Alumni Career Commentary

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The Quiet Crisis of Unexpected Unemployment

In 1973, John R. Coleman — then president of Haverford College and a respected labor economist — took a sabbatical. Over the course of those few months, Coleman dedicated his time to working menial, blue-collar jobs on an incognito basis. He made sandwiches, worked farm fields and dug ditches. It was part intellectual inquiry and part soul-search for the aging academic. One job would end, and he would page through the local want ads for his next gig. Upon landing a job as a dishwasher in a Boston cafeteria, he was promptly fired after just an hour — an experience he later recounted in a book he wrote about those months:

I’d never been fired and I’d never been unemployed. For three days I walked the streets. Though I had a bank account, though my children’s tuition was paid, though I had a salary and a job waiting for me back in Haverford, I was demoralized. I had an inkling of how professionals my age feel when they lose their job and their confidence begins to sink.

What John Coleman felt after getting fired nearly 45 years ago offers a window into one of the least talked-about, yet most profound challenges of labor markets in the early 21st century: the psychological and emotional burden individuals carry when unexpectedly unemployed.

Losing your job feels terrible. Full stop. In turn, it prompts anxiety, depression, frustration, anger and eventually despondency. We grieve. We become isolated. What starts as something we try to cordon off from the rest of our life easily overflows into our finances, our health, our relationships and our expectations for our futures. We realize how brittle our identities are in those moments as the professional side of who we are is washed away from our sense of self and nothing else immediately fills the void.

These moments are examples of what psychologists and psychiatrists refer to as a “major life event,” sandwiched somewhere in between the universally devastating “catastrophe” (think: World War II) and an “everyday inconvenience” (think: that guy who cut you off on your way to the grocery store).

Distilled in John Coleman’s reflection on being fired from that Boston cafeteria is a profound truth about the lived experience of 25 million working adults every year: the separation from work can be profoundly troubling, and even traumatic.

If you were to ask my dad who he was 20 years ago, he would have a straightforward answer for you: first and foremost, he was a father and a husband. Beyond that, he was a software development engineer and a project manager at Motorola. His sense of self was carefully balanced between the personal and the professional, and the professional was entirely rooted in one of America’s most respected corporations.

At Motorola, he had a series of roles that gave him the opportunity to grow intellectually, a responsibility over the development of others, and — maybe most importantly — a feeling of relevance for the 19 years he was there. Crucially, Motorola provided my dad with the illusion of consistency and permanence that was necessary to maintain a set of expectations for his career that tracked steadily upward as he stared out into the future.

In September 2009 — in the midst of the Great Recession — my dad got the same stomach-wrenching call that thousands did before him. His services were no longer needed at Motorola. Like a growing number of American workers, he set out on his own and took his first short-term project as an independent contractor.

Since 2009, I have watched my dad carry the psychological weight of six different career transitions. Some happened smoothly — one project would end, and another would take its place the following Monday. His transition out of Motorola happened much like that. But it wasn’t always so easy.

Unlike John Coleman’s three days walking the streets of Boston, my dad’s longest period of unemployment lasted 10 months. I watched from afar over the course of that year as he transitioned from relief at no longer having to work on an unfulfilling project, to cautious optimism about what might be next, to overwhelming anxiety and frustration as weeks turned into months without a promising lead.

It’s hard to know how to help someone who is desperately looking for work. When we witness others experiencing a difficult major life event, it’s often easiest to ignore it from a safe distance — to push that person away until they’re back on their feet, and we are no longer at risk of having to play a role we don’t know how to play. Though, often, we can’t push them away. It’s our spouse or a close relative or best friend, and we are the primary witness to the pain, suffering and paralysis it unleashes upon them. If you’re like me, you feel unequipped to be the supportive, constructive force that we aspire to be on our best days.

The stories of John Coleman and my dad illustrate that even those with the strongest socioeconomic tailwinds aren’t magically immune to the burdens of unexpected unemployment, underemployment and career transitions. So, the question remains: If this is a profound challenge for the most advantaged professionals in our society, how do we expect everyone else to navigate it?

Addressing this quiet crisis will require a renewed effort to confront the often uncomfortable terrain of psychological crises. I’d like to suggest that it’s probably not some sweeping policy intervention that fixes all of this. It might be as simple as a few more of us starting to listen to and be present with those who have lost their jobs and don’t have a clear line of sight on what the future holds.

Chris Rudnicki ‘11 is a graduate student at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. His dad’s story prompted him to found Project Tugboat, a company building products and services aimed at helping the unexpected unemployed manage the daunting journey back to work. Dozens of Ephs lent Chris their stories of unemployment, underemployment and career transitions this past summer as he worked to get Project Tugboat off the ground. A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.com.

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