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This is what it's like to be laid off in America

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

This is what it's like to be laid off in America

Stephen H. Provost

This is what it’s like to be laid off in America. Whether you’ve been working at an auto plant or a steel mill, at a department store or a white-collar job.

It means telling your family you no longer have a job, and feeling like you’ve let them down by failing at the one thing that you’re best at. The one thing they were counting on you to do.

It means trying to act “professional” even though you’re suddenly without a profession.

It means no longer living from paycheck to paycheck, because now you’re living from no check to no check.

If unemployment is low, you see yourself as part of the bottom 5 percent. If it's high, you feel like just another statistic.

It means asking others for help even as you update your resume to read that you’re a “self-starter.”

It means knowing you might not have the money to pay the rent, but that you might not have the money to move, either.

It means being pissed as hell that you’re losing your health insurance. That you might have to accept a job that doesn’t include that benefit. And that the government still hasn’t figured out how to be compassionate to its citizens when it comes to their health.

If it even wants to.

This is what it’s like to be laid off in America …

It means starting from scratch in the middle of life. It means putting plans for vacations and celebrations on hold. Indefinitely.

It means changing your personal information on Facebook from “works at” to “worked at,” and signing up for LinkedIn again, which you’ve let lapse because you’ve never had much use for it and thought you never would.

It means listening to people tell you how sure they are you’ll find something else, something better, and agreeing with a smile because it’s socially acceptable, even though deep down inside, you have no idea whether it’s true or not.

When strangers ask you what you do for a living, it’s too embarrassing to tell them you’re unemployed, so you cushion the blow by saying you’re “between jobs,” even though you know they’ll get the message, anyway. Which is something you didn’t want to share. But, again, it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.

And if you’ve got impostor syndrome, if you feel like you’ve been faking it all along, you take this as confirmation. But knowing you were right doesn’t help because you’d been hoping you were wrong.

Yet now you have to put your best foot forward and sell yourself again, even though you’ve been made to feel as worthless as you have in a very long time. You know it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t stop the emptiness that somehow manages to tie itself in knots down in the pit of your stomach.

It means feeling taken advantage of, betrayed and used. You find yourself saying the words “irrelevant” and “expendable” in your head, and applying them to yourself.

This is what it’s like to be laid off in America …

It means putting on a brave face for co-workers at your going-away party, even though you know you might never see them again and, yes, you’ll miss them. They say nice things about you that make you choke up, and they give you heartfelt gifts. This makes you feel like you’re a Viking at your own funeral, receiving treasures to preserve you in the afterlife, and you tell yourself you were slain in battle and that being a Viking is pretty damned cool.

You tell yourself that there are far worse things in life, like incurable cancer or losing a spouse that it would be far worse to wake up each morning without the love of your life beside you, or knowing that you only had a short time left to live. But knowing these things doesn’t help; it just makes you feel guilty for feeling bad about your own situation when others have it worse, and that guilt is like toxic frosting on top of the pain you’re already feeling.

It’s being told that it’s nothing personal. That it’s a business decision. And you want to tell them that people are more important than their bottom line, but you know it won’t make any difference, so you keep your mouth shut and act professional. Like you understand. Like you’re comforting them. But they’re the ones who don’t understand.

When they say that, it’s like when your significant other breaks up with you and says, “It’s not you. It’s me.” And you want to say to the bearer of this bad news, “If it’s your fault, then why aren’t you handing in your resignation?

You wish it had been a performance issue, because then they would have just written you up and you would’ve had a chance to improve. Then you would have had some control over the situation.

Not like this.

You wonder if you were let go because you were making too much money. If you did your job too well and they could no longer afford someone with your skills. Was this your Catch-22? If you do well, you’ll get a raise, but at the end of the day, that will be the cause of your termination?

You feel like collateral damage, marginalized into the minefield of someone else’s bottom line.

It’s hating that your former employer did this to you, but wishing the best for the people who still work there. Your former comrades in arms. Your friends. It’s trying to reconcile those two feelings in the back of a mind beset by new worries and fresh disappointment.

But mostly, you just feel empty and rudderless, hurt and alone. And disempowered.

This is what it’s like to be laid off in America.