Loss of a Job

Jobs are more than a source of money.

 

They’re an identify that can stand at the center of our lives. Work is a mirror we hold up to measure our success. Work gives us structure, meaning, independence, a venue to meet friends and, in some cases, a place to escape from personal demons and difficult relationships that cause conflict in our lives.

 

With all the heartbreak that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic, loss of a job is one of the most intense. The specific stresses from job loss vary with phases in life.  And, of course, job loss is aggravated by the suddenly too-close proximity of parents, partners, children, and other family members as we shelter in place. There literally is no physical means of escape. Normal expectations of a job hunt—the networking lunches, informational interviews, and other pipelines for new work—are off the rails for now.

 

For young adults, job loss brings a specific set of problems, all related to independence and identity. Just as people in their twenties are separating from their families, setting up their households, managing finances, and flourishing in the freedom of their own home, they are often forced back into dependency on their parents. In the best-case scenario, this means accepting parental largess. In the worst, in means moving back into a childhood room. The resulting infantilization can be swift and maddening, even if that irritation is mingled with gratitude.

 

In marriages, money is a common flashpoint in the best of times.  When one partner loses a job, those flames are fanned. Dormant issues around power emerge quickly: Who is pulling their weight? Who is making more compromises?  Who is spending too much money?  Who is controlling whom—and why?  In the pandemic, the pressure of job loss intensifies with the gymnastics of working with children underfoot—and having to be both a parent and a teacher. With everyone forced on the same stage set (the house or apartment), and observing each other up close, it can become all to clear that one caretaker is doing double duty and the other is redoubling their work screen time. The likely outcome is conflict that can lead to depression and anxiety.

 

When you’re in mid-career, valuable experience can equal “overqualified.” Years of hard work at establishing credentials and a building a professional reputation can be stalled out—or even come to a dead end.  Entire industries are on hold.  The ascendant restaurateur, retail executive, fashion designer, bicycle-touring impresario, airline pilot, and orthopedic surgeon suddenly find themselves not only without a full-time job but, in some cases, without an industry—at least for now. When you’re 22, you can pivot from teacher to marketing manager to research assistant easily.  When you’re 42, it’s harder to break into a new field and almost impossible to find an equivalent salary.

 

Under the best of circumstances, retirement is a big decision.  With COVID-19, the tapering of a career is a forced close.  There’s no time to plan a wind-down.  There’s no control over timing. There are no ceremonial sendoffs.  There are no celebrations.  If you’re 60-plus years old and you’ve lost a job to the pandemic, it’s been a sudden and graceless fall into unemployment.

The luckiest have financial stability.  The least lucky are in a freefall.  The loss of a job when a career has a looming sell-by date can be particularly devastating to this generation.

 

As with a lot of the upheaval rooted in this pandemic, job loss brings anxiety.  We cannot control external circumstances, but we can control our internal response to stress.  One way to do that is through mindful breathing. If we redirect our gaze inward and realign the body and mind, it’s not a fix for a job loss, but it’s a way to soothe the anxiety and fear that accompany it.

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© 2020 Mindy Utay, JD, LCSW