The announcement came mid-morning: “Department meeting. Five minutes. Outside Bill’s office.” I wandered forward through the low beige cubicles with a vague sense of dread. New to this big company, I didn’t have a history with such impromptu meetings. Others took one last puff and ground out their cigarettes, took a last sip of coffee and slowly stood. Putting on blue blazers. Adjusting ties.
The meeting didn’t take long.
Bill opened his office door and cigarette smoke wafted out toward the ceiling tiles. He stood fidgety in the doorway, looking at faces then at his feet.
“You know the economy has been rough on us. Today we adjust. Our department is affected. I’ll be talking with everybody today about layoffs, one by one.”
He glanced around at the faces one more time.
And so began the steady stream of friends and colleagues marching into the corner office. In the mid-1980s when I started working, that’s the way it was: Smoking, blazers, ties and layoffs. The big company I worked for made everything from cluster bombs (Dangerous!) to thermostats (dangerous if lobbed into another cubicle). But in a down economy, neither cluster bombs nor thermostats could save you from that corner office talk. Month after relentless month, the layoffs poured out of the corner offices in that company and throughout the city. For the old timers, talk turned to retirement packages. Do I catch it this time? Or do I wait for the next one—and will that package be any sweeter? For everybody else, the primary question was “when” the axe falls, never “if.”
Employment as a betting game was new to me. Dad spent 35 years with IBM, so…isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Actually, no. That loyalty was a blip on the historical radar screen of workplace relations. Of course now it makes intuitive sense that companies are loyal and have always been loyal to revenue and profit. Where employees help grow revenue and/or profit, there is a limited loyalty to them too. Maybe the hard lessons of economic downturn must be relearned by each generation. Certainly each generation comes up with new answers. Out of those sweaty rounds of layoffs, those off-kilter days of trying to work with the axe whooshing overhead, my generation learned we need to be active players in the workplace, though it’s a lesson we need to relearn every so often. Passivity draws the buzzing chainsaw toward your cubicle. We learned to keep skills portable, so they could travel from company to company, just like our 401k (wait, let’s not talk about that).
But one true thing to fall out of those early layoffs and most of the upturns and downturns to follow, was a sense of being alive. Maybe that sounds bombastic, overly optimistic and naive, but…not so. Some of my favorite people got the axe and eventually found themselves on their feet doing exactly what they were meant to do, which brings me to the recognition that while layoffs look, taste and smell like burning evil in the short run, they may actually do many of us a favor by pulling back the curtain to reveal someone else’s career plan for me which may or may not coincide with where my career (not to mention my life) should go. And, for better or worse, struggle is part of figuring out the true North means to us. And who wants to struggle down some narrow path when paychecks and health insurance line the broad interstate like mile markers?