Friday, July 17, 2009

Employed vs. unemployed (and everything in between)

Today my best friend was laid off from his tech writing job at a large company in Silicon Valley.

It's actually not as bad as it sounds. He was working under contract and had already been there a few months over his term, so he saw it coming. Plus his boss likes him and secretly warned him a month in advance that it would be happening.

I've recently spent some time with him on the phone, talking him through his current anxiety. Not about losing his job -- he's actually happy about that as it seems his work was the model for "Office Space" -- but that he really doesn't want to work for someone else anymore. He's single and in his 30s, so he's been in the workforce a while and has very little debts, but he's beginning to feel like there's got to be more to life then giving 40 hours of it every week to a job that really doesn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things, other than pay his rent.

Well he texted me yesterday with "I'm going to spend my unemployment checking out Mad Men!" Naturally I was excited, as I want him to become a devout follower, but something about the text made me pause...

Why did he refer to it as "spending his unemployment" doing something he's been looking forward to and has had time to do previously while employed? Then it dawned on me. Why do we measure our time in one of two ways: whether we're "employed" or "unemployed"? I love working hard just like the next person, but I like to think that there's more to my life than simply defining it by one of these two black and white statuses. Just because I was on salary not too long ago, for example, didn't mean I was any more content or fulfilled with anything. It just meant I whored myself out for The Man because it was socially expected.

Isn't there more to life than just one's career? Is this an American thing? Why don't other life categories, such as "happy", "depressed" or "healthy" hold as much clout as whether you're employed or unemployed?

When my friends and I talk about Europe, one of the things we love about many of the Western countries is that the people seem more at ease with their lives. They take the time to literally stop and smell the flowers, and aren't really measured by their jobs or careers. It's understood that there's more to them as human beings than what kind of car they drive, how big their house is or how much they earn every year.

I find this refreshing, and often wonder why can't it be more like that here? When I brought this up, my brother-in-law had a good explanation of why it can't: Maybe, he said, it's because most of Western Europe (like Italy) has already reached the heights of their societies ages ago, back when there were empires and renaissances. By comparison, the United States is relatively new and it's no secret that we're currently a force to be reckoned with on the world's stage. Our identities -- just like they were in the 1950s with white picket fences and finned Cadillacs parked in the driveway -- are more intertwined with our occupations and social standings.

Ok. I get it. Move over Roman Empire, the U.S. has stepped up to plate. It's our turn in history to shine. But in realizing that, we can still evaluate ourselves as individuals, and not just as Americans. So ...

Is your work just something you
do, or is it who you are? Have you guys ever asked yourself this question? I suppose if you love what you do than of course your job is what you are, but many like my bff don't love what they do. Sure it's excellent money and blah blah blah, but we've all discussed to death the fact that money doesn't buy happiness. In his case, all he wants is time that belongs to him.

And maybe that's my bff's problem -- that even though he yearns to break free of the chains of 9-5, he's still subconsciously thinking about his life in terms of being "employed" or "unemployed", evidenced by his text yesterday. He's an awesome guy, and is defined by more than that to me. It's stunting his ability to truly figure out how to make "his kind" of employment work for him or take the time to find out what he loves to do, and not just go to work (again) for some giant global conglomerate, where he'll serve (again) as nothing but a cog in what Pink Floyd dubbed "the machine".

Which always brings me back to one of my key points: Figure out what you love to do, what you're passionate about, and don't settle. You won't be happy if you take that high-paying job just because the money is too good to pass up. There is more to your short life than being employed just for the sake of being employed.


Wojciech @ Fiscal Fizzle said...

One Twitter comment that has stuck with me occurred yesterday:

@trenttsd asked us to share career advice in 10 words or less.

@ObliviousInvest stated simply - "Whether you realize it or not, you're self-employed."

How simple and well-put. I thought it was an appropriate extension of your post, and something to think about as we consider our own careers.

Jimmy said...

A long time ago I use to see all these ads in magazines for Gulf Stream jets with John Travolta on the cover saying "my career is a pilot, my day job is an actor" or something along those lines and it kinda stuck with me.

Of course the issue with so many people is so many of their passions they can't find a viable career path with or the long arduous struggle that they would need to take to make something out of their passion is just too much for them to want to tackle on.

I of course still hope to someday own a kick ass bar that pays for my various hobbies and ventures.

Mandy said...

Great post. When a group of adults (who don't all work together) are at a social gathering, what is the first question that pops up: "So, what do you do?" An the person's response automatically warrants a judgment by the person who asked it, no matter if they say, "I work at Starbucks" or "I'm a doctor." But hey, that coffee stirrer at Starbucks might very well be happier than that doctor who works long hours and never sees his family.

I think you're right on - Americans are still trying to climb that social/economic ladder to reach their "golden ages." Europe and Latin America definitely seems so much more relaxed than us uptight yuppies here. :-)

I get so conflicted about my work. I definitely don't love what I do. I just do it for a paycheck and I do it mostly well. I often wonder if I'd be happier being something like a museum tour guide or reading stories at library storytimes or just anything else. But I haven't had the courage to quit and to fully pursue my passions. Kudos to you for doing that and I hope your friend is able to find his niche since he was technically forced out into freedom. :-)

But HEY, don't encourage EVERYONE to follow their dreams... We can't all be witty, introspective philosophers and authors. Then we wouldn't have any readers buying our stuff! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm self-employed and I have small children, and it makes sense to me to schedule my workweek in a way other than 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. But then I get similar responses when people catch me at home on, say, 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, or I can't come Sunday because I'm working. I've come to think part of the issue is not fitting into the box. You've said this before about spending your time writing--people don't know what you're doing without that title or those hours.

Stephanie said...

Great post. I do think we are still trying to prove and conquer and that means working a lot. I think western European cultures do have a different attitude towards life. They work to live instead of live to work. I am trying to incorporate that into my situation and just realize that I work so that I can live. I've been putting the "live" part on hold for so long due to my self proclaimed exhaustion from working. When I turn off work at the end of the working day and really focus on my life, I'm happier.

Janine / Being Brazen said...

great post!

I wish i could quit my job...seriously....i guess sometimes i am employed only for the money - that bites, but seems neccesary to get me the things i truly want to achieve

FB @ said...

When I was "employed" by a big corporation, it really felt like I had no time of my own.

I was exhausted, I was stressed, I was travelling, and putting up with office and manager bullsh*t.

When I quit and became a freelancer, my whole body was still tense, but over the past 7 months, it's relaxed.

I'm now not stressed, happier, definitely financially secure (woo hoo!) and making more money in a shorter amount of time and having the rest of the YEAR off to do whatever I want.

It's really idela.

Skinny on South Beach said...

I'm employed by an awesome company and for the most part love the work that I do. Do I get paid much? No, not at all. I'm fine with that though because even though I commute 3 hours every day for my job, it's still worth it to me because I take pleasure in the work that I do there.
However, just because I love my job doesn't mean it defines me. There are so many other activities out there that I also enjoy, and take part in so I don't feel like all I do is work.
However this attitude about loving my work may change once I'm in grad school ;)

Andi said...

I can't tell you how much this topic causes conflict with my left and right brain daily.

Unemployed and happy, it's hard to admit that I have to go work for the Man until I come up with some capital for my own venture. :)

Anonymous said...

I noticed that when I'm in Italy, people rarely ask you what you do and it's never the FIRST thing they ask you, like they do in the U.S. I love that! Can everyone who reads this blog make a pact to NOT ask the 'what do you do?' question as soon as they meet someone?

Talk about something else -- books, food, movies, anything...

Revanche said...

I've been answering that question with: "I'm vacationing!" A LOT. It's true, and only mildly uncomfortable versus explaining that I'm job-hunting/unemployed/freaking out about being unemployed. People might mean well, but it gets pretty old answering the gauntlet of career and job-related questions.

I'm glad your BFF already knows he wants to do something other than work for The Man.

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