The answer to the “What do you do?” question can paint a surprisingly detailed picture of someone. Our job title alone gives away a ballpark salary and how educated we probably are. The listener will also have a good guess about our ambitions, life goals, and what kind of parents, friends, and partners we may have.
Our job is so entangled with our identity that, quite literally, what we do is who we are.
But what’s a good answer to “What do you do?” when someone has just lost their job?
Helping someone through a layoff, like helping someone through any situation, starts with understanding what’s really going on inside their head.
Naturally, circumstances make a difference. Being the only one blindsided feels worse than when a company goes out of business. And there are individual differences, too. Some people are simply better at taking bad news than others. Regardless, losing a job is a major blow to someone’s sense of purpose and identity.
Planning to fail
Being laid off isn’t unlike being dumped by a romantic partner. Even if “it’s not you, it’s me,” it’s hard not to take it personally.
This sharply contrasts with how a company “feels” after a round of layoffs. From their perspective, restructuring is nothing personal. Whenever an executive needs to choose, their loyalty is usually with their shareholders rather than their employees.
The economy has a long history of booms and busts. Since the late 1980s, companies have increasingly embraced the strategy of growing fast and then cutting down quickly if need be. In the name of growth, tech startups are especially prone to adopt the mentality of “hire fast, fire faster,” a phrase coined by entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder of the restaurant booking startup Resy.
During the most recent layoff wave in tech, Meta cut 11,000 jobs, and Lyft laid off 13 percent of its entire workforce. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Spotify, and many others have also downsized in recent months—mostly ending up increasing the company’s per-share value, making investors richer. Following announcements, layoffs tend to increase a firm’s value for months.
Friends don’t let friends be unemployed
In one joke, a hiring manager says, “We always put half the incoming applications in the bin—because who wants to hire unlucky people?”
Psychology is not fair. In my experience with dating, I observed that girls seemingly wanted to date me only when I already had a partner—never when I was single. And quite similarly, companies seem to prefer hiring people who already have a job. Though unfair, long-term unemployment is as unsexy as a dateless math major.
Like in college, friends can provide a much-needed confidence boost. Confidence is the currency of job interviews, but it’s hard to maintain high self-esteem during the layoff process. The more time that passes between jobs, the harder it becomes to perform confidently in an interview, which in turn makes it take even longer to find the next gig.
After being laid off, many people discover that their former teammates and work friends are very helpful in finding the next opportunity. The power of weak ties has been proven over and over again: These days, most people get a job through friends of friends. One just has to put the message out there and ask for help. For example, on LinkedIn, people with even a small number of connections can get the eyes of recruiters and hiring managers on their profiles.
Dance the “redun-dance”
Why is it so hard to enjoy the time off between jobs? For many, this could be the first chance in a long while to unplug and maybe even get a full night’s sleep. There’s a lot to like about having a day off: the time to indulge in hobbies and sports, reconnect with friends, or simply enjoy a walk outdoors.
And yet, somehow, a layoff doesn’t feel like a real holiday. Redundancy fuels uncertainty. Not knowing when the “holiday” is going to end makes it hard to set goals and plan for the future. This uncertainty makes layoffs one of the most challenging experiences in life, and it can even distort our sense of time.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote:
Research work done on unemployed miners has shown that they suffer from a peculiar sort of deformed time—inner time—which is a result of their unemployed state. Prisoners, too, suffered from this strange “time-experience.” In camp, a small time unit, a day, for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A larger time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly.
The human experience is shaped not only by external events but also by the internal rhythms of the mind. For those struggling with unemployment and the uncertainty it brings, finding a healthy routine can be a vital step toward restoring a sense of balance and purpose. Friends and partners are once again a great influence: They can help with establishing routines, for example, waking up at the same time each day, eating healthy, and setting aside time for physical activities.
Self-care takes practice
Because our work is so closely connected to our identity and self-worth, it’s hard not to feel bad about losing our job. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be embarrassed about it. There are literally thousands of others out there going through the exact same process right now.
Sharing the news with trusted friends and family is a good starting point for easing the burden. And remember to avoid withdrawing from social engagements. Meeting old friends and building new relationships is fun but also useful: The next opportunity might just be one connection away.