Changing Jobs Every Year? No Problem. Leaving Coworkers Behind? No Way

I’m one of those people who gets attached — to my neighbor, to my friend’s dog, to the guy with the cowlick I see on the subway every day. And, especially, to my coworkers. I have no ability to keep business, “business only.” I cannot be happy in a work environment unless I’m surrounded by people to whom I feel a sense of attachment, connection, and loyalty. As for the people I don’t get along with — well, I get attached to them too (sometimes even more so — twisted, I know).

Unfortunately, the stepladder in my profession does not nurture such attachments — or, at least, not on a long-term basis. I work in media — digital media, more specifically. In eight years, I’ve had six jobs. The two major magazines I worked for have both become digital-only shells of their former selves. The blog I edited on the New York Times website has since migrated to its own URL. The micro-news site I took over in 2008 was wiped from the web when the publishers couldn’t turn a profit. (And my experience is on the verge of being mundane. Heard about any media layoffs recently?)

In each of these jobs, I produced a body of work to which I was firmly attached. But even more, each job connected me to a group of people — people I came to rely on, people I learned from, and people I needed. At my last job, I sat between two of the most talented editors I’ve ever known. Lucky for me, they were also great human beings. Each had nearly 10 years on me, and every day, I felt cocooned in their shell of institutional knowledge, intellectual banter, and nonstop conviviality. I got to know these people. I knew what they ate for lunch each Tuesday, their routes to work, their kids’ favorite classes at school, their career regrets and aspirations, and their opinions on the use of the word “hagiography.” I knew when to leave them alone, when they were in the mood for a joke about Time’s new cover, and what links to email them on a bad day. When they would bicker (usually while closing pages at 10 PM on a Friday night), I would jump in and say, “Mom, Dad, stop fighting!” When my husband and I went on vacation, I sent them emails from a train in Brussels.

These people had more of a direct impact on that period in my life than anyone else. In terms of sheer hours, I saw them more than my husband, my family, and any other “real-life” friend who I managed to squeeze into the week. These coworkers witnessed every bizarre, disgusting thing that I did (including a nose-blow into my sleeve once — I should be quarantined) and heard me utter more than one embarrassing remark. But they loved me anyway. Then the sky fell and the magazine laid a lot of people off and the rest of us left and that was that.

The modern career can be summed up in one word: peripatetic. Gone are the days when job-leaping stories like mine were unusual. A brutal job market, paired with the changing nature of employment itself (we’ve all heard of “the gig economy”), means that people are switching jobs, creating flex-time schedules, and finding “alternative work arrangements” (aka perma-freelance), all of which disrupt the traditional model of “you have a job where you go for many years and develop a close peer group.” An in-flux industry like media is the perfect petri dish in which to observe this shift in employment expectations colliding with the recession, and the disruption of industry by technology. The new paradigm affects nearly every aspect of our work lives, including our loyalty, our sense of financial security, our expectations for future advancement, and, as I feel so acutely every time I leave a job, our relationships.

I can change jobs every year or two — I’ve learned how. But I haven’t learned how to get over those people.

“Colleagues” is one of the few relationship categories that clings to a vague framework. Even the word itself is amorphous. It could cover every possible association, from the person by the kitchen who scowls every time you add three Splendas to your coffee to the person whose face is the only reason you make it out of bed on Mondays. These are vastly different relationships, all smushed under the same umbrella. We integrate all of them into our lives but spend comparatively little time defining them. Even when the bonds are close, these relationships are contingent — upon one or both of you remaining employed there, upon the company staying in business, and upon the power dynamics remaining the same (if one of you is promoted, chances are the intimacy will shift). Yet how are we supposed to coexist in a room with a group of people for thousands of hours a year without forming attachments? You’d have to be a sociopath to do that. Or a CEO.

Sure, there are the sexual dynamics as well — GQ is the latest publication to extol the virtues of the “office wife.” Sex will always be present in the workplace, hanging out on the fringe of every interaction in which it could become even the remotest possibility. But that’s all part of the deal — veneer of professionalism or no, your work relationships won’t be any less fraught or messy than your “real” relationships. There’s rarely a way to avoid the miasma of being a human being in a workplace (my former-employment-lawyer self is forehead-slapping as I write this). Adding that sexual dynamic is yet another reason that coworker splits are so painful — in a “work spouse” situation, you’ve got all the ingredients for a breakup, without the legitimacy (or the sex, one hopes).

Now here I am, in a new job, surrounded by coworkers I’ve already become attached to — yet there’s pain. I miss my old crew. I miss all of them, like I would miss a close friend who’s moved away, or a lover who’s told me it’s over. My emotional cortex doesn’t differentiate between work bonds and any other sort of bonds. All it knows is that there was a person who was vital and axial and there all the time, and now that person is gone — which leaves loss. It’s a real grieving process, but one that suffers from the lack of a name or classification.

So I keep busy by skipping through my coworker Kübler-Ross, straight to the acceptance stage. Sarah, Damon, I miss you.

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