facing the fear of economic collapse

I’ve been alive long enough that I have seen many degrees of economic downturn. I remember the crisis in the late 70’s when I first learned what recession meant. I remember high gas prices and friends & relatives losing their jobs. I remember discussions about being more frugal and conserving energy and water. I remember new social services popping up in a once self-sufficient working-class town. I remember how poor everyone was in the 70’s. At least everyone I knew was poor. People had to commute to Spokane to work, and they could not afford the gas, so they bought new fuel-efficient foreign cars. In 1979 I rode in a VW Rabbit for the first time.

Then again in the mid-80’s, when Reagan’s trickle-down theory failed to trickle. Another recession! I had no hope of finding a job in my hometown during high school, when an opening at McDonald’s received over 200 applicants, and the mills were laying off faster than the service industry was growing. The positive side of this was that it forced me to get out ASAP after I graduated. Seattle was a little pocket of growth in the early 90’s when the country was struggling out of another recession. Microsoft was doing well, back then, and the rapidly growing population of Microsoftees poured money into the local economy, while rock bands brought young creative types flocking to the area. As an 18-year-old with no work experience I was lucky to get a minimum wage job at a video store in 1990 ($4.75/ hour).

Up until the mid-90’s my relationship to the economy and work was purely fear-based. I was always in the position of weakness and had to take what work I could get (or so I believed). In 1996 I needed to get out of a low-paying dead-end job at a publisher, and the accountant for the company suggested I talk to her friend at Business Careers. For the first time in my adult life the economy was favorable for picking and choosing. I was going on 3 or 4 interviews each week. Unfortunately I had spent six years in jobs that did not give me opportunities to develop relevant skills, so I ended up taking the first thing I thought I could do: Accounts Payable. I liked the people I worked with, but I hated the work.

The “bubble” was growing rapidly in Seattle in the late 90’s and in 1999 I made my first non-fear-based (and therefore good) work decision. I quit my job without any fall-back plan and started temping to explore the economic environment. I found a job I wanted making more money than I ever had before. And then the bubble burst, and in May 2001 I was laid off for the first time ever. I hunkered down, rode it out, did some freelance, and by 2004 I found myself with a career.

Five years later I am doing the same kind of work in the same industry and watching the economy dive again, and deeper than ever. Part of the severity, I think, is that the economy has been bloated by meaningless “market forces” that have not contributed to our true wealth (wealth not being a monetary condition). This time the bubble, albeit larger, is not my bubble. The industry I work in stabilized in the early 2000’s and survived it’s own crash. It seems to be surviving this one too.

Meanwhile, everyone is running around screaming “the sky is falling!” Personally, I am no longer frightened by this. I’ve seen it before. Paradigms are shifting, and while that’s never comfortable… it’s also not the end of the world. I tend to see this as change for the better. Even if I lose my job, it’s ok. I no longer make decisions from a position of weakness, and I see unemployment as an opportunity to explore new challenges and ultimately improve my life. It’s too bad more people don’t feel that way. But the fear of change and loss is very strong. I’ve written about weathering the storm, but what about facing the fear? I can only tell you what I try to do:

  1. Stop projecting. Only deal with your reality at this moment. If you don’t like this reality then make a list of ways you want it to change and then turn that list into lists of actions you can take to change it. Be creative.
  2. Get organized. Make plans, make goals, make charts, make lists. Don’t wait for someone to rescue you.
  3. Have realistic expectations. High hopes, low expectations. But don’t forget high hopes.
  4. Decide what you want, and don’t settle for less. I know this sounds totally unrealistic, but negotiating from a place of fear will get you screwed, usually.
  5. Talk to people about your fears. This is not easy, but commiserating can be a huge relief.
  6. Remember to breathe. Deeply and smoothly. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how much it can help.
  7. Joke about it. No really. Taking life too seriously is a huge handicap.
  8. Realize we are all in the same boat. Try to help others, and what goes around….
  9. If you’re unemployed, improve yourself while you look for work. Get in shape. Eat healthy simple food. Do some software tutorials, or teach yourself some new skills. At the extreme end of this, you might want to go back to school to change your path altogether… apply for financial aid.
  10. Ask yourself what the worst case scenario would be and then figure out how you could avoid it or deal with it. Who would be able to help you? No one is alone.

Part of my inspiration for writing this is the creeping sense of panic even at my relatively stable, busy workplace. We’re small and agile, but if the money stops flowing in… we don’t have a safety net. And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. heedypo says:

    Hi Kitty,
    There is some great advice here. I’m the right sort of age to have experienced previous downturns(in the UK). Each downturn has ended with me moving into a new area of work. The key point though is that, after the first time it happened, I realised that the upheaval is only temporary and is only scary for a very brief period. We adapt quickly to whatever situation we are in and gather new experiences and skills as we do so. I wouldn’t go as far as to say its something to look forward to, but,and I’m being in no way ‘new age’ here, when I say that a little bit of choppy water is not so unhealthy a thing every once in a while – as long as the mortgage is getting paid of course!


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