Unemployment and resilience

19 03 2011

It’s hard not to notice the after-shocks of the financial crisis here in South Florida. There are still a lot of houses with “for sale” signs on them and the media are still reporting about long, soul-crushing job searches. Millions of highly-qualified, experienced folks looking for work. Anything at all. Going back to the basics they thought they had graduated from and left behind years ago.

Too many people, too few jobs.

And as I come face-to-face with these stories, I am increasingly thankful that I made it through the crisis with a stable job, in a stable environment. I complain a lot about toxic levels of arrogance, but yes, okay, it’s complaining at a very high level.

The other night out at the beach, I met a woman, about my age… let’s call her Carrie. We got to talking. She had a very slight British accent and she told me that she moved to Florida from London 20 years ago, and then from here to the West Coast in 2005. She was back east on business this week.

She asked me what I was doing in Miami, and I told her I was on an unpaid sabbatical.

Carrie said she had just gotten off a sabbatical of her own about a year ago. It was 18 months long, and involuntary. The sabbatical she had, however, is generally known under another name: “unemployment”. She had been a marketing manager for a global motorcycle manufacturer, and was laid off after 15 years in the industry.

Carrie spent more than a year and a half with no idea what her future would bring, living off her savings and hoping every day for some kind of turn for the better. She sent out more than 200 job applications and heard little, if anything, back.

“It was just like writing into a big black hole,” she told me.

I had heard exactly this sentence on the radio earlier that day. And now the story had a real face. Carrie said she ended up doing what she called “internships”. But, I asked, what company was willing to give someone in their mid-40’s an internship when there are long lines of young university graduates applying for the same thing?

“Well, they weren’t internships in the classic sense. More like… loose consulting. Or just sitting in on conferences, going to company events, volunteering my time to do… anything, really, and networking.” All for free, of course. And she never gave up.

Her big break came just over a year ago, as a direct result of one of these “internships”. She got a job as the national sales manager for a maker of motorcycle protective clothing. She now supervises more than 100 sales representatives working for her and regularly travels across North America visiting and training her employees.

“It’s my dream job,” she told me, back in the industry and sport she has loved since she was a kid. But it came at a high price. She said she had to take a 65% pay cut. “It’s been really, really hard. Really hard. But it’s getting better now.”

This looks dangerous. But hey, if it's your thing....

Carrie’s story had a happy ending. She made me think about myself, and how I might react in a situation like hers. Four years ago, I was unemployed for three lousy months, resting in a generous European social security net, and still I was close to a nervous breakdown.

I’m wondering if I could be as resilient as Carrie, if I found myself in her shoes. What would it take to not lose faith in my skills and abilities, in humanity, and in the system? Where would I get the positive energy to keep trying? And what would be the alternative?

Stuffed shirts and other friendly co-workers

25 10 2010

They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. How very true. But – surprise! – you can’t choose your work colleagues either. As most of you who are laboring in the workforce have already figured out, every group has its real winners. One has to learn how to deal with them, somehow, respecting them for who they are, and loving each for their own special…shall we say…talents.

Now that I have been back from vacation for a while and interacting with my co-workers again, here is a short list of a few folks with whom I spend most of my waking hours. We will soon even get to spend a  w-h-o-l-e  weekend retreat together. Oh I just can’t wait!

The Stuffed Shirt

  • a yes-man extraordinaire with arrogance oozing out of his pores.
  • has no qualms about telling you directly how stupid he thinks you are.
  • will kill and then step over (and sometimes on) the dead bodies to further his career.

Not really my type.

Queen Shit

  • acts like she owns the place, including appropriating the parking spot closest to the door.
  • spends most of the work day taking breaks, sipping green tea and gossiping.

The Tragic Heroine

  • one of the longest-serving, hardest-working members of staff.
  • was forced to watch helplessly as most of her department was decimated in a cost-cutting exercise.
  • bends over backwards to accommodate others and always delivers ahead of every deadline.

The Ogre

  • tolerates no resistance, takes prisoners.
  • always in a bad mood and always right.
  • always.

The Ageless Intellectual Hippie

  • spent the final years of the 1960’s tossing Molotov Cocktails from barricades across Europe.
  • hairstyle and politics have changed little since the summer of love but ideals have been modified to suit the modern mainstream.
  • is most comfortable quoting Ché Guevara while nibbling on sashimi and sipping a flute of Veuve Cliquot.

Onward comrades!

The Snake

  • female, sinister, cold.
  • has a sharp tongue but can also inflict lethal injuries with a single nasty look.
  • “it’s all about me, me, me.”

The “Office Mattress”

  • is an explanation really necessary here?

The Consciencious Objector

  • smart as a whip and possesses an uncannily accurate bullshit radar.
  • has a strong sense of justice and is very vocal about it.
  • an excellent source to have hanging around the watercooler.

The Company Clown

  • free entertainment, no matter what the occasion.

The Company Joke

  • a detriment to the collegial atmosphere in more ways than one.
  • spineless as a tasered amoeba.

The Fish Out of Water

  • obviously uncomfortable in office clothes and shaky on high heels.
  • has not mastered the art of silly management politics yet and probably never will.
  • regularly invests in EuroMillions lottery tickets.