Since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been doing some career coaching and consulting, assisting individuals whose jobs were eliminated with the practicalities of job search—resume writing, interviewing, negotiating offers, those kinds of things.
I’ve been surprised by the long tenure enjoyed by many of my candidates. It’s not uncommon for someone I’m working with to have been with the same employer for 25, 35, even 40 or more years. During our first call, they don’t say, “I’ve been an engineer for 40 years.” No, they say, “I’ve worked for Company X for 40 years. It’s the only place I know.” In some ways, they seem bewildered that this company, to whom they’ve given so much of their life, has cut them off, and done so in such an unspectacular and cold way.
Some of these candidates are ready to retire. They wrestle with it a bit, and then begin to live out whatever life they had envisioned for themselves at the end of their working years. Sure, they may have taken that step a bit earlier than they’d intended, but since they knew retirement would be their eventual outcome, they accept the situation, make the necessary adjustments, and move on.
There are others, though, for whom it’s much more difficult. These are the ones who still want—or need—to work, and they are very fearful to re-enter the job market. They may take the entirety of our program to put a resume together. Or they may finish their resume, then linger over their LinkedIn profile, never once actually applying for a role to at least get feedback as to whether their resume is effective or not.
They may ask me a tentative but tolerable question: Are my skills still relevant? Few have the courage to say what is really on their mind: Does anyone still want me?
This is not a pathetic question. This is a human question. One of our basic human needs is to belong. And work is one of those spheres in which we can—and do—belong. Work connects us to one another, to the larger world, to the Divine, and, mostly, to our self. Work is one of the ways in which we know and come to be known.
Oddly enough, one of the passages I read during this Lenten season triggered a question for me around work. In John 4, Jesus goes to Samaria and rests by a well. A woman comes to the well. He asks her for water. She gives him a drink. They talk.
The part of the passage that stood out to me was this:
“Go call your husband,” He told her, “and come back here.”
“I don’t have a husband,” she answered.
“You have correctly said, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus said. “For you’ve had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Typically, this part of the passage—if it’s commented on at all—elicits sermons about chastity, divorce, living together outside of marriage, generational sin, and all kinds of other morality cautions, never explicitly but often implicitly casting the blame on the woman for living such a pattern of obviously poor choices.
I wonder, though, if we could recast this passage in another, more charitable light. For the moment, taking it out of the household system and instead putting it into an organizational system. Looking at it through the lens of work.
When I read that passage this time—for I’ve read it a hundred times, at least—instead of five husbands, I thought of five jobs. I thought of my candidates for whom trusting their employer was no longer a given. I thought of myself, who after my business closed, took various jobs (five “husbands,” if you will) in a committed—but not deeply committed—way as a means of doing what I had to do until I could build my coaching and consulting practice. Plan Bs in case my new Plan A didn’t work out.
Like the woman at the well, I perhaps was not willing to commit, again, my full self to another place of employment—or to the work I knew I was called to do—given the trauma of having given everything I had to my first business, my first “love,” the one I had poured myself into and yet had to leave.
We don’t know the details of the woman’s many husbands. Perhaps her first husband was her first love. And he died. She was left bereft. And none of the others she married nor the one she was with when she talked to Jesus could compare to Husband #1. She kept looking, looking, looking but never finding. Finally, with the last one, she gave up on marriage and said, “Whatever.”
Or perhaps her first husband was a tyrant. She vowed she would never be put in a situation like that again. She’d do what she had to do to put a roof over her head and she’d do it in a way that society expected—she did, after all, marry most of them—but after this last round, she could not give her whole heart to anyone again. The trauma was too much. The possibility of being wounded or betrayed again too great.
I wonder if my candidates are in the same boat. Once they land, will they be able to give their whole selves to their new employers? Should they? I was told early in my outplacement work that layoffs were just part of the deal these days, and anyone who thought otherwise had better get used to it. If that’s our new reality—and it seems to have become so since the late 1990s—then nobody will ever give their heart away to their work again.
“More than two decades have passed since the modern layoff first appeared as a mass phenomenon in American life. Until that happened, companies tried to avoid layoffs. They were a sign of corporate failure and a violation of acceptable business behavior. Over the years, however, the permanent separation of people from their jobs, abruptly and against their wishes, gradually became standard management practice, and in the late 1990s we finally acquiesced. Acquiescence means giving up, seeing no alternative; we bowed to layoffs as the way things have to be. Now we justify them as an unfortunate necessity.”Louis Uchitelle in The Disposable American
And we wonder why employees are disengaged.
So what should my candidates do? Look out for their own best interests? Risk being hurt again?
It’s interesting to note what Jesus and the woman at the well talked about after he told invited her to get her husband. They didn’t talk about her lifestyle. He didn’t ask her to change her ways. Instead, he engaged her in a conversation about bigger things. He expanded the possibilities for her. He helped her see that the world she had been living in, the understandings that she had been operating under, were too small. She had been inhabiting a world bounded by convention, tradition, and what she had been told. He invited her to step out in her understanding, to broaden her perspective, and to live out of a new paradigm, one that would bring life, not death; hope, not despair. Her response was to leave her water jar (her work), and invite others to the broader paradigm she had just experienced.
Maybe that’s what we’re to do too. See bigger.
My hope is that my candidates—and of course, my self—can begin to see bigger. That we can move beyond convention, tradition, and what we’ve been told, to take hold of that which is possible.
What is bigger in this new place from which we stand? What is it that we’ve been seeing that is too small and perhaps needs to be enlarged? What boundaries have constrained us and locked us in to work—or a way of working—that no longer fits? And who else can we bring along with us?
The woman responded by telling the men in the village. They came and heard for themselves, and joined in.
Jesus’ disciples, however, missed the whole thing. The story began with them leaving Jesus to go buy food; it ends with them fretting about whether He had eaten or not.
That is not unlike those who are still operating in the old paradigm. Those of us who have been cast out have the opportunity to see bigger, broader, and newer perspectives. And to tell others that more is possible.
We can come into this new space. And live again. And love again. Even our work. Even one another.