By David Matthews
I try to feel grateful, I really do. I try to find that place where there’s no bitterness or resentment. I try to feel like there was no lost opportunity, no stagnated career. But to do so requires that I hold opposing thoughts in my brain simultaneously. The effect is numbing, much like the feeling you get after a deafening noise. My head swims and my ears ring. I want to sit down as my knees weaken and the blood drains from my face. I shake my head, rotate my jaw, rub my eyes.
How do I get through this?
I’m pretty sure I don’t act “normal” in the office. I avoid eye contact with previous colleagues, not speaking unless spoken to. I avoid socializing with most employees; instead, I hide in my corner of the floor, sneaking in and out of the building. If I do find myself in conversation about my return, I make light of it and change the subject.
Do I have a haunted look about me? Do I exude despair? Probably. I am a current/former employee, a weak position from which to navigate a career.
In college, I had dreams of my work amounting to more than just a paycheck. I thought I would do something truly useful to others, that I would see an unmet need and fill it to the best of my ability. In my view, having a career, a life’s work, is a critical component of the male identity. Author Michael Gurian, in his book The Purpose of Boys, says that males are predisposed to finding purpose in feeling needed. Busywork doesn’t cut it, and hollow statements of praise or gratitude are even worse. The feeling of doing something worthwhile must be genuine.
I also thought that talent would be recognized, credit would be given where credit was due, and I would move ahead. Years passed, however, and my career went nowhere. I had little opportunity to create quality professional relationships, either within or outside the company. I tried going to conferences and volunteering for special projects, but other than a modest ‘thank you,’ nothing came of it.
At some point it dawned on me that, if I did nothing, my chances for advancement were zero, or worse, I could lose my job. I applied for open positions within the company, but in doing so I learned that my skills did not transfer. I was quite literally unqualified to work any other job in the corporation. And then the day came when my fears were confirmed, and the corporation no longer needed my skills. In 2009, as the shockwave from the sub-prime mortgage crisis was still reverberating through the economy, my position was eliminated.
After my layoff, when I stopped licking my wounds and began to look for work, I found that my experience carried no weight in the outside world either. It opened no doors. Not one. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but apparently I have a skill set that is of no value to anyone. I came to regret my 15 years spent under the corporate umbrella, with nothing to show for it.
When I was asked to return to my former employer, I truly wish I’d been in a position to refuse, to say that I was actively being recruited, that any day I expected an offer. “Thanks, but I’ve found work elsewhere,” I wanted to say. “Good luck, and keep in touch.”
But I couldn’t say that. I was on the verge of running out of unemployment benefits, and my COBRA continuation of healthcare coverage was about to expire. I have a wife with health issues, two young kids, and a mortgage. I had no choice.
So I came back. Humiliating may sound too strong of a word, but that’s what springs to mind, in the sense that I was humbled. My grand plans of striking off to a successful new venture were fantasy. My idea that I was in control of my own future was a myth. My perception that what I did mattered to the company was proven false, as former colleagues carry on without me, even winning awards for a project that I most assuredly would have participated in had I stayed. How can I feel genuinely happy for their success when my own contributions were not recognized?
Writer Amy Gutman points out that contempt and shame are now an integral part of unemployment, and I would add that the same is true for underemployment. Careers that derail run counter to the American ethic that you can make it if you try. Opportunity awaits, people seem to say, so there must be something wrong with you!
But let’s be frank. There is no future except that which is handed to you by circumstances. In the musical chairs game called employment, I was one who got stuck with no chair when the music stopped. And then, just as suddenly, I had the chair offered again with a hearty “No hard feelings!” I feel I’m the kid whose pants have been pulled down in public and then asked why I can’t take a joke. Some jokes are not funny. Like my career—one big, unfunny joke.
And this is key. For there to be a career, a two-way commitment is needed. An employee must have a commitment to the goals and principles of the employer, and in return, the employer must be committed to the continued well-being of the workforce. Anything less is just a paycheck. I’ve come to believe, in this post-recession economy, that the idea of a career is becoming obsolete. The best we can look forward to is a series of somewhat related jobs.
The hardest thing for me is the question, “What do you do?” What I want to say is, “Nothing of consequence.” I am employed and not employed. I am here and not here. I am useful and not useful. I am a paradox.
Note: David Matthews is a pen name.