon Creek, all these years after the job interview.
He'd applied to be a bookkeeper at a property management company when one of the owners caught him off guard: "He said, 'You've been out of work for a year now. You can only clean the garage so many times. Why can't you get a job?'" Creek recalls.
"My answer was, 'I'm trying to get a job now,'" he says.
Creek, who lives in Mason, a suburb of Cincinnati, was a construction company office manager until he and almost everyone else at the firm were laid off in December 2007. He'd known the business was in trouble and says he actually turned down another better-paying job earlier, out of loyalty.
It took 18 months to land part-time work as an insurance agent's assistant at $240 a week -- a dollar less than his unemployment checks.
A year later, Creek was stunned when a certified letter arrived with his final paycheck and notice that his job was over. Again, it was the economy. To add to the injury, his boss had posted the news on her Facebook page before telling him. "Everybody knew but me," he says.
And since she hadn't done the proper paperwork, he couldn't file for unemployment.
That was August 2010. Creek -- who holds a bachelor's degree in business administration -- has been looking since, worried that as time passes, someone unemployed for, say, six months may seem more appealing.
"I worked hard. I did everything right," he says. "Now I'm at the point of asking myself, 'Will I ever be able to get anything?' It's not just about a salary. It's about being able to go out and say, 'I do this. This is my identity.'"
On occasion, Creek, now 35, has become so discouraged, he's temporarily quit looking. "If you send out your resume so many times, every employer in the city has it," he says. "If you take it out of the mix for a while, perhaps you'll get noticed next time."
Being unemployed not only hurts financially -- Creek has an $11,000-plus student loan -- it leaves emotional scars, too. "The only people I talk to during the day are my wife, my dogs and service people," he says. "It's very isolating, very lonely."
His wife, Leslie, a financial analyst, is a constant comfort. "She tells me I'm smart, that I have a lot to offer," he says.
Creek is considering returning to school this fall to get a master's degree in accounting.
"Sometimes you feel like playing the victim card," he says, "but you really don't want to. It tells the employer you're not very confident. I tell myself good things are to come ... but it's hard to remain hopeful."
Jean Coyle knows it's ironic that long ago, she taught college classes about retirement planning.
As a tenured professor at universities in Illinois and New Mexico, she lectured on gerontology, age discrimination and women's issues. When she was 52, she made a life-changing move, entering the seminary and leaving with two masters' degrees. In 2002, she was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
As an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C., Coyle did crisis work, visiting homes and hospitals, counseling and preaching, conducting funerals. She expected a long career but in 2007, she lost her job in a church budget cut.
At 62, Coyle -- who holds five degrees -- thought she had much to offer. She applied to hundreds of churches and organizations around the country.
"I don't know if I was really naive or not, idealistic or not," she says. "I just believed I was supposed to be doing this and something would happen. There would be an opportunity."
She hoped her past dealing with the sick and dying would prove especially valuable. "I think you might find a 26-year-old seminary graduate with that experience but not often," she says. "Churches say, 'We want someone who's going to be there 20 years.'"
Coyle found a temporary staff job with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) but after three years of looking for a pastoral position, she reluctantly retired in 2010.
"I'm literally sitting in the midst of job search files that I'm finally throwing away," she says, from her home in Washington's Virginia suburbs. "I know I'm never going to be interviewed again. This is a major thing for me. It's hard to say. I'm a type-A person. I love working. I want to work until I drop and collapse at my desk. That wasn't meant to be. It's very painful, very difficult. ... The positive part is to be able to say I'm retired rather than I'm unemployed. But people often turn away and say, 'Oh you're retired.' You feel discarded. You feel invisible."
Coyle stays busy by filling in for pastors when they're on vacation or ill and participates in 13 volunteer activities -- everything from pet therapy to neighborhood watch to usher at a college theater.
"I always used to tell my gerontology students," she says, "that the saddest thing in the world is to have the answers and no one is asking you the questions anymore."
Ted Casper figured the path to a paycheck would pass through the classroom.
When he was laid off at a semitrailer plant in southern Wisconsin in spring 2009, he initially thought he'd rebound quickly. He was a skilled tool-and-die maker and had never been unemployed for more than a few days.
"I thought I'd spend a week filling out applications," Casper says, "and I'd spend my next week deciding which of the three or four jobs I would take."
He soon discovered he had misjudged. "It was a real eye-opening experience,' he says. "I started looking for work and no one was looking back."
It wasn't just that he had no prospects. His wife, Gail, who has diabetes and Addison's disease, a hormonal disorder, had already lost her job at an auto dealership. And they were in the final stages of foreclosure, no longer able to make their $900 monthly mortgage payments. Their annual income had plummeted from $90,000-$100,000 to about $23,000 -- mostly his unemployment checks.
Casper, then in his late 50s, followed a familiar route for unemployed blue-collar workers. He returned to school, enrolling at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wis.
Two years later, he had an associate degree in industrial engineering technology. But he was 60, and competition was fierce -- and younger -- with thousands of unemployed factory workers in the area, many from a recently shuttered General Motors plant.
"I got zero responses," says Casper, of Edgerton, Wis. "I literally didn't even get the form letter that goes along with the 'thank you but no thanks.'"
So last summer, Casper returned to Blackhawk to study business management.
"I kind of accepted the fact there's no employer out there that will hire me," he says wearily. He'd like to start a business -- making furniture is a possibility.
Casper is philosophical about his fate.
"There are times when you realize a lot of this is my fault," he says. "There were times when I was working and wasn't saving. ... On one level, it feels like someone should be taking care of me. On the other level, I feel I should have been doing it on my own."
He just received his first Social Security check, but still hopes for another career.
"If you can't find a job," he says, "maybe you've got to go out and create one. ... There's always something ahead. You just have to reach out for it."
Dennis Hansen sometimes wonders whether all his schooling was worth it.
An aquatics biologist, Hansen has taught college, had his research published in scientific journals and spoken at conferences from New York to Hawaii, but in recent years, he's bounced from no job to temporary job to taking any job for a paycheck.
In late 2009, the Duluth, Minn., lab where he worked as operations manager, testing the toxicity of chemicals (and the impact on fish and water), closed because of declining business. Much of its work had come from Department of Defense contracts.
After a year without work, Hansen, 32, was hired to monitor Lake Michigan and Lake Superior water for the state and federal governments over two summers. He also had short stints as a census worker and as an extra post office hand during one holiday crush.
It hasn't been enough: Hansen says he has a $13,000 credit card debt and that's just for basics -- his $600 monthly mortgage, heat and food.
"It's definitely a roller coaster," Hansen says, with the ups coming when he's done well in a job interview and the downs when there's a rejection: "That's when I'm frustrated, angry and wondering why I went to college for 10 years."
Hansen is resourceful and versatile: In college, he stocked grocery shelves, put motors in yachts and worked as a valet. Since 2009, he's applied for everything from oil field worker in Williston, N.D, to chemist in Iraq for a government contractor.
"The more money they offer," he says, "the farther I am willing to go."
Hansen says he never expected to be out of work so long, figuring his experience and research would make him a shoo-in for a job.
In December, he had an interview but lost out to someone with a Ph.D. "I was beat out by someone even more overqualified than I was," he says. In January, another rejection.
His marriage plans are on hold -- "I don't want to have a potluck welfare wedding," he says -- and his joblessness casts a shadow over his relationship with his girlfriend.
"We were watching the news when there was a report that the economy is getting better," he recalls. "She said, 'When is OUR economy going to get better?' That's just crushing for a guy."
In North Carolina, J.R. Childress spends Thursday nights at his group, Professionals in Transition, where the underemployed and the jobless meet to share tips, review resumes and support one another.
Childress is casting a wide net in his job search and having learned to live on a quarter of his former salary, he says, if a new position offered "half or better, I'd consider that a bonus."
He recently had promising news -- he was interviewed to be a contractor selling state license plates.
"You hope that just around the next corner or the next person you talk to is going to have something," he says. "I pray. I say show me the way. ... But you're no longer planning ahead. You're planning to get through the next day."
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Sharon Cohen is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Chicago. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.