Ten years ago, I was a computer programmer, employed by a financial institution. I had made my living in that field for thirty years. I was in my fifties, bored, out of date, a dinosaur in my field. I had to ask myself a question I had not thought about in years. What do I want to be when I grow up? I changed careers and went into the mental health field.
Today, as I watch the unemployment statistics (9.4% in Illinois, as of January, 2012), I get concerned with the emotional effects on people of unemployment. Other than not getting a paycheck, what does it mean to not have a job?
The most obvious thing is that you have too much time on your hands. Work structures our time: when we go to bed at night, when we get up, what we will be doing for eight or more hours a day. Less obviously, it tells us when we are free to do other things. Our “non work” time is ours. If you don’t have a job, when can you just relax?
Many of us equate our self worth with what we do to make money. When we’re not doing something that we identify as valuable, it is hard to feel valuable. We dread that question: “So, George, what do you do?” Any answer other than to say how we earn money seems really unacceptable.
There is the sense of belonging that having a job brings. We talk about our jobs a lot, even in social settings. Work is part of our shared culture. When we have no work, we can feel like an outsider.
When you don’t have a job, it’s tough enough not making a paycheck. What can you do about the emotional consequences? Here are some suggestions:
1. Look at your time as an opportunity. Identify things you like doing that you did not have time for before. Start doing them.
2. Structure your day. Get up at roughly the same time every day and go to bed at roughly the same time at night. If you are job hunting, spend part of the day doing that and part of it doing the things you like doing.
3. Find your talents and strengths. These are ‘who you are’, not ‘what you do’.
4. Find a place to belong. This may be a volunteer gig or a social activity. Get out there and live. Have some fun.
5. Be open to opportunities. Your old job or career may be gone forever. You may have to re-invent yourself in the world of today.