In the 1930s, with the United States in the grips of the Great Depression, an Austrian British social psychologist named Marie Jahoda proposed that employment offered a number of essential benefits above and beyond the financial: namely, that it gives our days structure; that it provides a social outlet outside the immediate circles of family and neighbors; that it shows us the ways in which the collective can achieve more than the individual; and that it clarifies personal identity.
“All of those things are stripped when you’re jobless for an extended period,” says Art Goldsmith, a professor of economics at Washington and Lee University. As of December, nearly 4 million Americans qualified as “long-term unemployed” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning they’d been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Prolonged unemployment is an obvious financial strain, but its consequences are far-reaching; a Pew Research Center study on 2008’s Great Recession found that 46 percent of those who experienced long-term unemployment suffered strained family relations, 38 percent said they’d lost self-respect, and more than 70 percent changed careers or thought seriously about doing so. Because of the pandemic, entire sectors of the workforce have shriveled, or evaporated outright, leaving countless workers to wonder when — or if — their skills will prove useful again. It’s an existential crisis on top of an economic one: Who am I without my job?
When my wife, Lydia, lost her job last May, we’d been expecting it for weeks. She was an office manager, as well as something of a prophet, having purchased for her colleagues as many bottles of hand sanitizer as she could carry and placing them near high-touch points in January 2020. Lydia was much beloved for her tenderness toward her co-workers as well as the office itself, arranging flower bouquets purchased from the Trader Joe’s downstairs, hand-making cold brew for the summer months, and keeping everyone’s favorite “healthy” snacks in stock.
Before getting that job, she’d worked for years in service, as a barista, bakery cashier, and bagel-maker. She liked working on her feet, under slight duress, making friends with the nice customers and humbling the rude ones. (The kindest person I know, she nonetheless has a glare that could kill.) Her job as office manager was the first salaried position she’d held, and therefore the cushiest. They gave her a nice severance when they laid her off. There was no physical office anymore, and no obvious way they could keep her on. Lydia accepted their decision as practical, but it broke her heart.
Not long after Lydia was laid off, we decided to save money by moving from Brooklyn to San Diego to live with her mother. Not long after that — not unrelatedly — we started seeing a therapist. She told Lydia that job loss is one of the Big Four in life’s most painful challenges, alongside death, divorce, and moving. Great: We’re two for four.
Research suggests that long-term unemployment and depression go hand in hand. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 18 percent of those who’d been unemployed for six months or longer said they were in or had received treatment for depression, compared to 5.6 percent of Americans overall. Prolonged unemployment is a risk factor for suicide that increases the longer a person has been unemployed (for five or so years following job loss). To be human is to question one’s reason for being, and jobs give at least five of every seven days a reason. They demand our time and energy and our interpersonal grace, and when they release us, we feel accomplished, or at least too tired to think further on what it all means. There is camaraderie in the misery of working life. There is forward momentum, even if only in the weekly wait for Friday.
When that momentum stops, it’s hard to know what to do next. When Molly, a 31-year-old bartender and server in Los Angeles, was furloughed, she assumed it would only last a few weeks. But as COVID exploded across California, Molly’s relationship with her employer became less important than her willingness to expose herself to risk. When the restaurant sent its employees a survey asking them to rate their level of comfort interacting with the public, she answered honestly and said, “Not very.” “That didn’t mean I don’t want to come back,” she says. Soon after, her boss called her up to convert her furlough to a permanent layoff. Since then, she’s struggled to fill her days. “I didn’t realize what a huge part of my identity working was,” says Molly. “I thrive from working. I don’t care if it’s at McDonald’s. I just like to work, and I didn’t realize until I lost it how much that meant.” Ours is a culture that reserves career-oriented “purpose” for white-collar jobs (lawyer, doctor, teacher, writer); rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge that food service and retail, too, can confer meaning and self-worth.
For people especially passionate about their particular fields, prolonged unemployment can also become an identity crisis. Parker, a 31-year-old sales manager and event planner for a national fine-dining chain, was laid off with severance last spring while seven months pregnant. “I wasn’t going to get paid maternity leave, so it felt like being offered a lifeline,” she told me. She, too, is unsure she’ll ever return to restaurants, which has created a fissure in the way she sees herself. “I’ve been in food service in some capacity since I was 15,” she said. “Being good at my job and working very hard has always been very important to me.”
Courtney, a 44-year-old retail worker and self-described “beauty junkie,” is similarly without access to the work she knows and loves best. As a top seller for a high-end cosmetic retailer, she touched people’s faces for a living. “I miss my team. I miss my clients more than anything. But the way I did my job is probably over until COVID is a memory,” she told me. Even when it’s safe to shop for fun again, it’s hard to imagine letting a friendly salesperson close enough to smear foundation on your cheek. As a result, Courtney, too, is wondering if she should consider another industry: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Should I go back to school? I’m one class shy of my associate’s degree, but then what do I do with that?”
Hearing these women’s stories reminds me of the capitalist disengagement proposed and popularized by books like 2019’s How to Do Nothing and 2018’s How to Not Always Be Working. As onboard as I am, or at least want to be, with the central philosophies of these books, I’m still not sure I understand what’s meant to take work’s place. Working to survive remains essential for the vast majority of us, and for most people, making enough money requires spending most of our time working. “What do you do?” is still the first thing most strangers ask each other when they meet. Sure, work isn’t all that we do, but who can afford to say it’s not most of what they do? I don’t believe anyone is under any obligation to find purpose in work, especially when so many jobs are so demeaning. But for those for whom work does confer purpose, prolonged unemployment does real psychic damage, beyond the economic loss.