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Unemployed and at Sea

The quiet crisis of confidence that we ignore at our own peril

Chris Rudnicki
Aug 19, 2018 · 13 min read
Photo by Camerique Archive/Getty

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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 shitty. 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).

Every year in the United States, roughly 25 million people are unwillingly separated from their work. Many of those individuals will find their next opportunity relatively quickly. Some will gradually join the ranks of the 6.3 million unemployed. Others will struggle to transition to any paid work at all and will instead fall out of the labor force completely. Nearly all those 25 million people will experience some form of the stress associated with having been dealt an unlucky hand in the game of work. Distilled in John Coleman’s reflection on being fired from that Boston cafeteria is a profound truth about the lived experience of one-sixth of 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 led efforts to build the software that would power the company’s Razor flip phones during the dawn of mass-market cellular technology. It was a job not without its fair share of Office Space-type corporate drudgery. But it was also a job that gave him an opportunity to grow intellectually, a responsibility for the development of others, and — maybe most importantly — a feeling of relevance for the 19 years he was there.

The blue-chip tech company provided him with what it provided many well-educated baby-boomer professionals in the 1990s and early 2000s: a salary to support a family of four (allowing my mom to work only part-time for most of my childhood), a predictable schedule that allowed for midweek barbecues and the ability to coach Little League games, and functional roles that flexed his intellectual capabilities without overwhelming them. 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.

The part of my dad’s identity that work wasn’t responsible for was filled by the community he found around the suburban sports careers of my brother and me. The life he lived during my childhood was in many ways the logical outcome for an affable, married, white male with two sons and two engineering degrees from Northwestern University — a kind of Ward Cleaver redux at the turn of the 21st century.

The reality of my dad’s life during those years was, of course, more complex. There were challenges and sacrifices beneath the surface. Clinical depression cast an occasional dark shadow on an otherwise sunny existence like it does for 16 million other Americans every year. The demands of his role as an ever-present father meant stepping off the fast track to the executive ranks at Motorola (a tradeoff he stands by zealously to this day, but one that inevitably came with a feeling of loss). My dad’s life during my childhood had all the trappings of upper-middle-class success underpinned by many of the challenging realities associated with marriage, suburbia, and corporate life. The socioeconomic boon he was gifted in life didn’t yield immunity to the silent internal struggles that haunt many middle-aged men.

The reality of labor markets during those years was also more complex. Forces decades in the making were starting to strip away the veneer of normalcy that the U.S. economy had settled into after the tech bubble burst at the turn of the century. There was all the familiar stuff: misguided optimism in the markets, globalization and new competitive threats from emerging economies, the increasing ubiquity of computers, the internet, and robotics. And then there was the less familiar: the rise of contract workers filing taxes as independent LLCs, the emergence of increasingly flexible work arrangements, and a growing bias amongst employers towards hiring a younger, more digitally inclined workforce.

All of this portended a future in which a sizable portion of the American labor force would essentially be left untethered and at sea — free to be their own bosses while managing an uneven bevy of short-term projects, gigs, and part-time opportunities. In a swift three decades, the country’s labor market had transformed. For those who had stepped into the workforce prior to the late 1990s, the ground dramatically shifted under their feet.

The changes that were reshaping labor markets were also exerting pressure on companies. In less than a decade, Motorola went from one of tech’s top performers — turning out blockbuster consumer products, investing in big-bet R&D projects, and recording staggering shareholder profits — to a cautionary tale taught in business schools around the world. In the two decades between 1997 and 2017, Motorola’s labor force shrank by a factor of 10 as the company was gutted, split, and partially sold off. At its height in the late 1990s, Motorola employed around 150,000 people. Today, Motorola Solutions directly employs just a little more than 15,000. The tens of thousands of individuals who lost their jobs over the past 20 years (whose ranks include both my father and my grandfather) were gifted front-row seats to the creative destruction that propels modern economies forward. For years, my dad had survived these massive rounds of layoffs as the tech giant struggled to respond to new forces of global competition (such as Nokia and Apple) and a legacy of poor investment decisions (including a giant network of incredibly expensive satellites that never quite worked out).

He eventually found himself managing a team of 13 project managers who were themselves responsible for overseeing the development and deployment of software that powered Motorola’s cell phones. Every quarter for over two years starting in 2007, my dad would be instructed to let one or two members of his team go. Slowly, his 13 dwindled to 10. Then eight. Then three. He formed a habit of going on walks with the marked individuals a few months before he had to make the official announcement to them. He would make his way to the edge of the corporate campus with his unlucky counterpart and step over the sidewalk that served as the threshold between Motorola’s domain and the rest of the world.

“We’re not at work anymore,” he would say. “I’m telling you this as a friend, not as a manager: you’re next. You’ve got a few months of lead time to get your life in order.” They were small moments of rebellion grounded in compassion — a means of asserting humanity in the face of forces that were numb to the psychological suffering they imposed. Like some twisted version of a reality TV show, my dad was ultimately instructed to vote his last remaining colleagues off the Motorola island, and it wasn’t long before he found himself walking the edge of that corporate campus alone.

In September 2009 — in the midst of the Great Recession — my dad got the same 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. The writing on the wall bought him time, and his reputation as a thoughtful, compassionate, and competent manager gave him the credibility to network his way into a new opportunity. 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.

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My dad when he’s not unemployed and feeling at sea. Photo courtesy of author.

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. Glimmers of light would occasionally pierce through the darkness of those months only to be snuffed out as conversations with recruiters or hiring managers would end abruptly.

Today, he recalls those moments with a lingering, bitter taste on his acerbic tongue: “You are so jaded by the end of it all. You have just been dragged through the mud for months, yet you’re supposed to go in and be the happy-go-lucky applicant. You are beaten at that point. At first, when something finally comes in, you get all excited, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath you. And unfortunately, most of the time, that’s what happens.”

The prospects of finding a fulfilling opportunity can seem all but certain at the outset of unemployment but erode over time along with the confidence, motivation, and optimism that’s usually necessary to find that next thing. “There’s a point where you just become numb to those feelings of hope. When it comes to the job search, that part of your life either consumes you (and that’s a horribly dark path), or you have to say ‘fuck it’ and be a little more realistic about it all.”

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.

A lot of people are talking about what the next few decades will hold for our contemporary conceptions of work. Public intellectuals, op-ed columnists, academics, consultants, technology investors — society’s influencers — have collectively proclaimed that whatever your notion is of work’s role in your life today, prepare for a future that looks vastly different. Those voices use euphemistic terms like “readjustment,” “skills gap,” and “dislocation,” leaving most of America feeling like those voices are just as aloof as they’ve always seemed.

All the while, the hurt that people feel as they live through the consequences of these changes quietly tears at the fabric of our families and communities. Plenty of commentators are willing to talk about the challenges of the new labor market and lay early claim to solutions. Yet there is a dearth of careful observers who are tuned into the small, internal tragedies that millions of Americans face every year.

The talking heads aren’t wrong to point out (and sound the alarm on) the macro trends rippling across labor markets: the fading employer-employee regime, the pace of automation, the decline of collective bargaining, etc. But instead of being optimists or pessimists about what all these trends imply for our collective future, maybe it’s time to start being realists about what they imply for our family, friends, and communities today.

If we stop looking at this problem at the level of entire economies and bring it back down to the level of individuals, we start to realize the quiet crisis at hand. We start to realize what John Coleman, my dad, and countless others have had to experience: it sucks to lose your job. It hurts. It’s emotionally debilitating. The psychological suffering caused by being laid off, being forced into early retirement, or simply managing the conclusion of that latest gig is not some novel phenomenon ushering in a new epoch of the “future of work.” It’s a cold, hard reality of the capitalist regime that has been at the fringes of our collective consciousness since the Luddites.

The phenomenon becomes especially pernicious as macro trends encourage companies and commentators (often unintentionally) to treat working individuals as unfeeling components in cost structures, no different than the plastic and steel fed into assembly lines.

What’s more, this human challenge doesn’t discriminate. A toxic combination of unfamiliar emotions and debilitating identity crises is triggered in the dishwasher and investment banker alike when work disappears. The practical hardships of those who are perpetually disadvantaged and discriminated against in the labor markets (minorities, women, older workers, the non-college-educated, etc.) are exacerbated in these moments, turning difficulty into despair as the multiplier effect of stressors takes its toll.

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?

Any sober assessment of today’s workforce acknowledges that this problem isn’t likely to diminish in the coming decades. The quiet crisis is growing. The realist in me confronts the hard truth that as the psychological and emotional burden associated with falling out of work grows, we will likely fail to respond sufficiently. The way we handle mental health and wellness in the United States is woefully inadequate — both from a healthcare and a cultural standpoint (though the latter is slowly starting to change for the better). But if the past few years of politics in America have taught us anything, it’s that we ignore how people feel about their lived experience at our own peril. I’m afraid we’re falling into that trap again here. Aggregate measures of objective quality of life and individual subjective well-being often diverge. We could be making work more productive and efficient than ever at a macro level while making it less livable than it’s been in quite some time.

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 those who have lost their jobs and don’t have a clear line of sight on what the future holds. It might be as simple as asking what they need and not advising or proclaiming elegant solutions. Perhaps just being present with those we are close to as they confront these major life events can go a long way.

Six weeks ago, my dad’s latest contracting gig ended. He’s once again at sea, searching for that next horizon. And I once again find myself partially ignoring the problem, hoping it will somehow disappear, and partially searching for a way to help guide him back to safer shores.

I am indebted to two obituaries that outline the incredible life of John Royston Coleman. One was written by Matt Schudel for the Washington Post, and the other by William Grimes for the New York Times — I highly recommend them both.

I am also indebted to my dad, who continues to teach and inspire me. My latest undertaking, Project Tugboat (https://www.projecttugboat.com/), was sparked by his story.

Written by

Founder, Project Tugboat

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