Losing one's job packs a double-punch these days: There's the initial loss of a steady paycheck, benefits, security, routine, pride, identity, etc. Then there's the anxiety around facing an enormous career setback. Research shows that employers rarely consider hiring the long-term unemployed — a huge problem for the 4.3 million Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, largely because of the recession.
So what do you say to someone you know and love who either just lost their job, or has been stuck in this unemployment catch-22 for months?
Chances are, there's not much you can say to help their situation. But in the past five years, the world has collected a lot of wisdom (often in the form of angry blog posts by unemployed people) about what not to say. Here, the top six things to avoid saying to the recently — or chronically — unemployed.
1. "Are you enjoying your time off?"
It seems almost ridiculous that anyone would say this, but it popped up on a lot of blogs, so remember: If your friend doesn't have savings or a trust fund to finance his unemployment, he's probably spending his time panicking and looking for a job — not rewatching The Wire or taking improv classes. Unemployment sucks. Get on board with that ASAP.
A recently unemployed XO Jane writer put it like this: "I understand tough work schedules. I worked in a local Emergency Department for 3 years while I was in college. I have worked 16-hour shifts and 60-hour weeks. I would go back to that in a second over sitting on this couch with all this free time on my hands."
2. "My friend Tony is going through the same thing — you should give him a call."
Misery is supposed to love company, but that doesn't mean you should set up your unemployed friends on blind dates. Unemployed folks don't want to feel sequestered off from the rest of the world any more than the rest of us. Instead, try just continuing to be a friend. Tell them about your day at work, invite them out to things. As Stephanie Georgopulos says at The Awl, "You may feel the pressure sometimes, employed friend. Sometimes taking care of us might feel like taking care of a depressed significant other or an ailing pet. Don't fret — you don't have to take us out for the time of our lives; we're not terminal, we just want to laugh and forget about being unemployed for a few hours."
3. "Remember how much you hated your boss."
This is really jerky — but apparently a lot of people say this. So, as far as you're concerned, the second your friend gets fired or laid off, his entire history of complaining about work — his boss, his coworkers, his hours, how the 9-to-5 grind has destroyed his dreams — is wiped from your memory. Live in the now. Chronic unemployment is more annoying than an annoying boss.
4. "Everything happens for a reason."
The right time to say this is after your unemployed friend finds a new job — a good job — and you're on vacation together drinking mai tais, talking about what an unexpected turn his career took and how he never thought he'd enjoy consulting, much less find it fulfilling. That's when you drop the ol' "everything happens" saying — not while he's struggling.
5. "Have you considered dog walking?"
Your friend has definitely considered dog walking, and babysitting, and temping. There's nothing inherently wrong with those jobs, but depending on which rung on the professional ladder your friend was kicked off, and how long it took him to get there, he might not be ready to start considering odd jobs. This may change over time — but let him decide when to mention his new dog walking business.
6. "What have you been doing with your time?" (In a really concerned voice)
This might seem like a crazy choice for this list. Obviously, it's nice to ask people about their day, and unemployed people are not necessarily fragile and oversensitive. Like Georgeolulos said, the unemployed are not terminal. That said, the wording of this phrase — which implies that there's a lot of time to fill — can definitely be irksome. So just say "what's up" and don't be weird about it.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to adopt the perfect rescue dog
- Why the poor can't catch a break on Thanksgiving
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- The lessons of Japan's latest recession
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
Subscribe to the Week