A mid-40s fellow I've known for years re-entered the full-time workforce recently after three years of gut-wrenching, full-time unemployment. He works in the construction sector, which as we all know collapsed like a flan in a cupboard after the housing meltdown. I offered my congratulations when he told me the good news, the smile on his face expanding as he excitedly told me about his new gig, his great co-workers, and how it almost didn't seem real to be back at work after so long on the sidelines. Then he said something I wasn't expecting.
"This time around, I'm going to be a lot smarter about how I work," he told me. Before the Great Recession, he would take on any project thrown at him, no matter the deadline pressure or the time of day. That was then, this is now. If he can't possibly make something happen by two hours ago, he's much more likely to say so. He's still working incredibly hard and is very thankful to be back to work, but he no longer has the same set of work fears he had pre-recession. He's much more realistic and more centered. Being unemployed for three years will do that to a person.
This economy has stripped many people bare. They've lost jobs, homes, and cars. They've stopped eating out, and eating as well. They've sat quietly listening to other people talk excitedly about their new jobs, homes, and cars. They've endured long, boring days and intrusive, condescending questions. They've felt misunderstood and alone. They've had too much time to think. They've had to become more vulnerable and more reliant on others. They've stared into the abyss, and wondered how deep it goes. Many have actually touched the bottom, at least emotionally.
When this happens to us, we're stripped of our biggest fears because we're suddenly living them every day. And we find we can survive them, somehow. This self-revelation changes us, quietly. Then, like my lucky friend, we suddenly go back to work, but it's not the same experience because we're not the same people anymore. Some things will matter more, other things will matter less. We'll take new risks here, fewer risks there. Our old work worries fly out the window as a new personal paradigm walks through the door. What's the worst thing that could happen? I lose my job? Been there, done that for a few years! Stand back, I'm going in.
Employers could find they're dealing with a different kind of animal as the job market heats up.
When I look back to the earliest posts on this blog, I wonder who that person was. To be honest, I know who she was: someone who was afraid of losing what she'd already lost. My early posts were timid and played it safe. Now I'm much more likely to say what I'm thinking -- both on this blog and in real life -- because I'm not the same, fearful person I was before the Great Recession. The economy stripped me bare and made me more vulnerable, which has had the odd effect of making me mentally tougher and more outspoken. My biggest work fears actually came true. I've learned to talk about my career in the past tense ("I was a workplace columnist for..."), something that used to be difficult to say out loud but is now second nature. I've had a lot of time to think about who I am without a job title, and what really matters. I've found out who my real friends are, both personally and professionally. I've stared into the abyss, and wondered how deep it goes.
And you know what? I'm a much better person for it. At the very least, I'm a less fearful person who will be a better contractor someday when I decide to re-hang my shingle. After all, what's the worst thing that could happen?