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Why getting laid off hurts so much, according to a philosophy professor

There are few moments as devastating as being let go.

Why getting laid off hurts so much, according to a philosophy professor
[Source photo: Adam Gault/Getty Images]

You did not get laid off.  Really.

Okay—maybe it feels like you did. And maybe you aren’t receiving a paycheck anymore. And you don’t have to go to the office. And the dishes are piling up in the sink in unnatural ways. But I’ve spent a large part of my working life as a philosopher who thinks about work, and I am here to tell you: you did not get laid off. That’s because you are more than your job.

This is the philosophically interesting explanation for why “you are more than your job.” It is an explanation that might provide just a little comfort at a moment when a disturbing number of strong employees are becoming unemployed. Many high-profile tech companies, from Amazon to Salesforce, have laid off workers and now tens of thousands of talented Americans may be facing existential crisis surrounding the meaning of life and the meaning of modern work.

There are few moments as devastating as being “let go.” I have been let go many times for many different reasons, and each time, it’s gutting. So over the years, I have tried to figure out why—and to gird myself against the vagaries of fortune, which seem to control my life as a worker. I have discovered that it is best to acknowledge that I have little control over the circumstances of my employment, and that, at a very basic level, I am not personally responsible when it is suddenly taken away.

“It has nothing to do with you—the role has simply been eliminated.” At the time, I thought this was complete nonsense, an easy way for my boss at the bookstore to tell me that I was somehow deficient at my job behind the cash register. It has taken me a long time to believe that he was being very genuine: Economic markets rise and fall more or less randomly and roles become more or less viable. Human resources, customer support, engineering, research and development—all of these departments risk getting cut in times of economic contraction. Rationally, we understand this. But then why does it hurt so much when we get laid off? Thinkers of the early 19th century, writing at the beginning of our modern capitalist age, had an inkling.

Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, who was “let go” more than once, explains that “Men have become tools of their tools.” In a system of capitalism and consumerism, each of us are encouraged to identify ourselves strictly with the particular role that we serve in our daily grinds. Never mind whether we like the job, we are expected to become the job.  That’s why we say, “What do you do for a living?”

Maybe you were a mail person, or an HR rep, or head of sales at a multinational corporation. In any case, you had been expected to tailor your very existence to the constraints of the job; it dictated the way that you experience the world, its physical and temporal landscape. You got up at a certain time, spoke a certain way, talked to certain coworkers (maybe even married them)—all because of your job. So it makes sense you may be completely flattened when your job is disrupted.

Now, in contemporary capitalism, jobs are very, very specialized—which only makes matters more painful. It is very likely that you had to operate in a very narrow lane at work, that you were responsible for a very tightly circumscribed number of tasks. This may mean you can be replaced, outsourced, or eliminated easily.

As Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggests in “Self-Reliance,” our modern age forces us to use only a small subset of our capabilities. In our jobs, we often operate only as arms, or legs, or fingers, but never as a whole person.  When we are stripped of our roles, we are thrown back on ourselves, forced to admit that we somehow embraced our own exploitation.

I can tell you from experience that being “canned” can coincide with a strange feeling of vertigo, a sense of being oddly and disturbingly free, which suggests that my role as a worker was somehow limiting my true self. But who has time for your “true self” when you go to work in order to put food on the table and pay the mortgage?

Thoreau and Emerson, writing in the 1840s, anticipated the double bind that most of us experience today. We work in order to make money, to spend on goods like clothes and cars and gas, which we need to get to work, in order to make more money, to pay for houses to give shelter to kids who have to go to college, so that they can make money at ever more lucrative jobs. The cycle can be difficult to break, but for better and for worse, when you lose your job it is broken, at least temporarily.

When I lost my second job, as an adjunct professor of philosophy at Lane Community College outside of Eugene Oregon, I had a good think about how to respond to my sudden lack of self-worth. “Why the hell, was I let go?” I asked myself. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was a good teacher—at least I wasn’t the worst—but that didn’t matter. There were only so many classes to be filled, and I would not be teaching one of them. It was a simple matter of supply and demand, and my services were no longer demanded.

At that moment, I decided that I would never again identify myself with the role that I played in what a student working at our local deli recently described as a “capitalist hellscape.” I also decided to live without an income, or at least that income.  Of course, this is easier said than done—and I have not always succeeded. Why? Because you actually have to change your spending habits in order to give yourself enough practical flexibility to make the psychological shift.

For three years during graduate school, I lived on $14,000 per year. I only worked three days a week, and I had a great deal of time to think, to write, to make friends, to protest, to run in the woods, to do whatever I wanted. This time was ultimately a privilege. According to Thoreau, it is possible to simplify our lives to determine what is really needed and what is not and to reclaim ourselves.  Today, I don’t live on $14,000. But I know that I can live on $14,000, or at least on less than I do now, and I can still be happy.  Indeed, in some ways, far happier than I am now.

Thoreau himself was fired—or rather quit—after a headmaster of a local school insisted that he routinely exact corporeal punishment on his students. He couldn’t do it, so he was let go, let himself go, and from that point forth, he lived a much more frugal life because it allowed him to choose how he spent his time. “Sell your clothes, keep your thoughts,” he instructed.  His argument was that you are what you think—not your job.  As difficult as it may be, philosophy can help us understand the strange liberty of this truth.

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John Kaag is a professor of arts and philosophy at the UMass, Lowell and the author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life and Henry at Work: Thoreau on the Business of Living. More

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