Recovering Self-Identity Amidst Long-Term Unemployment
By Dave Gallison
This topic, recovery from long-term unemployment, gets harder for me to write about the longer the tail of the “Great Recession” drags on. As a career counselor in private practice, I see the devastating effects on my clients who have been unemployed six months or more, particularly those in their forties and fifties. The frustration and shame is etched in the contours of sorrowful faces, down-turned shoulders and low voices that come from multiple rejections and being forced to tap retirement accounts to meet current living expenses.
From years of work in career counseling and outplacement, I am well-versed in how to teach my clients all the ways to access the “hidden job market,” network effectively, and find new opportunities. But the sheer scale of this recession—at the current rate of adding 144,000 new jobs a month it will take 15 years just to get back to pre-recession levels—suggests the employment landscape has been altered by a tsunami.
Without a Job, Who am I?
While the best-prepared or fortunate few may get back into the workforce at some semblance of their former employment, for many—middle-aged men in particular—the reduction in income and job status may prove to be permanent. More importantly, the involuntary job loss affects not just financial viability, but cuts to the core of identity and meaning in life. This is succinctly captured by a recent book title, Without a Job, Who Am I? (Abraham Twerski).
Life as those former job holders knew it, and the world of work, might never be the same again. Indeed, counselors like me may relay the new conventional wisdom that “all future jobs are temporary” and can end at any time.
For clients dealing with such a radical, frequently painful change in their external world, they may be forced to face inward, to one’s self-identity, the last remaining place that is under one’s control. This possibility of self-renewal is essential to moving forward. Job loss and sustained unemployment sap confidence and undermine quality of life, feeding a vicious cycle that inhibits employment prospects as well.
Proceed in Parallel.
What to do? With clients who come to me, I proceed on parallel tracks—develop and execute a job search campaign that is more focused and effective, and help clients adapt to major changes in their lives and rebuild their sense of meaning and identity. Job seeking for long-term displaced workers in this period of sustained record unemployment is, in itself, a subject for another article, let alone several counseling sessions. However, if we can progressively address the emotional, physical and even spiritual effects of job loss, then we can begin to reverse the spiral of self-doubt that stifles effective job-seeking behaviors.
Is there an Alternative to the Status Quo for the Long-term Unemployed?
I have found a few ways to help clients accept the reality of job loss and its attendant disruption of lifestyle, family, relationships, etc. To start with, we are often not aware of the values we operate under until our bubble bursts. Job loss and the struggle of long-term unemployment can cause us to re-evaluate. Instead of “Will I measure up to my neighbors and obtain the American Dream?” maybe we should ask why we even judge each other by material gain. Why do we overly identify with what we do rather than who we are? Can we possibly live fulfilled lives with less money? Instead of overly identifying with our jobs, what about giving more to the other roles in our lives such as parent, family member, volunteer, etc? As Elbert Hubbard reminds, “We work to become, not to acquire.”
Time for an Activity Adjustment.
Awareness of misguided values can begin to free up a consciousness that was formerly brainwashed by false aspects of our culture and possibly consumed with over-working. Once freed up, how do you help clients recover self-worth, zest for living, while still unemployed (or at least in the time not spent looking for work)? In The Joy of Not Working, a whimsically titled and inspiring book, Ernie Zalinski suggests the loss of work makes apparent the need to replace three things:
Sense of Community
For instance, losing the structure provided by workplace routines can be unsettling to those now unemployed. As a result, clients may benefit from directed coaching about ways they can rebuild their own newly-rewarding routines: daily exercise, working as a volunteer, and taking college courses as well as scheduling job search activities.
While having a purpose is subtler than structure needs, it is perhaps more essential to happiness and fulfillment. If a client is not aware of their purpose in life, then I may direct the client to exercises like writing a mission statement or to various forms of contemplation or readings to explore the deeper self. For many, meaning can be found in contribution, in living for something larger than self.
And finally, because work tends to provide ready friends and after-work activities—one’s sense of community--the period between jobs will require deliberate cultivation of friends and social relationships if balance is to be restored. I have been surprised by how much support and validation my clients report after a referral to any of the numerous area job search support groups. And, seeking involvement with a group—be it church, community-related, interest or sport, etc—reduces isolation and can add structure and reinforce one’s sense of purpose.
Let me bring this full circle: There is life after layoff and its personal, structure-altering and an economic jolt. The inner work for a client to realize they are more than their job and to rebuild self-worth is essential to getting back on the career track after long term unemployment.
Credit for some of the core ideas and references is given to Dina Bergren and Nicolle Skalski, whose presentation, Reinventing Career Identity After Job Loss, I attended at the NCDA Conference, Atlanta, GA, 6/22/12.
Dave Gallison, MS, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has a practice in Portland, Oregon that emphasizes career and personal development to help clients find rewarding work. His website is www.gallisonconsulting.com and he can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.