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The Lost Souls of the Great Recession

by Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of older workers looking confusedThey are just like us.

They strive to do the best they can, to succeed at work, to care for their families, to be a good spouse, partner, parent, child, friend — to be a decent human being. They want a meaningful worklife, one that fulfills a purpose and stirs their passions. But now they now find themselves adrift in a work economy that is unable to support their career aspirations.

We have no way to count them, but we suspect they may be in the millions, and it is unlikely they will ever fully recover from our Great Recession and its aftermath. Once considered highly skilled and successful — as managers, teachers, lawyers, human resources and IT professionals, financial services and marketing experts in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — they have been out of work for a year, two years or more — and their prospects of ever going back to work diminish with each passing day.

Financial security aside, the damage to individuals’ esteem, pride and self-worth causes irreparable harm to their families, children and communities. They face bankruptcy, foreclosure, homelessness. They have abandoned beloved family pets, cast aside college dreams, and sacrificed whatever finances they counted on for later years. At this point they would easily forego purpose and passion, simply to receive a regular paycheck. Self-actualization will have to wait until another time.

Meanwhile, our elected leaders continue to banter around opposing ideologies, neither of which speaks to the preservation of the dignity that work provides. People want a hand, not a handout. Whatever safety net exists is so porous that it fails to see people through to re-employment. Workforce development agencies are overwhelmed by the numbers, unable to adjust their processes to meet individual needs.

Many employers seek a near 100% match to their job specs — and unemployed individuals don’t fit the bill. In a cruel turn, they have been unwilling to hire the long-term unemployed. Apparently, it’s easier to blame the victims of the recession than to hire them.

America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace is threatened, not so much by our actions, but by our inactions. We are much better than this. But, what can we do? For starters:

Employers need to rethink their definition of the bottom line to include people and communities in addition to profits. If they can do this, they will see greater employee engagement, increased customer loyalty, and will be real players in revitalizing the American dream.

The workforce development system, from the Department of Labor down to program delivery at the local level need to move beyond job training and placement to support the practice of meaningful, life-long “employability,” the ability to build one’s own security. If they can do this, they will see lower costs and longer-lasting results as people learn how to find, get, and keep meaningful work over their life-time.

Individuals need to step out of their comfort zones, to see the global workplace as one of relentless change requiring continuous learning and experimentation. They can build their resiliency by developing contingency plans, crafting future-focused and flexible goals, and of course, never giving up. If they can do this, their sense of security will never be threatened again.

Counselors, coaches and consultants can push corporate, political and community leaders to enact programs and policies that recognize work as more than a financial agreement between employer and employee — and that restore the fractured connection between life and livelihood. If we can do this, we will be adding lasting value through our work.

If we are to build a culture of work that is recognizably more passionate and meaningful than we now have, we, as individuals, must rededicate ourselves to the restoration of a purpose or mission to work, where respect for the human spirit is given the cultural centrality it demands. Csider what it must be like to be without work, we can lose such judgmental reactions as pity, blame and indifference and start to acknowledge the worth and dignity of the “lost souls” among us.

Because they are just like us.

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