Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

learn about the latest and greatest from the School of Business

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lost in the Wilderness of Unemployment

by Scott C. Hammond, PhD
From 10 am to 2 pm every weekday, my local bookstore cafe is the new soup line with no soup, a gathering place for middle-aged men hoping to reinvent themselves back into economic relevance. There is free web access, the latest publications full of career advice that can’t afford to be bought. They want a place to go and someone to talk to. They are white, 40 plus men. Middle class. They were once educated with college degrees that have worn out.  They once aspired to management, but they were forced to settle for individual contributor jobs that pay less than they had hoped. Some are divorced, but those who have not can see it coming, as they can no longer provide the financial and emotional security that is their contribution to a marriage.

In the middle row of twenty cafe tables sits the English teacher. He is slight in figure, with a 1960s beard, wire rim glasses and an army surplus pack for a brief case. He abandoned the corporate look 18 months ago when he got fired from a job he did not want.  Five year ago he gave up a beloved job teaching high school English to work in a corporate technical writing center for a better salary. He had hated that job, but he could finally pay the bills. But a year and a half ago the outsourcing angel of death visited his company, and his job was sent to India. He was the first to start coming to the cafe, and he has seen many come and go. "He helps us with our resumes and letters," says one man. "No charge." Even if he wanted to charge no one could afford to pay him.

These broken men are above temporary work, though every once in a while someone will disappear for a week and return. They'll come into the cafe and buy something to drink. For the first time in months they have a few dollars to spend. For the first time in months they have half and ounce of self-respect, not fabricated, but created when men add value to their families through work, even if it is temporary.

You can tell the newcomers. They come into the cafe with a stack of books on job search topics, how to write a resume, how to write a killer letter, how to interview. They don't want to buy the books, but they do want the latest ideas. So they read and explore, taking notes on a hand-me-down laptop that makes them miss the technology they handed in when they lost their jobs. "I'm even using the cell phone that we replaced last year because my daughter wanted an upgrade.”

When a newcomer comes to the cafe, someone will approach them and start a conversation. "Looking for work?" Starved for friendly and real conversation, they tell their story. It’s the same story. The same plot. The company is different. The people involved are different. But the story is the same. Those younger bosses don't understand the value I bring to the company. I should have done an MBA. They handled the terminations in a callous, uncaring way. They would not have fired me if I were a woman or minority. None of my colleagues, the people I worked with for years, will return my calls. My severance is running out and I thought I would have something by now. My family and friends don't know how to help so they stop trying.

They have a disease called fear. Fear of being irrelevant. It is not contagious, but people treat you as if it is. Contact with your fear will force them to see how easy it would be for them to be there, with you, in the café, looking. So they treat you with rubber gloves. Quick and "I'm in a hurry" conversations. They don't want to linger. Soon the only people who really listen are other unemployed men. The brotherhood.

The regulars start their sessions by opening up their laptops and looking at the latest listings. They hit all the websites now familiar, so they can say they are trying. When they first start looking, they fired off their resumes right and left, shooting at anything that moves. But that cost too much, not economically, but emotionally.  They were forced to become more selective because the cost of the disappointment of not getting the job or not getting the interview, or not even getting a call, renewed the hurt of getting fired. So they budget their disappointment. They only go after the jobs they really want. They find a corner and craft their letter and resume, even role-play interviews, saying all along that they don’t really want the job that they would give almost anything to have.

The English teacher reads their letters. He makes changes carefully so as not to hurt a fragile man who never expected to be in a job search. Quietly and proudly, he claims he helped three men write letters that lead to jobs. They finally escaped the cafe for better places. But then almost anyplace is a better place.

For most, when the phone does not ring, when the resume fails to impress or open doors, they settle into a routine. They come every day. They sit at a table. They scan the net, download a job opportunity, and check email. Someone, just one person, joins them. They never sit in a large group, rarely more than pairs. Then they talk. Commiserate. Complain. Share the pain and then leave. By mid afternoon, they collect their belongings. They lucky ones have to pick up the kids because the wife is working. The others go home to television, chores, and dinner. Fitness clubs and restaurants are no longer in the budget. They have already had the best part of their day.

If you sit there long enough, you will hear a long pause, then the words of deep pain spoken in a fearless monotone that is now at the foundation of their being. They are lost in an unfamiliar land. Their identity went out with the job. They are irrelevant in society, in their own families, in their marriage. They have become burdens.  So they deal with their pain with ever more grandiose stories about their own importance, about their own misunderstood significance. Stories of injustice, of victimhood, and unrecognized value.

Frustrated that the men were occupying tables in the café and not buying coffee or three-dollar bottles of Italian water, the book store manager cut power to the outlets where the computers are charged. When that did not work, the cafe manager started bringing around menus and hollowly ask if she could take your order every 20 minutes. But they were entrenched. Eventually the bookstore did hire the English teacher. He's making less than he did in the corporation, less even than he did as a teacher, but hey, it's a job.

An unemployed person, just like someone wandering in the wilderness, is lost, disoriented with immediate no way of orienting to the new environment.  The lessons can help them find their way out of the wilderness of unemployment.

Lesson 1: Survival is Insufficient.

We are not motivated by small dreams. Survival is what you do until you can find a way to thrive in your new environment. “Survival mode,” as some people call it, is a high-energy expenditure state with a limited time horizon.  As you begin to thrive, there is less urgency, less stress and more perspective.

Lesson 2: Think differently to see differently. See differently to act differently.

Old solutions almost never work when you are really lost. William’s father had to give up his identity as a corporate careerist and start seeing and an entrepreneur. Doing so helped him see a wonderful opportunity with his son.

Lesson 3: See how others see you.

Lost and unemployed people are often full of shame and fear. Meeting others is difficult as feeling of deprivation make it difficult to be around others who have what you do not.   But research shows that second level networks are the source of most job opportunities. That means that it is unlikely that your father-in-law will get you a job, but someone your father-in-law knows will.

Lesson 4: You are never lost (or unemployed) alone.

Just as search and rescue can help you out of the woods, almost every church, college, university and community has a program to help people hone job search skills and make connections.

  Lesson 5: Movement creates opportunity.

A survivor is constantly trying to improve their situation.  Victoria knew she needed to be near water, and did what it took to get there. One man unemployed for 8 months finally decided to volunteer at the local homeless shelter in order to stay busy. After 3 weeks he met a donor who eventually offered him a career job significantly better than the job he lost.

Lesson 6: Some small things matter, some big things do not.

When there is no income coming into the home, it is important to know how to conserve, how to stretch savings and unemployment, how to limit expenditures.  One unemployed woman said, “We have learned to make nice meals for the family for about the same price I spent in a large cup of coffee.”

Lesson 7: Fear itself can kill you.

Fear is a brick of toxic waste that can have fatal consequences.  Most lost or unemployed report having times when they cried without restraint. But then they realize that the emotion of fear is drawing down their energy and blinding their vision.  Fear unrestrained can draw down reserves and greatly reduce chances for survival. So many who have been unemployed cannot leave the language of fear behind when they interview. Like the toxic waste, it poisons the opportunity and prevents rescue.

Lesson 8: No one is saved without hope.

Every lost person I interviewed reported a time during his or her ordeal of deep despair. But most also reported developing a vision of the ideal future and a perspective on life.  Priorities are shifted. Gratitude is often deeper.  And joy is no longer postposed. The vision of the ideal is that motivates people to overcome the pain of a broken leg, to build shelter, and to wait patiently until searchers come, and to write and rewrite the resume, endure the questions, and finally get the interview and the job.  

Lesson 9: When you are found, you are forever changed.

Wilderness survivors envision the “ideal home” and unemployed the “ideal job” to motive themselves through the difficulty. Homes and jobs are never ideal. When we come back into the home after being lost, or back into the work place after unemployment we are changed.  For some they are fearful, stressed and insecure.  But for others they a hopeful, with a new resilience and a generous perspective. “I know now that I can survive anything,” Victoria told me after he four-day ordeal. “Well not anything,” she corrected herself. “But a lot more than I thought I could.”

Scott C. Hammond, PhD, is a professor of management at Utah State University and a volunteer searcher with his dog Dusty, for Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs.  His book, Lesson of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life and the Wilderness is available at,, and many bookstores.

No comments:

Post a Comment