“There Is No Shame”

The NYT has an interesting story about executives who have been laid off, and have had to take lower-paying, lower-status jobs to make ends meet:

“Mark Cooper started his work day on a recent morning cleaning the door handles of an office building with a rag, vigorously shaking out a rug at a back entrance and pushing a dust mop down a long hallway.

Nine months ago he lost his job as the security manager for the western United States for a Fortune 500 company, overseeing a budget of $1.2 million and earning about $70,000 a year. Now he is grateful for the $12 an hour he makes in what is known in unemployment circles as a “survival job” at a friend’s janitorial services company. But that does not make the work any easier.

“You’re fighting despair, discouragement, depression every day,” Mr. Cooper said. (…)

Interviews with more than two dozen laid-off professionals across the country, including architects, former sales managers and executives who have taken on lower-paying, stop-gap jobs to help make ends meet, found that they were working for places like U.P.S., a Verizon Wireless call center and a liquor store. For many of the workers, the psychological adjustment was just as difficult as the financial one, with their sense of identity and self-worth upended.

“It has been like peeling back the layers of a bad onion,” said Ame Arlt, 53, who recently accepted a position as a customer-service representative at an online insurance-leads referral service in Franklin, Tenn., after 20 years of working in executive jobs. “With every layer you peel back, you discover something else about yourself. You have to make an adjustment.””

This must be very, very tough. Being laid off is no fun under the best of circumstances: even when it’s absolutely clear that the reason you’re being laid off has nothing to do with you and everything to do with large-scale corporate decisions, it’s almost impossible not to take it personally and think it somehow reflects on you. Being unable to do as much as you’d like to support your family is no fun either. I imagine second-guessing all my past financial decisions — the mortgage I took out that was responsible on the assumption that I’d continue to make what was then my present salary, or something like it, but that now costs more than I make every month; every vacation my family and I decided to take while the money was good; every luxury I bought when I could have been putting the money away.

But also, as Yves Smith notes:

“What is sad about this is not just the desperate shape some are in, but here, people who are comparatively fortunate (they have found new work) are troubled because the work is low status.

These individuals are mourning the loss of their former lives. That loss is compounded by the fact that the US is so stratified along income and class lines. A loss of a job tests one’s friendships.”

I can easily see how losing your job would cost you some part of your social circle. At every job I’ve ever had, I’ve known people with whom I socialized, but who I knew I would not remain friends with when I left that job. The job was the substance of our friendship: we talked about the people we worked with, the issues that came up, the small daily dramas of our workplace. And even though I genuinely liked them, I knew that if that substance disappeared, there would not be enough left over to keep a friendship alive.

On the other hand, the people in the story have found new jobs, and new jobs bring new social circles. Moreover, taking a job you never thought you’d take can mean having friends you never imagined getting to know, and that can be really interesting and wonderful. (Trust me on this. I used to work in a biker bar.)

But besides that, you’d hope that people would have some friends who weren’t just the kind of work friends with whom you lose touch when you lose your job. These, you’d hope, would be people’s real friends: the ones they expect to stick by them, and whom they would be willing to stick by in turn. Losing those friends because you’ve taken lower-status work would be horrifying, though there might be some point, maybe decades later, after the pain had faded into memory, when you’d look back and ask yourself: was any person who would drop me for this of all reasons really my friend to start with?

The answer might be: in a way, yes. Perhaps that’s the best your friend is capable of: friendship that is conditional on your maintaining a certain social status. But that would be a terrible thing to find out about your friends, and doubly so if you have to find out about it at a moment when you are already vulnerable.

The problem, at bottom, is the idea that there is something wrong with low-status work. Janitors work hard, and they do good and useful work — a lot more useful than financial engineers who deploy theorems in ways that ruin the economy or mortgage brokers whose livelihood depends on convincing people to take out mortgages they cannot afford. If you should happen to become a janitor, that should not be cause for shame, and it should absolutely not be a reason for any decent friend to drop you. Far better to have friends like Mr. Cooper’s:

“In addition to giving Mr. Cooper a job as a janitor, his friend agreed to pay for the couple’s benefits through Cobra. Maintaining health care coverage was paramount for the family because Mrs. Macias-Cooper recently had breast cancer.

Some unemployed professionals said they decided not to seek even part-time work because it might interfere with their job searches. But Mr. Cooper rises every day at 4 a.m. and, after a time of prayer, devotes two hours to his job hunt on the computer. He prints out a detailed call list of prospective employers to take with him, squeezing in phone conversations during breaks throughout the day from his pickup truck, which he calls his “office.”

“There were times I broke down,” Mr. Cooper said. “I broke down thinking, ‘This is what I’ve become.’”

But Mrs. Macias-Cooper, who admitted that she was initially embarrassed about her husband’s new job, says she is now grateful.

“There is no shame,” said Mrs. Macias-Cooper, who grew teary during an interview at their home. “I am very proud of my husband that he will go to any lengths, do whatever it takes, to keep his family afloat, if it means mopping floors, cleaning urinals.””

I do not mean to deny Mr. Cooper’s pain for a moment. I have not lost my job, and I do not wish to diminish what this means for someone who has. However: I do not think that he is right to think that there is anything wrong with what he has become.

He was always a person who would have been willing to do what it took to keep his family afloat, even if it was very tough. And he was always a person who had friends who would stick by him, and a wife who is proud of him for the right reasons. He might not have known this about himself or about them before. He might have wondered: if I lost my job, would I just give in to despair? Would my friends drop me? Even if I got some job or other, would my wife look at me and wonder: is this really what I signed up for? Couldn’t I have done better?

Now he knows these things. He probably also knows some things about janitors that he didn’t know before. I do not mean to suggest that this knowledge somehow makes losing his job worth it. But it is not nothing.

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