The Feeling of Joblessness

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAGUuCGx1es%5D

Political Theory is Philosophy’s slightly less awkward cousin so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

On a Monday morning just a few weeks ago I set off on my auroral commute — just like any other weekday — headed to a job that I had held for almost a year.  Being that it was a sales/recruiting job, it felt like I had been there for quite some time.  I shared a commute with my lovely girlfriend (who I still sometimes walk to the train) and, that day, we fought our way through the same Chicago Transit Authority crowds that we had come to know.  We found a little enclave in a corner of the train-car, as far out of the way of the foot traffic as we could, until it was time for us to disembark at separate Chicago-Loop stops.

After getting off, I wove my way through the Wacker Drive Corridor construction and reached the 30-story high-rise that housed my office.  The dull, all-glass skyscraper failed to inspire as it had so many other mornings.  I flashed my daily smile at the concierge, breathed my usual sigh as I waited on the elevator, and popped out my iPod headphones, as was my custom, as I walked through the door of my office suite.

And everything went according to plan — according to the routine that become my understanding of waking week-life — until just after I took my seat and fired up my desktop.

My manager — a nervous woman with a tendency towards awkwardness — asked how my weekend had been.  The question, in itself, wasn’t too far out of the ordinary.  Maybe it was a little too personally interested for her personality but I could bear that.  It was the desperate tone she had phrased the question in that unnerved me.

I said my weekend had been fine, thanks, and went about the task of logging in to the database.  Just as I clicked ENTER to log my username and password in to our database I heard that uneasy tone in the manager’s voice float over the divider between our cubicles:

“Matt, let’s head to the conference room for a moment…”

Ok.  This can’t be good.  Why would we go to the conference room?  I’m out of a job.  It was almost instantly and intuitively understood.  My thoughts were short, panicked, and syncopated.  I looked down at my feet and the dirt-colored-florescent-light-bathed corporate carpet as we both walked across the office to a cramped conference room at the corner of the office.

“Am I being fired?” I asked as we each took our seats.

No answer from my manager.  She simply and curtly said her boss would be in shortly to explain the situation.  I remember thinking how unwieldy the whole sequence felt.  We sat in uncomfortable silence for about a minute while we waited for her boss, the director, to join.

The director joined and the conversation went as you’d expect it did.  It was clear that I had worked hard and my contributions were appreciated.  I had done a good job and this was just a symptom of the numbers.  The proper facial expressions were made so that it was understood that this was an uncomfortable and unpleasant arrangement but it was something that just had to be done.

The manager and director were “kind” enough to offer a few moments for me to clean out my desk provided that I would give them my key card and head home.

I can recall the walk back to my cubicle, under that dropped ceiling and those unflattering panel lights that had hung above my head for so many days; I did my best to avoid eye contact with now-former co-workers.  I was so embarrassed my skin was crawling — should I just forget getting my things and get out of there?  No.  I wanted to sit and think this through for a moment.

A friend from the office walked me to the train.  The walk was surreal and my mind was muddied with a cacophony of thoughts and feelings that were difficult to discern from one-another. In a way, I was free from the mundane repetition of my line of work but the economic uncertainty and the lack of security that came along were terrifying.  What struck me the most was the stark severance from routine.

I had been Sisyphus with a clear, concrete rock and a well defined hill and, for hundreds of days, I had quietly rolled that rock to the pinnacle and then watched it fall to the other side.  My sense of self was rolled up in to that endeavor and now… who I was and what I would do felt, in a very real way, unclear.

So, I went home and took a survey of my life, my employability, the job market (which, like all the living-breathing, I knew to be grim), my resume, and I reflected.

I read that a Record 1.2 Million People Dropped Out of the Labor Force in December of 2011, culminating in a 30 year low for the Labor Force Participation Rate.  It was disconcerting to read that 1 in 2 Recent Grads Under 25 are unemployed or underemployed (I’m a fairly recent grad not much older than 25).  As someone with substantial student loan debt, I was discouraged to see that, if nothing is done, Interest Rates on much of our $1 Trillion Student Loan Debt will double soon, too.

So, what would I do?  How would I fill my time?  Determine who I was?  Things looked bleak.  I can say that, personally, I’ve been very lucky to have emotionally supportive loved ones.  I’ve spent more time with hobbies, set a goal of 3+ job applications a day, gone on a slew of interviews, read as much as I can, and been more active here at Frustrated Hypocrite – and I was interested to find that starting a blog has been heralded as one of the 10 Things You Need To Do during unemployment.

As time has passed and the interviews have trickled in, much of my anxiety over joblessness has faded away.  Still, in reading about the state of unemployment, I think the blow to our sense of selves is an under-examined symptom of job-separation.  Sure, it’s often said that we are not what we do, but in a consumer-oriented, statist society where we are defined by what we buy, and we work longer hours than ever before, does that old axiom ring true?

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