By David Michael Newstead.
My friend refers to the time he was unemployed as his Lost Year. And he says it in a tone that underlines the emotional toll that that can take on man. So when we sat down for a drink recently, I was curious to hear more about an ordeal that can happen to anyone and comes with serious implications.
For myself, I’ve been very fortunate in my professional life. I’ve only had short stints of unemployment (1-3 months), but even in that time, there’s a looming question that hangs over your head every single day – how long will this go on for? Really, it’s a joyless, soul searching type of question, but one that only becomes more pronounced as time goes by.
Sitting at the bar, my friend points out that a purely intellectual description of unemployment is insufficient. According to him, many well-meaning people have little idea of what it’s like to be poor or unemployed or what it takes to pull someone out of that.
“It was a big ego hit,” he told me.
The first month was okay, because you’re in vacation mode, he explained. You’re relaxing.
“I told myself that I can easily find a job with these skills. I’m a former business owner. I’ve been working my entire life,” he said.
Then, that sense of confidence is gradually eroded. My friend made a meticulous spreadsheet of positions he’d applied for, literally hundreds of job applications that disappeared into a black hole with no response. No interview. All while the weeks ticked by and the bills piled up.
“Most of my days were spent on a laptop, aggressively searching. But reality came in hard. And that makes you depressed,” he admitted. “You have no income or purpose in life. It doesn’t matter when you get up or go to bed. You’ve lost the thing that structures your day.”
Ultimately, it was the small victories that kept him going: doing odd jobs, getting a rare interview. He talked about the excitement he felt each morning when he opened his Gmail account – about the sheer possibility of responses from employers miraculously showing up in his in-box. But until then, he was trapped in a terrible waiting game.
This was 2010 to 2011. And years after the fact, my friend has gained some perspective on this difficult period in his life. In 2015, I drank beer, he drank whiskey, and we casually discussed the connection between professional success and masculinity.
How your work provides a necessary, perceived service.
How a man’s social worth is completely tied to his employment.
My friend praised bygone initiatives like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA, both formed during the Great Depression. I nursed my beer and threw skepticism at the idea of retiring, because what the hell would you do all day?
“Work (productive employment) should be a human right, because you languish without that purpose,” he explained. “You can’t flourish.”
Luckily, things turned around for my friend, a blue-collar Joe from the Midwest. He started working again, started flourishing again, and the Lost Year ended up being just a temporary crisis that he’s overcome. But in the modern world, it’s a crisis that can threaten any of us.
And that’s the frightening part.