Earlier this week, I spent two hours catching up with a friend from Liberty Lake. Laid off. Still unemployed. Scrambling.
I had barely arrived home from talking to her when the phone rang. It was another friend from Spokane: just laid off. Irate. Trying to cope.
Welcome to 2009.
All over America, people are having conversations like this with their laid-off friends and relatives. In January alone, more than 600,000 Americans lost their jobs. The numbers are scary and bound to get worse.
As I talked to my friends, it occurred to me that behind these tidy, quantifiable statistics lurks something far messier – emotions so powerful they can only be compared to … well, at the time I couldn’t think of anything.
But my friend from Spokane could.
“It’s like a divorce,” said my friend, a high-tech worker who has devoted dozens of years to his company. “I honestly feel as if I’m going through a divorce.”
Suddenly, it clicked in. The best way to understand the emotional impact of a layoff is to think of it like a divorce:
•You have a long-term relationship, based on mutual trust.
•The other party decides it no longer needs you.
•The other party sits you down and says something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry it has come to this, but …” and then spills the news, often awkwardly, often tearfully, often provoking recriminations.
You feel betrayed, abandoned, set adrift. In my friend’s case, it has been especially difficult because he was asked to stay on at his post for a few months until the layoff takes effect.
“It’s like your wife telling you she wants a divorce, but then you have to stay there in the house with her for a few months and pretend like everything is fine,” he said. “It’s weird. It’s awkward. It’s awful.”
My other friend, laid off from a professional job, had similar feelings. She was amused, if that’s the word, when someone from her old office called and asked her for some advice and information. She graciously complied, but she was fully aware of the irony. To her, it probably felt a little bit like an ex calling and asking how to get the kids dressed for preschool.
Hey, buddy. If I was that necessary to your life, why did you get rid of me?
My Spokane friend has gone through several emotional stages – but not necessarily in the usual order. He started out taking it all calmly. He was relieved, in a weird way, that the suspense was over. Yet as the days went on, he found himself getting more irate.
Why are you getting rid of me?
As in a divorce, the challenges are not all emotional. Many are practical and logistical. It slowly dawns on you that you must re-set the entire course of your life.
For one thing, laid-off workers often have to grapple with this question: Should I stay in Spokane or do I move? For a lot of professions, the opportunities are better somewhere else, but at the cost of tearing up roots and disrupting the lives of your children.
Sorry, kids. It’s not your fault. It’s the recession.
I doubt if thinking of a layoff like a divorce will make anybody feel better about it. Yet it did help me understand what my friends were going through and how best to respond.
I suppose the rules are the same in both cases. Listen sympathetically. Invite them over for dinner. And when they blame it all on the ex, nod vigorously.