Necessary compromises

I went out for dinner on Saturday night and in conversation was told about an acquaintance who has been out of work since late last year. I hardly know him, but have been kept informed over the last few months because of the similarity to my experience. And I took an interest for the same reason.

This guy had been well established and had a defined occupation, but was forced out of work by the usual economic factors. When he went searching for a new job he ran into the usual frustrations – advertised jobs that weren’t really jobs, dodgy recruiters, and promising opportunities that never paid off. I heard the stories and understood the scenario. I was sympathetic, but in a perverse way was reassured that my experience was not unusual.

And it’s not unusual. This is a thing now. I know of many guys around my age who, out of work, have struggled to get back into it. One friend was out of work for 12 months and ultimately had to move overseas for a job. Another had 6 months out of work, found an ordinary job, then endured a succession of ordinary jobs with patches of unemployment in between. Another found himself unexpectedly unemployed, disappointed with job applications, before finally settling on a junior role to get back into it. All these guys are well qualified and very experienced – a CFO, an FC, and a top notch IT guy.

Getting back to the original guy I was told on Saturday that it looked like he finally had a job – as a Corrections Officer. I blanched at that. I know very well that any job is a good job when you’re not working – I returned as a customer service officer. Corrections Officer seemed a different order of job though, a hard, possibly unforgiving job – though I don’t know, it may be fulfilling and rewarding. Still, it seemed tough – but when you have a family to support anything goes.

Good luck to him, but I hope he doesn’t lose sight of who he is and what he did before. I was very conscious of the fork in the road. I knew I had to work, to get money in, but also I knew I had to get back to what I was before I travelled too far down the other fork. Leave it too late and it’s too far to backtrack, and that has psychological implications as much as it does financial.

Whether you like it or not, we take a lot of meaning from the work we do. We become identified with it, and identify ourselves by it also. If it so happens we become accomplished at it we draw pride from it and a sense of personal purpose.

To be unemployed is to have all sense of meaning, purpose, pride stripped from you. It’s not pretty. When I took on the job answering customer phone calls I applied myself to it as I did my jobs previously, and set myself the challenge of doing it well. It wasn’t me though. I did fine, but I was a square peg in a round hole – I knew it, and so did others. And there was not the emotional nourishment I had experienced when I worked doing the things I was expert at.

All throughout I had my eye set on returning to some semblance of work as I did before, even if junior. The clock was ticking and I knew if I couldn’t manage it soon then it might never happen. I had been one thing all my life, and I didn’t want to become another (not of my choosing) for the rest of it.

I managed that. I’m not content, but I’m back in the game and I can have that conversation.

Everyone is different. It’s hard when you get to a certain age, but I would urge this acquaintance to either find something to love in his new role, or else to look beyond it with the idea of getting back to what he did best. This is why so many employers are unwilling to take chances on people like me – the fear that we might only be temporary. It’s a fact of life though – each of us has something inside that needs to be nourished, and from that comes our sense of self-worth. All of us want to be happy. You can compromise along the way, but I don’t think you should ever compromise on what you want from this, the only life you’ll get.

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