Laid off in America

Monday, June 23, 2003

Falling from Grace

I wasn't going to write this column because the topic depressed me and scared me. But, ever the optimist, I found a way to "reconstruct" what I'm going to write about. And, in fact, the Fast Company article that quoted me helped solidify that reconstruction. On top of that, on Sunday the New York TImes proclaimed it a "bull market", plus it wasn't full of unemployment woes so maybe this whole column will be a mute point! It's also sunny and gorgeous. Maybe that's helping my mood too.

I read a book written in the late 80s called "Falling From Grace: The experience of downward mobility in the american middle class" by Katherine S. Newman. The research for the book was collected during the early 80s (when we were in another recession, I was in Peoria, IL when this book was written and I remember bumper stickers reading "Will the last one to leave Peoria please turn out the lights?"--has anyone else noticed that unemployment seems to peak and ebb every 10 years?) and it is about the hundreds of thousands of middle class americans who plunge down the social ladder every year, losing their jobs, suffering sharp drops of income and prolonged economic hardship.

I also read the recent article in CNNMoney (6/17/03): (sorry still haven't conquered the art of hyperlinking--it's probably easy) called "Here come the Duppies: Tough times have spawned a new class of depressed urban professionals" by Leslie Haggin Geary. She quotes some statistics "According to government labor statistics, 4.8 million individuals are underemployed. That's on top of the 8.7 million counted as unemployed and looking for jobs, not to mention the 4.2 million non-working who don't bother."

We all believe in the American Dream--work hard and we will work our way up. We will be at higher levels and earning more when we retire than when we start our working life. Way more. But that is only illusion for many people. Particularly when markets shift. Particularly when there is a market downturn. The hot, fast moving, innovative job you are in turns into a commodity (think tech, heck, think leadership development!).

We also have two other tendencies. I'm certainly guilty of the first one--we define ourselves heavily by our careers. I almost always ask people what they "do" when I first meet them--that's how I define them (of course I AM an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist). Second we have a tendency to equate more money with more happiness and think we will be happier when our paycheck is bigger rather than now. (Hey wait a minute, these last two statements are slightly paradoxical-go figure). So the idea of taking a less challenging job, or a less payng one, can do real damage to our psyches.

But instead, I would like to reframe the issue. Perhaps market downturns such as these can be a good thing for some of us. Most people won't leave a perfectly good paycheck without some prompting (say, a lucrative call from a head hunter) even if we hate our jobs. While many of us may feel it necessary to take a job, any job, once our savings are depleted to stay off the streets (a real concern during a prolonged downturn), others of us reevaluate and take a different path. I think that if you MUST take a lower job and a paycut, then you should at least try to do something new (so you can learn), fun (so you can enjoy going to work), or meaningful (so that even if the job is beneath you and you are earning magnitudes less at least you know that you are doing a good deed to society).

I took a lesser paying, but I think higher status job that probably fits my interests and skills a whole lot better. I won't retire rich, but I'll retire happier and probably live longer. I have a friend who was laid off from the financial industry. She just took a job as a fund raiser in a not-for-profit (she was volunteering there anyway). I think she has finally found her niche and may be mentally healthier as a result. I have another friend who voluntarily left her job (in fund raising for a non-profit) to become a full time piano and music teacher--her true love.

And heck, I have a husband who is leaving a perfectly good job as Chief Technology Officer at a tech firm that is doing okay (now that's a job many of us would drool over) to find himself and be a stay-at-home daddy. I don't believe I mentioned that on top of all this--being laid off, networking, finding a new job, etc., I'm also pregnant and will be taking a leave of absence from my new job right after I start it. Fortunately my university and department couldn't be more supportive of such matters! And I am confident that as a result of this, my husband and our family as a whole will come out of this happier and more fulfilled, despite the fact that we will be living on a junior professor rather than a CTO salary.

posted by Valerie 9:14 AM

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The experience of the new rite of passage among today's professionals: Being Unemployed

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This blog's mention in the July 2003 issue of Fast Company
Web of Despair.

Other unemployment blogs I have found
Ask your ass.
All about Jen.
Homee's job search.
Get that job.

Some blogs I like but haven't been updated in a while
Where The Hell Did My Job Go.
Invisible Matrix.

Credit problems?

What's keeping me occupied while I'm unemployed?
My husband and my travel photography blog.


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