For the past several months, I've been doing more work than usual with people who have been laid off from their jobs. I've listened to their stories of how the lay-offs occurred--usually in a brutally swift and cruel fashion--and been witness to their pain at having done all the right things, only to be told their services are no longer needed. It's heart-breaking, really, to see how they try to recover from this assault, accepting their disposability as inevitable in some ways.
I contrast this with the marketing messages we receive from companies and other organizations about the need to re-use and recycle. Inherent in this is the idea that we can be more responsible stewards of the earth's resources, finding ways to renew and re-use things, rather than throwing them away.
While this spirit seems to be alive and well when it comes to material goods, I don't see the same spirit animating our approach to people. But in my mind, "renewable and sustainable" isn't just about re-filling water bottles or recycling paper. I think it starts with seeing people as renewable resources, rather than as objects we use up and then throw away.
I cannot tell you the damage this is doing to workers, this idea that you are only as good as the last thing you did for the company. I see people who have poured their hearts and souls into doing what they were asked to do, into "doing the right thing," only to be told that this wasn't enough. And we remove them from our institutions just as efficiently as we take out the trash, with little regard for the fact that these are human beings, many of whom have tied up much of their sense of self-worth in the work we are now telling them we no longer need them to do.
In the past, through this blog, I've focused on how we as individuals need to keep renewing and recycling ourselves through a process of lifelong learning and adapting to change. I still believe this is true. But I also believe that, through our institutions, we are doing great spiritual and emotional damage to ourselves by consistently communicating to people that they are disposable and that they are on their own in the process of recycling and renewing.
To torture my metaphor, we are treating people like garbage--throwing them into landfills and just letting them waste away there. We are doing nothing to provide them with the structures and resources and emotional supports that would help them go through that renewal process.
I've come to realize that part of the reason for my absence here has been that I'm grappling with what it means for me to support people in their careers when they are operating in an environment that so regularly communicates with them about their disposability. Yes, I can talk about positive professional development, but for most people, this is used to develop their capacities in service to organizations and institutions that are essentially sucking them dry. Once they've been used up, they are cast aside.
Somehow it feels almost immoral to me to advise people on how to play the game when the game is so clearly rigged against them.
I understand all the reasons for companies shedding jobs, including globalization and the impact that technology is having on work. But that doesn't excuse us from treating people decently. In fact, I would argue that it REQUIRES us to come up with better, more humane ways to treat people who are caught up in the winds of these changes.
I'm only beginning to grapple with where all of this leads me. I'm not sure that there are easy answers. But I do know that it is only in the calling out of what's really going on that we can start to find better ways to handle the changes we are dealing with.
For now, many of us can pretend like it won't happen to us, so it's easy for us to hide our heads in the sand. But I promise you, every person I've spoken with who's been laid off (many of them repeatedly) thought the same way you did. Like unplanned pregnancies or car accidents, a layoff is something that is going to happen to someone else. But increasingly, my friend, that is not true.
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to begin talking about what we need to do to bring humanity back into these transitions, to find ways to support all of us in being able to manage the renewal process. We can't treat people as disposable, as garbage for someone else to take care of. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to find better ways to help each other through these upheavals.