It’s been almost nine months since I lost my job.
The date was March 17 to be exact. I can recall the day with the distinct clarity usually reserved for natural disasters or national emergencies. It’s like asking someone who lived through 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination what they were doing when they first heard the news. After a few seconds of contemplation, they’ll probably spew an endless stream of details even they didn’t know they remembered.
I remember that I was wearing a blue pinstriped suit with brown lace-up shoes, a baby blue French cuff shirt and a full-length trench coat when I got off the train and walked up to the building 8:30 that morning. It was one of those nondescript, shoebox-with-windows high-rises that dot the downtowns of dozens of cities across the country. I took my security card from a compartment in the backpack I was wearing slung over one shoulder and swiped it at the guard desk before making my way to the elevator banks and the office 13 floors above. If I were the type who engaged in revisionist history, I would insert a comment here about how the air felt different that day or that there was a palpable sense of foreboding weighing heavily on my mind when I awoke that morning, but the truth is it felt just like any other Tuesday.
As I watched the numbers whiz by on the display above the elevator doors, accompanied by the attendant ding at every floor, I got the same queasy feeling that overcame me every morning I took that ride. I didn’t like my job very much, but I needed the paycheck, which made me like it even less. I was actively looking for another position, but in the meantime I put on my game face every day and gave 100 percent.
When I arrived at the 14th floor and walked through the glass double doors, I was surprised to see one of the partners from an out-of-town office standing by the receptionist’s desk. I extended my hand to shake his and asked what brought him to town. He had a nervous look on his face when he grabbed my hand and looked down as he told me he needed to talk to me in the conference room whenever I had a few minutes to spare.
I’m no psychic, but it didn’t take much to figure out that something was up. So I quickly checked my e-mail and walked back to the conference room without taking off my coat. The partner was sitting on one side of the table with a human resources representative. He launched into this little speech about how the company hadn’t been doing so well lately, and I knew instantly what was coming. I didn’t say a word; all I cared about was how big my severance package would be. When he was finished, I had no response and didn’t ask any questions. He even thanked me for being so understanding.
To the company’s credit, I was given no time limit on leaving the office, no security guard or escort from the building. The one indignity I did suffer was not being able to keep the company backpack. I couldn’t imagine any circumstance in which someone would be reissued a tattered, 2-year-old bag, but I didn’t argue. I just stuffed my pockets with my personal belongings and left all the business-related paraphernalia where they were. I wouldn’t need them anymore. The heaviest items were all the foreign coins I kept in the bag from several overseas trips.
Ten minutes later, I stepped back onto the elevator, coat puffy from all the contents jammed inside. I wasn’t angry or depressed. In truth, I was slightly relieved. I had wanted to leave anyway, but I would have preferred to do it on my own terms. I wanted to feel light and liberated, but as I did a quick mental tabulation of all the responsibilities I had that weren’t going away regardless of my employment status (mortgage, student loans, credit cards, cell phone bill), I suddenly felt very heavy. And then there were all those coins weighing me down even more. As I walked back to the train station, the constant jangling from my pockets made me sound like a cowboy walking into the sunset.
Even without the daily reminders on the news about the dire state of the economy, I realized fairly quickly this was no ordinary recession. In the nine months I’ve been unemployed I’ve put in hundreds of applications online, gotten no more than 10 calls from recruiters interested in my resume, had three actual face-to-face interviews and received a grand total of zero job offers. The news that the job market may finally be turning around is cold comfort if you still don’t have one. Whether the official rate is 10.2 percent or 10.0 percent, to the person without a job, it’s 100 percent.
President Obama’s speech on job creation was encouraging, but I’m not sure how building windmills and roads is going to affect the job market for white-collar workers. Structural engineering and cement mixing aren’t part of my skill set. But I don’t blame anyone for the current state of affairs. People are losing their homes and life savings every day, and for many who haven’t, they’re worried that they might be next. I’m fortunate enough to have a supportive family as a backstop if things get worse. I won’t be homeless or hungry, but I do worry that something is being lost in this country, a certain way of life. I’m glad to see people turning away from mindless consumerism, but the widening gap between those at the top of the economic pyramid and everyone else is troubling. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make a good living—I had a six-figure salary myself—but there was always a fundamental assumption of fairness and decency underlying American capitalism. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.
In the meantime, I’ll keep putting in applications and cover letters, hoping that the next phone call is the one that gets me back on my feet.
Victor Jones is a management consultant based in Chicago.