What Happens When You Get Laid Off Before You Can Quit Your Job?

Note from Caleb: This cubicle renegade escape story is a bit different. Sometimes you aren't in control of when you leave your job and end up unemployed. It's a struggle, to be sure, and a reality for a lot of people, but if your overall state of mind is a feeling of hope you'll make it through. In this essay, Lindsey Thieken shares her open and honest story of how unemployment has changed her life. There is a manifesto that has been going around for a while. Brave, daring words proclaiming the road less traveled, telling the reader to change their lives if they are unhappy. And right in the middle, in big bold letters, “If you don’t like your job, quit.”

What a beautiful idea. I could quit my job to spend my time doing what I really loved: writing, traveling, baking. No longer a cog in the 9-5 machine, I could wake up every morning, fulfilled and happy.

I dreamed of leaving the job behind. Packing up my office, and walking out with nothing but a smile on my face and a swift slam of the door. And pack up and leave I did, only not because I quit, but because I got laid off. And you know what that is like?

You know the guy that you’re dating, and he’s not the one, in fact he’s REALLY not the one? But you stick with it for a little while longer, because you don’t want to break up with him right before Christmas or right after you get back from vacation. And then he breaks up with you. He breaks up with you!!

The end result is the same (you aren’t together anymore) but you didn’t get to own it. He got to own it, and that is the worst.

Unemployment messes with your mind, your self-esteem, and your credit score. Instead of waking up every morning fulfilled and happy, you sleep late because stress-induced insomnia kept you up the night before. You try to keep a brave face, but just like that time you didn’t get asked to the prom, rejection is hard.

Recently, unemployment fell to under 7.7 percent in the U.S., the lowest it’s been in almost four years, but that doesn’t mean millions aren't still unemployed. This is their (my) story.

On The Ropes

I graduated from college in three years with two majors, one minor, and an internship in Washington, DC. I received my Masters of Public Administration at the age of 24 from a school 6th in the country for my program of study. I’ve worked on a statewide political campaign, for the State of Ohio, in higher education, for a DC consulting firm representing multiple members of Congress, and for an Ohio non-profit.

All of this isn’t to brag or boast, but to suggest that I have the background that might make me suitable for a variety of different jobs. I have experience. I am qualified.

In the almost eight months since I was laid off, I have applied for multiple jobs a day, scouring the internet for any opening I can find. Jobs that I want. Jobs that I don’t. Jobs that I’m not qualified for. Jobs for which I certainly am. My search isn’t constricted by pride.

After a while, it’s become propelled simply by my need to pay the rent and fill the ever-growing gap on my resume. If someone called today to offer me a position watching paint dry in the middle of the night in a freezing cold warehouse, I’d put on my parka to make the next graveyard shift.

I might feel even worse about the process if I could blame myself for bad interviews, but of all the jobs for which I have applied, only three have selected me for anything resembling the next step. Instead, my resumes and carefully constructed cover letters, are usually met with a thanks, but no thanks.

Even more often, absolute radio silence. No feedback. No “we’ll keep your records on file.” And why would they? They have enough to worry about with the numerous applicants they did select. Standing out in the crowd is hard work.

Maybe Elle Woods had it right. A pink, scented resume might just be the way to go. At least then they’d get a whiff of my qualifications before tossing them into the (trash) pile.

On top of the stressful, time-consuming, no end in sight search is the stigma that comes with being unemployed. A lot of this is perceived reality on the part of the non-worker, but a lot is also plain true. Well-intentioned friends and family members ask how the search is going, their voices steeped with sympathy, their head cocked to the side to show they care. In the beginning, their response was always something like “You’ll find something,” or “It just takes a little time.”

After a while, though, the sympathy has faded and judgment (although veiled) has set in. Surely you aren’t doing enough to find something, they think.

The Job Gap

A recent AP article I read suggested that of all those who were laid off between 2009 and 2011, only 56 percent have found new jobs. Of those, more than half had taken new positions with a pay cut. And of that group, over a third was now making 20 percent less.

The article went on to tell the story of a woman who applied for a local administrative job that saw almost 200 applicants. She didn’t get it. Another man was finally just settling in to his new position, for which he was making under $10 an hour, a huge shift from his former $80,000 a year. He was 53 and living back at home with his father.

So many people, so few jobs. Hard to keep the faith when the pool for an entry-level job is flooded with applicants with experience ranging from a high school diploma to an MBA. And companies are hesitant to higher the over-qualified. God forbid a job for which they are actually trained comes along — they might jump ship.

To say the least, unemployment isn’t easy. It took a big gulp of pride-swallowing to apply for unemployment checks. Surely there are people out there that need the help more than me, and yet, I still struggle to get by every week.

There is also the paradox of having all the time in the world, but no money to fill it.

An unemployed mind wanders with thoughts of escaping, taking a road trip cross-country, visiting friends you haven’t seen in a while. But...

  • How would you pay for the gas?
  • Could you even eat when you got there?
  • What if you were out of town on the one day a potential employer calls to schedule an interview?
  • And worst of all, how many job postings would you miss while away from the computer?

On the off chance you can scrape together a few dollars to attend a social or networking happy hour, there’s also the answer to the inevitable question that takes the conversation to a screeching, awkward halt from the very start. “What do you do?” “I’m actually unemployed right now, looking for a new job.”

What was it that Jane Austen said about first impressions? Because this one surely takes the cake.

Days turn into weeks, which turn into months. When you were working full-time, weekdays and weekends had a special distinction. Fridays were this magical day of waiting for the final bell to sound, signaling two whole days of freedom. There was something so special about waking up whenever you wanted to on Saturday. Sundays brought leisurely brunches, time to catch up on chores, and that evening dread triggered by the impending work week.

Now, my sleep schedule is completely off. The lack of structure to my days gives me anxiety. There is no “working for the weekend.” In fact, I look forward to Mondays, as a new week of job listings come.

Moving Forward

I now long for the day when I have to wake up early, bags under my eyes from working late on a project the night before. I’m dreaming of office politics and drama. I can think of nothing I would rather talk about than what my weekend plans are, what I thought of last night’s American Idol, or please, oh please, someone small talk the weather with me.

Even more than this, I want the thousands of dollars in student loans to be put to use. I want to use my experience, my drive, my brain. I want to be a true, bonafide 9-5 contributing member of this society. I want to make my parents proud, and, more importantly, I want them to stop worrying about me.

I want this for me, but I also want this for all the others in the same boat. I am not alone in my struggle, and I at least (and very thankfully so) have the support of those that love me and a roof over my head. Not all can say the same.

A struggle indeed, but one that I am determined to endure with my head held high and a smile on my face. It’s always darkest before the dawn, right? Until the time comes, you’ll find me punching up my elevator pitch, thinking of new and creative answers to my “strengths and weaknesses,” and making sure my suit stays wrinkle-free.

You never know when that new job might call.

Lindsey Thieken is a non-profit professional and community service enthusiast, dedicated to wanderlust and words, and on the constant search for a life less ordinary. You can follow here on twitter @lathieken.