Unemployment In the Rear View Mirror

Millennials reflect on being laid off

Kimmy Schmidt

I was maybe a couple of months into a new job when my friend C. called me, asking me if I’d meet her at the Pret on the corner for a last-minute lunch. When I got there, she was staring into a cup of coffee, looking a little distant but otherwise not too different than normal.

“I just got laid off,” she said.

A couple of years earlier, her company had gone through massive layoffs, but she had survived. She’d worked at that job for about four years and seemed to have a great relationship with her coworkers and boss. It was hard not to show my surprise that now, out of the blue, she had been shown the door.

A few years later, when I got laid off from my full-time job, I thought about that meeting. I had seen a good handful of friends get laid off from their jobs by that point, all of them young women in their 20s, hardworking employees who were inevitably blindsided. In a lot of ways, knowing that I was not alone helped me cope with unemployment. It reminded me that my situation was not unique, nor a reflection, necessarily, of my competence or my skills.

I try not to think back on my unemployment much, but every once in a while, when a friend is having a tough time with a job hunt or I find out someone I know has been laid off, I am reminded of the frenzied fever dream that was that time in my life when a lot of my future was up in the air. There was so much to deal with: the immediate emotions and life-questions, the physical drudgery of maintaining a daily routine and applying for jobs, the social landmines I tried to navigate. It was hard to make sense of what I was going through then, and it’s honestly something I still struggle to understand now.

Sometimes I claim that being unemployed has taught me that I have to build a better emergency fund or that I’ve learned that true stability is almost impossible. But it’s hard to say any of that when, in truth, the repercussions of my unemployment still echo in all of the choices I make and reveal themselves in new ways, a couple of years after I was laid off.

Are there any real valuable takeaways from being laid off? Or are we asking the wrong questions?

Curious for answers, I asked three of my friends, all who had been laid off early in their careers but who have since recovered and are now employed full-time, to reflect back on their experiences. Here are some of their responses.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

How long ago was it that you were laid off? How long was your period of unemployment resulting from that?

C: The last time I was laid off was a little over two years ago and it lasted six months. I’d also been laid off two years before that, and this lasted seven months.

K: I was laid off for about two months, from early January to late February. Which, all considering, was very recent.

S: It was almost four years ago and I was unemployed for 13 months.

Tell us a little about your job history leading up to the position where you were laid off.

C: After college, I was inducted into the retail worker’s way of life and bided my time until I landed a full time, salary paying job in the book publishing field.

K: I worked mainly in retail before, I left one retail job, one I’d been very accustomed to — however despised — for another. I’d done some freelance writing as a side job, and as much as I tried, it always seemed to fall under the label of “Hobby” rather than career.

S: The job I was laid off from was my first after college and moving to New York. I was there for over four years.

Take us through the first 24 hours of your experience of being laid off.

K: The first 24 hours was a strange experience to say the least. I suppose I should say I’d never been fired before, from anything, and the mere panic I felt from the reality of not having a knowingly stable income was a bit overwhelming. Though the feeling was engulfed by the utter relief I felt by not having to go back. I hated that position. I felt undermined, used, under paid, and neglected, exhausted, and simply lied to every day.

I’d worked in retail before, and though I was desperate to get out I was even more desperate to make a living wage. So I left one position with the idea that I would be making enough money to sustain myself, only to get caught in the retail trap, so to speak: the endless promise of a promotion that you never actually see. That first day I was so relieved that I wouldn’t have to go back that I treated myself to a cab ride and laughed all the way home. It wasn’t until I lay down that night that I began to panic.

C: Those first few hours, after you’re told you won’t have a job for the foreseeable future, are incredibly emotional. I’ve had conversations with friends who’ve gone through something similar, and the easiest relatable situation is when one goes through a painful breakup with a significant other.

I distinctly remember my first time being laid off: I’d just returned from vacation, on a relative high from seeing my folks, and excited to get back to work. It must’ve been within an hour of my settling in that morning that I was told I no longer had a job. The hours after were filled with tears, furtive attempts at looking for side hustle-esque jobs on every job board known to man, and seeking any other like-minded person who’d gone through something similar, just so I could cry some more, and re-instill any sort of self-worth. Yeah … very tough.

S: After crying from shock, it was mostly a mix of anger and relief. I hated it there, and they obviously hated me. I was angry because I was very good at my job. It was easy, and I had learned it from top to bottom. However, there was a new boss who very clearly had favorites and wanted her employees to suck up to her, as well as talk about other employees behind their back. I refused to participate in this and I know it made me an outcast. Layoffs should not be personal, and I know this was. I couldn’t wait to leave, so I am actually grateful, but I wish it had been on my own terms.

I couldn’t wait to leave, so I am actually grateful, but I wish it had been on my own terms.

How prepared were you for unemployment? How did you manage to provide for yourself during your unemployment?

K: Emotionally, I wasn’t prepared at all. I considered it a failure. Despite hating the position, despite knowing I wanted more, despite knowing I would eventually be moving on and despite hating who I was there, I still considered it a failure on my part and held myself responsible.

Financially, I was fine. I am a saver, I have always been. So though the money was originally meant for something else I knew I would be okay for at least a little while.

C: Funny thing is, my first time being unemployed, I had zero emotional pillars set in place to help me through. Financially? I really didn’t have any issues. But to be honest, having a firm cushion can still offer little assurement that you’ll find a job when you most need one, or give back the dignity that you feel is stripped away when you walk away from that job for the last time. My second time getting laid off, however, was a completely different story. I had very little financially to keep me afloat and to help with bills, yet emotionally, I was iron clad and in full command of my purpose.

S: I was completely unprepared. Like many in NYC, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Luckily, I was given three months’ severance and could collect unemployment on top of that, so I had some time to decide what my next steps would be.

What was the hardest part of unemployment? Were there any upsides?

S: The hardest part, besides the lack of money, is just feeling like a failure. Knowing I was good at my job but bad at playing corporate insider games was incredibly frustrating.

K: The hardest part of being unemployed was the uncertainty. I am a planner. I like knowing what my plan is and where it is I’m going, so not knowing if I’ll be able to afford rent in two months was a struggle for me. Not knowing if I should cancel little monthly expenses (Netflix, Hulu, HBO now, Apple music, etc.) or if I should wait it out. While the extra time to myself was both a blessing a curse. I found that I had more time to write, more time to focus on the things I barely had before which was great, but that same time I was only reminded that I needed a job to fill my time.

What kind of support did you have for your unemployment, both emotionally and resource-wise? What did you wish you had more of?

S: My friends and family were incredibly supportive. I chose to move back to my parents’ house, and they were kind enough to not make me pay rent, so I was very lucky. I wish I had more people motivating me to keep looking for a new job. I kept hitting dead ends and would get defeated quickly and stop looking for weeks at a time.

C: The first person I turned to after being laid off was my dad. He’d gone through something similar a few years before, and he was the first person to listen and completely understand the impact it was having. He was my first resource, and I didn’t want for much more.

I did long for some empathy from my still-working friends and former colleagues. I still can’t decide on what keeps folks from lending a good ear to have a friend spill their challenges during a laid-off period, but there’s a notable fear most have. I guess the I just don’t know what to say conversations get in the way, and you end up losing a significant part of your social network.

Are there consequences of your unemployment that you’re still dealing with?

C: Undoubtedly yes! I’m still figuring out how to overcome the fear I have of potentially not having money, or if I have money, what the hell to do with it. There’s also that nagging fear of will I or won’t be let go from any job I have going forward. It sucks to live in that kind of space, but you can also flip it around, and learn how to best balance your financial life (which, I’ve successfully done!) and learn to live a lucrative life outside of work, one that can also offer some financial stability while also honoring any creative skills you may have.

Does your experience being laid off affect your outlook on your career going forward?

S: It gave me motivation to save money wherever possible. Layoffs can be predicted sometimes, but typically they come completely by surprise. I try to keep this in the back of my mind so I won’t ever be blindsided again. I also try to not become too settled at a job. It’s great to know the ins and outs of your position, but if you are ever bored and unhappy, look elsewhere. It’s always easier to look for another job while you’re actually working and not stressed out.

C: I’d have to say yes, yet I’m certain that it’s not definite because it’s evolved conditionally in the past five years. The emotional weight of being laid off is an incredible burden to carry around, particularly when you step into a new roll that you want to grow in. The challenge, no matter where or how you enter a chapter in your life that involves a new career journey, is to be aware of your purpose — and make sure you are in complete alignment with whatever the next step in your career or life journey will be.

K: It was a bad experience but I suppose it had to happen in order for me to make a move forward. I suppose the whole experience made me more cautious and more aware. But at the same time I’m grateful to have come out of it unscathed.

What is your advice (if you have any) or someone who’s just been laid off? What is your advice for people who want to help/comfort someone who’s been laid off?

S: My main piece of advice would to be to not get defeated in looking for a new position. I would also suggest finding something part-time as quickly as possible. It doesn’t have to be glamorous but something that will still give you time to look for a full time job, while earning some money and getting out of the house. Sitting around feeling miserable because none of your interviews have gone well (or you can’t get the interviews in the first place) can be frustrating, but one will work out eventually. If you stop applying for a while, it gets harder to start back up.

Also, most layoffs do happen just because of company redundancies and should not be taken at all personally.

My advice for people who want to comfort someone is to just be there for them and not let them be defeated. Job searching is SO frustrating, and it’s so easy to give up for a while. You don’t want to be overbearing, but you have to keep them motivated. Send them job openings you find, or offer to spruce up their cover letters. Tell them about a cute coffee shop you passed that had a Help Wanted sign.

C: Just been laid off? Know that you are and will continue to be in control of your life, your future endeavors and that yourself worth will always be intact. But most importantly, do take the time to grieve, burn things (not bridges), and prove nothing to nobody but yourself. The act of being selfish is really given a bad rap, but in cases like this, when it’s about survival, it’s pretty crucial. Don’t be afraid to put yourself first.

Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and blogger living in Brooklyn. During her unemployment, she took solace in staring vacantly at the Milstein pool at Lincoln Center while eating a large bag of Swedish Fish. www.kimberlylew.com