I went back to visit my old parking lot at The Boston Globe this week. For more than six years, I commuted to the Globe along the crawling traffic of the Southeast Expressway, travel mug in hand. But what I remember most about that parking lot is crying in it.
It was 2009. The Globe was in a major financial crisis, like much of the country. Brian McGrory, then the Metro editor, had just called me in to his office to warn me that I was almost certainly about to lose my job.
I held it together in his office, but then when I came out into the parking lot to call my best friend, I felt a wave of shame and insult engulf me. I knew better, but for just that moment, I felt — worthless.
Carey Goldberg stops back at The Boston Globe, where she was laid off in 2009. (George Hicks/WBUR)
Well, that’s no surprise, right? Everybody knows it hurts to lose your job. But what has caught me by surprise is that even though my family didn’t suffer much financially from my layoff, and even though I tend to be pretty upbeat and resilient, and even though I’ve landed well, it still hurts. More than four years later, I’m still not fully over it.
At work, I feel hypervigilant – as if nothing I do is ever enough, or good enough, to feel safe. At home, making life plans fills me with anxiety.
Which makes me wonder: Are these feelings normal? And if so, what does that mean for the roughly one-quarter of American workers who were laid off at some point during the recent recession?
These days, the Dow is hitting record highs. Housing is hot again in many spots. More and more, the Great Recession of 2009 is becoming just a bad memory. Except that, like other bad experiences, for many of us it may have left emotional scars that last.
So are we going to end up something like the forever frugal survivors of the Great Depression?
“One of the things you find about depression babies, as we call them — that is, people who came of age in the great depression — is that they retained a characteristic skepticism about good times. They never believed them,” said Prof. Bruce Schulman, an American historian who is chair of the Boston University history department.
“They were the people like my grandparents who always reused teabags. Even when they went out to a restaurant at a prosperous time, to celebrate a great occasion, [they] would take the teabag and drain it out and wrap it up and put it in their purse.” It is a generation, Schulman said, that tries always to be prepared for crisis.
Of course, the depression was far worse than the recent recession. But extensive research shows that whether one-third of the population is out of work or only one-tenth, layoffs at any time can have deep and long-lasting effects.
Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher says that though virtually everyone faces tough experiences, layoffs can be an unusually damaging kind of life event.
Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher. (Courtesy)
“It approaches my financial health, in the sense of what my income is,” she said. “It approaches and is disruptive to my physical health; it can disrupt my mental health and my sense of self; and I think for so many of us, work is a central part of our identity, and so when that is disrupted, that is actually something that layers on top of all these known effects.”
Let’s begin with the financial impact of a layoff, which Sucher says can persist indefinitely.
“One study of workers displaced in a 1981 recession found that they experienced a 30 percent decline in their income at the time of the layoff,” she said. “Twenty years later, they were still earning 20 percent less than employees who were not laid off.”
Now for health. The stress of a layoff shoots up your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Your risk of depression doubles; your risk of alcoholism quadruples; your risk of committing violence or suicide also rises. Continue reading