Recovering Self-Identity Amidst Long-Term Unemployment
By Dave Gallison
This topic, recovery from long-term unemployment, gets harder for me to write about the longer the tail of the “Great Recession” drags on. As a career counselor in private practice, I see the devastating effects on my clients who have been unemployed six months or more, particularly those in their forties and fifties. The frustration and shame is etched in the contours of sorrowful faces, down-turned shoulders and low voices that come from multiple rejections and being forced to tap retirement accounts to meet current living expenses.
From years of work in career counseling and outplacement, I am well-versed in how to teach my clients all the ways to access the “hidden job market,” network effectively, and find new opportunities. But the sheer scale of this recession—at the current rate of adding 144,000 new jobs a month it will take 15 years just to get back to pre-recession levels—suggests the employment landscape has been altered by a tsunami.
Without a Job, Who am I?
Life as those former job holders knew it, and the world of work, might never be the same again. Indeed, counselors like me may relay the new conventional wisdom that “all future jobs are temporary” and can end at any time.
For clients dealing with such a radical, frequently painful change in their external world, they may be forced to face inward, to one’s self-identity, the last remaining place that is under one’s control. This possibility of self-renewal is essential to moving forward. Job loss and sustained unemployment sap confidence and undermine quality of life, feeding a vicious cycle that inhibits employment prospects as well.
Proceed in Parallel.
Is there an Alternative to the Status Quo for the Long-term Unemployed?
Time for an Activity Adjustment.
For instance, losing the structure provided by workplace routines can be unsettling to those now unemployed. As a result, clients may benefit from directed coaching about ways they can rebuild their own newly-rewarding routines: daily exercise, working as a volunteer, and taking college courses as well as scheduling job search activities.
While having a purpose is subtler than structure needs, it is perhaps more essential to happiness and fulfillment. If a client is not aware of their purpose in life, then I may direct the client to exercises like writing a mission statement or to various forms of contemplation or readings to explore the deeper self. For many, meaning can be found in contribution, in living for something larger than self.
And finally, because work tends to provide ready friends and after-work activities—one’s sense of community--the period between jobs will require deliberate cultivation of friends and social relationships if balance is to be restored. I have been surprised by how much support and validation my clients report after a referral to any of the numerous area job search support groups. And, seeking involvement with a group—be it church, community-related, interest or sport, etc—reduces isolation and can add structure and reinforce one’s sense of purpose.
Let me bring this full circle: There is life after layoff and its personal, structure-altering and an economic jolt. The inner work for a client to realize they are more than their job and to rebuild self-worth is essential to getting back on the career track after long term unemployment.
Credit for some of the core ideas and references is given to Dina Bergren and Nicolle Skalski, whose presentation, Reinventing Career Identity After Job Loss, I attended at the NCDA Conference, Atlanta, GA, 6/22/12.
Dave Gallison, MS, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has a practice in Portland, Oregon that emphasizes career and personal development to help clients find rewarding work. His website is www.gallisonconsulting.com and he can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.