The US government reports two different unemployment statistics. The one we are most familiar with is the one most talked about in the news media, something called the “U-3 unemployment rate.” It currently hovers just under 10%.
There is also the less well-known “U-6” rate, which is now over 17%. It includes what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “involuntary part time, underemployed workers” and “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking.
For people struggling to stay positive after a year or more of unemployment, I’m sure that even the higher number must seem too low.
Yet there are many who know what discouragement feels like and have chosen not to give up.
It was important for them to “drop the spiel and be real.” It’s the only way to make the genuine connections which are an invaluable help in both the immediate objective of finding work and the long-term goal of professional security.
I was honored to be able to spend a Saturday morning a few weeks ago with a group of them at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Weston, MA.
I had come there to lead them in a program I developed called, “Perseverance Strength Training.” Just by showing up, they had demonstrated an openness to accepting reality, learning new approaches to work-search, and building community.
Instead of the usual introduction (“Stand up and tell us your name and why you’re here”), I asked the participants to do two things.
The first was to reflect a moment on the definition of perseverance (determined continuation with something; steady continued action over a long period of time, especially despite obstacles and setbacks), focusing on a particular word or phrase.
Then I asked them to apply that word or phrase to their current circumstances. I wanted them to frame their stories within the context of perseverance.
“You mean you don’t want my elevator speech?” someone said, and I replied that sales pitches were not allowed.
I felt it was important for them to “drop the spiel and be real.” It’s the only way to make the genuine connections which are an invaluable help in both the immediate objective of finding work and the long-term goal of professional security.
By building a community of support, we are able to replace the career safeguards formerly provided by employers with those of our own creation.
The people in the room that morning were already well versed in what I call the “aerobic exercise” of work search—scanning Internet postings, putting together and sending out resumes, going to networking events, researching potential employers, tracking down leads, etc.
However, just as aerobic activity is only the starting point for physical fitness, traditional job-search practices are only a part of an effective strategy for finding work. As weeks and months of unemployment pass and spirits flag, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are not enough to sustain us in the marathon that finding work has become.
The realities of a changing economy require that we build capacity from within by adding “strength training” to our “professional fitness” routine.
Only by consciously reinforcing our core sense of self-worth will we have the stamina to keep going through a long, drawn-out, uphill-and-down work-search.
PROFESSIONAL “STRENGTH TRAINING” BASICS
Recently NPR’s Scot Simon interviewed people who had been out of work for as long as two years.
Some of them were embarrassed, as if they thought their friends and relatives were saying to themselves, “What have you been doing all this time?”
Some longed to be out of the house, with people, to have a place to go to.
Some talked about how difficult it is to put a smile on your face, stick with it, maintain a positive attitude, especially on days when your spouse adds to the crushing weight you’re already carrying by asking, “Why you aren’t out there knocking on every door?”
The kind of “professional strength training” I advocate for them, as well as the participants at St Peter’s and the rest of the “U-6” unemployed, includes exercises to reinforce their sense of possibility, self-worth, and belonging.
Here are a few:
- Spend time every day engaged in some form of new learning. Set up a curriculum of study around a particular topic, with readings and assignments.
- Actively cultivate a core group of supporters and make yourself accountable by sharing your goals with them and keeping them informed of your progress, or lack of it, on a regular basis.
- Find a volunteer activity, or perhaps someone to visit for whom your presence alone brightens their day. Nothing improves self-worth more than giving back.
- Find a way to put into the world what you most want. When John Lithgow was a struggling actor, he didn’t abandon his dream to do something more meaningful than a television commercial. He talked some of his friends into getting together on a regular basis to read Shakespeare.
- Balance every self-esteem risk (e.g. talking to the bank about past-due mortgage payments) with a self-esteem builder (e.g. helping a colleague prepare for an interview).
- Reduce the amount of busy work you do each day just to feel productive, and use the time to do some of the other things on this list or develop your own “strength training exercises.”
You won’t see benefits right away, but it’s like going to the gym—just the fact that you are doing something you know is good for you on a regular basis makes you feel better, and that’s the whole point.