While much has been written about the transforming economy that is wiping out certain careers and pushing more people into less stable, lower-paid contract work, the psychological toll on unemployed professionals has not been so deeply examined.
photographed by Mark Harrison
THE CAREER counselor had a mass of curly red hair and a tiny diamond delicately piercing one nostril. She had lived in India. She wore flip-flops to work. She understood that my job did not necessarily define my worth as a person, or so I told myself.
I had to. Danielle was my lifeline, an emissary assigned by the Hearst Corporation to guide me from my withered past — a career in print journalism — into a newly pragmatic state of mind where my “strengths” would be itemized, charted and fit into a box labeled with a new job title.
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It was simple, she said. All I had to do was “reinvent” myself.
Never mind that being a reporter had informed every conversation I’d had with anyone, on-duty or off, for the past two decades. I sat across from Danielle in her small, Bellevue office, remembering the night I’d told my mother “I found the thing that I’m supposed to do!”
Now here was this woman, more than 10 years my junior, telling me that my future was dead, that everything I’d believed and valued about myself hardly mattered at all.
The plight of some 220 journalists who have recently lost their jobs in Washington is, of course, no more poignant or important than that of the 200,000 construction workers, finance managers, machinists and others who have gone through a very similar free fall in the past two years. People like Glenn Englund, 47, a pre-press manager who supported three children and a wife on a solid, union salary — only to be cut loose when the business went digital. Or Gary Kroman, 58, who quietly spent 29 years drawing airplane parts for the Boeing Co. until he was laid off last fall. Aside from his parents, Kroman’s colleagues at the aerospace plant were the closest thing he’d had to a family.
The economic toll — lost homes, lost savings, lost health care and retirement — has been well-documented. Far less public discussion has focused on the shattering psychic toll of our Great Recession. The silent mornings spent circling online job sites; the nagging fear that your former co-workers secretly think only losers get laid off. Trained practically from birth that we are what we do, what are we when we’re not doing anything?
“A bit of an identity crisis,” said Mike McCann, a laid-off software tester I met at one of the numerous support-and-networking groups for the unemployed that have cropped up at coffee shops throughout the region. McCann is 56. He was an information technology worker for 30 years, until Christmas Day 2008. “I went through a period when I lost faith in my ability to really do anything,” he said, ducking his head. “If I were to create a new niche for myself, where exactly would it be?”
Performing in regional opera has come to the rescue recently, giving McCann something to do with his evenings. But it’s hardly a career path. So as he tries to create a new life, what does McCann see ahead? There is a long, quiet pause. “I don’t know,” he says. “The more time I spend trying to figure out what’s next, I think the farther I get from it.”
THE CONFUSION and distress of unemployment is about more than money, though the loss of income itself often triggers a cascade of what sociologists call “negative life events” — marital tensions, stress-related health problems, deferred car repairs — that feed an overall sense of hopelessness.
“What we’ve found is this: When you lose a job, you lose a whole package of supports in your life,” says Richard Price, a University of Michigan psychology professor who has been studying this gloomy dynamic for decades. “If you have a lot invested in the kind of work you do — if your own self-esteem is wrapped up in your professional status, it’s going to be a big deal.”
This describes Gary Kroman’s personal limbo. Before a high-school drafting class, he’d given little thought to his future. But success there led Kroman to mechanical-drawing courses at Seattle Central Community College, and in 1973 Boeing hired him right out of school. “I thought I’d just be there a few years,” he says. “But I spent my whole career there.”
During those three decades, the accidental gig turned into an identity that vaulted Kroman from his family’s blue-collar roots into the high-tech, high-paying world of aerospace. Kroman’s father, a laborer who’d helped pour the foundation for the Space Needle, couldn’t believe it.
These days, Kroman wakes at about 7:30, just like he used to, and is at his computer by 8:30, scanning job notices, chasing a receding horizon of work that no longer exists. The drafting programs he used at his old job have little relevance to other engineering firms, and Kroman, despite trying to keep his skills current, has been unwilling or unable to conceive of himself as anything other than a Boeing employee.
“There were times when it was drudgery, but I looked forward to going to work every day,” he says. “It gave meaning to my life.”
On his 58th birthday, Kroman was again at his computer, looking for work. He could retire and take his Boeing pension but holds off, believing that this would sever his last tie to the company that formed the very structure of his existence.
THE FIRST painful truth I discovered about our Great Jobs Recession is the sunny refusal — especially among those making careers off these workplace revolutions — to fully acknowledge the head-spinning void joblessness can carve into a person’s sense of self. “Positive, positive, positive!” Danielle chirped at me when I’d make the slightest grimace about what was happening to myself, my friends, this country. “Positive! Positive! Positive!”
Forget the fact that she, too, was among the estimated 30 million Americans now working as a part-time contractor.
This rapid shift to a workforce of freelance employees has profound financial implications for most of us, especially regarding retirement. Pension plans like Kroman’s that guarantee a reliable income after age 62 were once standard for nearly 40 percent of employees at large- and medium-sized companies. But those days are gone. Now a mere 15 percent of workers have guaranteed retirement benefits.
Those who track these things say they worry most about workers in the 30-to-50-year-old range. “I look at my kids — they’re among the most capable people I know, with degrees in psychology and marine biology — and I think, what are they going to retire on? What about their kids?” says Stephen Paul, a former Microsoft manager-turned-career coach. “When the whole world is a contractor, how do you raise a kid to do that?”
Such alarm is unusual for Paul, who generally exudes a brisk, pragmatic air, utterly without angst about what’s been lost. “I’m over all that,” he shrugs.
There were days, though, before he started at Microsoft, when Paul’s hands shook as he reached for the telephone to make a sales call. He worried about his marriage, his mortgage, his children’s future. “I was falling apart because I was in a job totally unsuited to my strengths,” he says. “So I had to take ownership of my security. I reinvented myself based on my strengths.”
That hard dose of self-examination led Paul back to school and toward a career in technology. For 14 years, he says, he enjoyed working as a developer, ending at Microsoft. Until one too many “reorganizations” sapped his enthusiasm. In 2008, he quit, thinking another job was almost assured. One year and dozens of resumes later, Paul had received two calls asking for an interview, and no job offers. It was time, he realized, to reinvent himself again.
Notes from the Job Search, the blog Paul started to keep himself sane during this dark time, spawned three networking groups, one in West Seattle, another in Bellevue and a third in Greenwood. The good news: Group attendance is shrinking, and Paul has a growing list of private clients paying $50 an hour for his one-on-one services. (Passing a hat finances group meetings.)
The less-good news: Many of Paul’s regulars have been coming for two years.
In Bellevue, they arrive looking like the middle-aged professionals they are — laid off from jobs in software engineering, corporate sales and human resources. On the table sits a copy of Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power.” (Law 10: Avoid the unhappy and unlucky. Law 25: Re-create yourself.)
An unemployed software engineer begins the discussion, describing a recent panel interview, his first nibble at a job in more than a year. The experience was so harrowing that he went home afterward and spent the rest of the day in bed.
“You have to separate yourself from this,” Paul says, urging group members to think of their work as a product, not an identity. “It’s not our worth; it’s just data. If you take this stuff personally, it’s really hard not to collapse.” The participants rub their foreheads. One mentions interviewing for a job that was three floors underground. Paul tells them to stay positive.
To him, all the interviews and phone calls, LinkedIn profiles and updated resumes are just facts, unencumbered with emotion. He looks at clients with a near-mathematical assessment of individual strengths and where those fit into today’s marketplace. Professional dreams? Higher aspirations? These have no place in his view.
“What I want to be really doesn’t matter. That bus has left the station,” Paul says. “What matters is what is. I have to look at this world and ask where do people get paid using my strengths?”
With that in mind, he has developed several axioms essential to working smart today:
Consider yourself an independent contractor even when you’re a full-time employee.
Establish ownership of your work. Define your unique assets and prove your worth every day. Continually reinvent yourself. And create a positive center in your life that is outside of work.
Glenn Englund embraced these rules with vigor. He had to. Before he joined Paul’s West Seattle group, he’d spent 18 months looking for a job and was beginning to wonder where he’d gone wrong.
For much of his life, Englund never gave a thought to who he “was” or what that meant. He’d grown up on the Eastside, briefly attended community college, then worked any warehouse job that came along.
But when his wife got pregnant, Englund decided he needed a career to build on and found work in a print shop. You could do that in the late 1980s, when a college dropout might ask his brother to introduce him to friends who could offer a job with a future. Which is exactly what Englund did. He started as a prep assistant at (now defunct) Color Control in Redmond, and over the next 20 years worked his way up to a $58,000-per-year position, including overtime, in middle management.
At first, he sat in a darkroom all day, taping film plates onto drums. He learned about color separations and stippling, film stripping and dry-etching — all lost arts today — and he watched veteran print-workers go blind from years of squinting at tiny dots on paper. But it was a stable income with union benefits, and Englund, now a meaty 47-year-old who enjoys a well-crafted beer, looks back wistfully.
“We had lavish parties,” he recalls. “On New Year’s Eve, if you were working, the owner would come around and pour everyone some high-end cognac.”
Later, when the business went digital, Englund taught himself German to decipher the newest computer-program instructions. Like Kroman, he hardly realized how wedded to the job he’d become.
The dot-com bust of 2001 provided his first hint. Laid off from Color Control and newly divorced, Englund took jobs in sales and transportation but didn’t fit in. By 2007, he was back in a printing shop, happily overseeing newspaper inserts at a plant in Tukwila, unaware that the bottom was about to drop out.
Within two years, the recession hit, and Englund was laid off again. “Even then, I didn’t want to think of myself in a different way,” he says.
Bleak days followed. The holidays came, and Englund had no money for gifts. A girlfriend dumped him, uncomfortable with his extended unemployment. He tried to go to church, but felt awkward sitting alone. “When you’re unemployed you tend to get depressed, maybe a little paranoid,” he says. “You think, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ People who are working every day really don’t see it because they don’t socialize with people who are unemployed.”
Increasingly desperate, Englund began attending Paul’s meetings. He brings his portfolio, notepad and business cards to every gathering.
Yet a hollow feeling nags. “Nowadays, looking for a job, it’s pretty impersonal,” he says. “You have to create an image and send it out on a network online. I’m not on Facebook; but I will be. I’ve been told, also, to do Twitter and create a blog. Otherwise, you look like you’re out of it because it’s guys in their 20s doing the hiring.”
The conventional wisdom holds that education is the answer. Just freshen up your skills and the government might even pay to retrain you. But the economics of such career changes can be a rude shock. In Washington, two of the four fastest-growing jobs, home health care and personal aides, net about $23,000 a year. That’s enough to keep a family $450 above the poverty line.
In “The Anguish of Unemployment,” two Rutgers University professors report that of 1,200 unemployed people surveyed last year, only one in five had found jobs eight months after being laid off. More than a third had changed careers, and most had accepted pay cuts. Only 12 percent of those over age 50 found work.
Statistics like this bolster Shari Fox’s opinion that there could not be a worse time to take a flying leap into something new. Recently laid off from her job as a recruiter at Redfin, Fox wonders about all the transition coaches insisting that the answer is just a willingness to “reinvent.”
“Everybody’s trying to put a nice spin on it, but the truth is . . . the longer you’re out of work, the more there’s a sense that there must be something wrong with you. Companies will always hire someone who’s employed over someone who’s unemployed.”
She mentions a man who trained as an X-ray technician reduced to delivering pizza, and her father, who spent his life in construction, now left to stare at a computer screen that means nothing to him, wondering how to earn a paycheck. . . .
A month before his unemployment benefits were scheduled to run out, Englund finally found work. The onetime pre-press manager will be helping keep track of tents and props at an event company. Still, I was surprised at the ferocity of my relief.
The pay? Less than he was making on unemployment. And no benefits.
Claudia Rowe found full-time work. She is a reporter for “Equal Voice,” an online newspaper published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Mark Harrison is a Seattle Times staff photographer.