With Millions Unemployed, Why Job Loss Still Feels Personal

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
Image via Wikipedia

These days, even dancers are getting the axe, with 11 members of the corps de ballet of New York City Ballet fired in recent months. Getting canned from a rarefied spot on the cultural food chain is no easier, especially when you started your career at 16.

“It was very painful,” former corps member Sophie Flack, 25, a nine-year NYCB veteran, recently told Time Out New York. “At first, I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and then I felt rage toward the administration that made the decision to terminate my contract…The whole experience, honestly, feels like a part of me is dying and is going to die. Ever since I was a little kid, this is all I wanted to do and the only place I wanted to dance, and it really feels like I’ve gone through an entire grieving process — as if I’m preparing for my own death…As I exited the stage for the last time, I looked at the audience and knew I would not ever experience the joy of performance again.”

It’s extremely rare for a young, low-level dancer to speak out publicly, especially a member of the corps, whose job it is to dance beautifully in the background. I wonder if she is washed up at only 25. Dancers rarely attend college or university. They’re too busy dancing, or auditioning, or taking dance classes to win the next audition. In this respect, the tutu-clad resemble the hard-hats; like some blue-collar workers who went to work at the local plant right out of high school, their job requires them to do one thing, and only one thing, really well for many years. Not knowing how to do anything else well because it’s all you knew or loved or even had hours to focus on physically and mentally each day (or night), is a disaster when that job, and with it your income, friends and your professional identity, is suddenly and definitively wrenched from your hands.

For Lee Chang-Shik, a former condominium management company, it’s the shock of his new job — working on a crab fishing boat. “I definitely don’t want to put crab fisherman on my resume,” he told The New York Times. “This works hurts my pride.” In Korea, which reporter Martin Fackler describes as “a competitive, status-conscious society” (sound familiar?), workers who’ve lost their white-collar jobs are also both ashamed and angry, some of them now working in jobs that demand manual labor, like scrubbing strangers’ backs at a bathhouse or hauling nets flled with crab, a job so dangerous it became the basis for an American reality television series.

Some of us, the lucky ones, chose our work, or our jobs within that field, because they really suit us well, emotionally, intellectually and physically. We love to work outdoors, with our hands, with our brains, with screaming little kids or really ill old people or flowers or food or steel.  The private emotional pain of losing your job, and perhaps your vocation — from the Latin word vocare, to call — is a deep and adjunct misery that gets swept aside in the endless drumroll of statistics and quotes, closings and lay-offs. It’s not always just about the Benjamins. When we are lucky, and work hard (and maybe both), our work is our calling, something that we feel compelled to do, not just for the income, but for the intense pleasure of doing it, of hanging out with and liking or admiring lots of other people who do it and who understand on the most visceral level why we do it. Being able to look back over years, maybe decades doing whatever it was, and think “Yeah, that felt good.”

The worker yanked from the ranks — whether ballet dancers or auto-workers — also immediately loses their place within the tribe. They’ve been summarily evicted from a shared language and way of thinking, the in-jokes and jargon (“30” anyone?), the home away from home they’ve sought, chosen and perhaps worked hard to claim. The dirty secret of losing your job is how personal it feels, even when you know that millions of others just like you are now also sitting at home angry, lonely, scared and confused.

Lee Schore has seen it all, from both sides. Director of the 27-year-old non-profit Center for Working Life, in Portland, Oregon, she worked on assembly lines for eight years in the textile industry and in a plant making hot water heater controls — and is now a social worker who travels the country counseling the freshly laid-off. The center itself, which offers training sessions held in corporate settings, and sells to individuals an extremely detailed and helpful book for $2.50, is down to three employees from 15.

In an interview, Schore told me that trying to talk that day to a fired worker about retraining is often a dialogue of the deaf; people who have just lost their job for good, often  after decades, are in shock. People in shock — like anyone who receives a terrifying diagnosis — can’t hear, comprehend or remember much.

“They’ll tell me ‘I haven’t been in school for 20 years and I hated it then.’ There’s a lot of denial. A lot of government programs don’t help the worker, especially blue-collar workers. They don’t know if they want re-training, if they can get it or if they can even use it.” She’s ready to retire after decades of this work, but can’t bring herself to do it. “My soul could never rest if I were out of the game.” Workers, she says, “used to live and work in a granite world. You could climb on something solid and know where to put your foot next. You could see and feel the next step. Now we’re walking on sand dunes. It’s constantly shifting.”

Her empathy, insight and firsthand wisdom were a rare and refreshing change. I’m sick to death of talking heads, another well-paid economist or academic pontificating from the safety of a tenured job or thinktank sinecure about the toughest recession many of us have (yet) seen, the third in 20 years.

Schore gets it.

“In solidarity,” the center’s voicemail says “have a nice day.”

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