On the corner- Silent effects of joblessness

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By Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief

It’s a lot more than just an economic problem.

Esmé Deprez, writing in the Bloomberg Businessweek blog, explored a national survey by Rutgers University and quotes Ellie Wegener, founder of the Employment Support Center for the unemployed in Washington D.C. Wegner says:

“The American notion of success is often based upon the capability of individuals.

Here, your success or your failure depends on you, so when people lose their job

they think it’s because they are a failure. They need to regain their self-esteem or

they’ll never get a job.”


The following story is a composite drawn from four friends of mine currently unemployed.

He sat across from me, a good friend of many years. Mid-50s, excellent education resulting in a university degree designed for the business world. He was employed right out of college in a job that he liked and knew he could be good at. Over several years he received a number of promotions allowing him some measure of status in the firm and in his own sense of self.

He knew who he was. He had synthesized his childhood identities, had coped successfully with his adolescent crises and constructed an effective pathway to adulthood.

Over many years, he formed a healthy identity, avoided rigidities, flexible in his outlook, able to adapt to circumstances and issues that confronted him, able to deal with questions of right and wrong, established certain ideals that guided his life, and formed a consistent sexual orientation.

He married a wonderful woman and together they have two adolescent sons. She is employed and is able to work at home. Her income alone is insufficient to cover the monthly household bills. He was an excellent father and husband. Now, he feels shame about “being fired.” He isolates more. Does less with the boys. Gets in the way at home and spends considerable time in front of the television set.

His wife senses his depression and doesn’t know what to do except continue to urge him “to go to the doctor.”

His openness made it possible for him to deal effectively with the “numerous reorganizations of identity features” we all face in life’s progression from birth to death.

Moreover, and most importantly, his resolution of identity crises resulted in an operating commitment to a vocational direction. This became his visible identity, the label with which he described himself, his work.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, one day just over a year ago, with no advance warning he was notified that the company had experienced a severe downturn and his position was cut.

Sixty percent of a national survey of the currently unemployed

received no prior warning.

His medical benefits for himself and his family were carried for one month as a small stipend.

Eighty-four percent of respondents received no severance package.

My friend found a cardboard box, gathered his personal possessions and was escorted from the building.

For the first time in his life, he was unemployed.

In his benign ignorance he saturated himself with denial and irrational optimism. “Don’t worry, the right job will come along. Things will be fine,” he said often.

It took a little while for him to lose this natural optimistic slant. When the money began to run out, he investigated unemployment benefits through the Federal-State Unemployment Compensation Act. Originally, this act provided benefits for six months or 26 weeks but was extended to 99 weeks as more and more jobless people joined the long-term unemployed. As long as it’s available, he can survive.

Taking the money was hard for him. It was embarrassing to go down to “Unemployment.” He calls it “the welfare department.” It became less hard as he lost his home and moved into a much lower rental situation. His thoughts wandered, but mostly fed his negative self-talk. He focused on playing the “what if…” game: what if the family gets sick, what if my car breaks down—all sorts of negative self-talk spawned by a growing diminished sense of self. Why was I the one to get fired? What did I do wrong? He applied to any job that came close to matching his skill base. He’s gone to several interviews-—some very hopeful—but still unsuccessful. Mostly, he never hears back at all. The silence and his new found sleeplessness stimulated higher levels of anxiety.

He’s beginning to think that the situation is permanent. He’s depressed, a burden to his wife, a pain to his children and more and more becomes increasingly withdrawn and isolated. He’s stopped going to church—stopped going to Rotary Club meetings—stopped exercising—stopped staying up to date in his work-related skills. He heard a fellow on television call people like him a “loser,” and then tears flowed. He stifled them. For a couple of hours he felt sorry for himself and then said to himself: “What’s that guy know—nothin’!”

He blames himself and carries much pain that he tries to cover. He said to me the other day: “Bob—you know, when they terminate someone in my age group they don’t just take your job. They take your whole identity. It’s gone!”

I quickly asked: “Where’d it go?”

And then we talked.



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