Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was no such thing as unemployment? If we lived in a society that guaranteed everyone a job?
Anyone who has ever been unemployed has probably fantasized about such a fairytale land.
But not me. Thanks to my friend in the former Soviet Union, I understand that at least one worker state did not live up to the employment hype. You see, there was a catch. While the government promised everyone a job, it did not promise you would like the job you got. Nor would you have the freedom to change jobs at will. You were stuck.
My friend's story comes to mind this week, the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Soviet Bloc citizens could freely mingle with people in the west. I became friends with an English teacher in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan when her teenage son stayed with my family for six months.
Her name is Zina, and I learned about her career when I lost my own job. She was one of many calls of encouragement I received back then. I confess that at first I was reluctant to listen to Zina's tale. Given her background, how could she possibly understand my plight? But I was wrong. Her call actually helped end my own cycle of self-pity by making me realize how people survived such strife in world's far tougher than mine.
Her story took place when she was teaching at a university in Northern Kazakhstan in the late '60s. As always, her work was exemplary. Her attitude, however, was cause for concern.
Zina unwisely refused to get involved in extracurricular activities. In America, that would mean after-hours office functions (picnics, volunteer projects, etc). In her world, it meant attending Communist Party meetings.
A World of Difference
"Only 10 percent of Americans are ever out of work for more than a year. That figure is 20 percent in Britain, more than 30 percent in Japan and France and 50 percent in Germany. Italy has it even worse, with almost 60 percent of its jobless out of work for more than a year."
--PARADE, Sept 19, 2004
When she did attend, she would raise uncomfortable questions, like why did the daughter of the university director get special treatment?
She was so confident in her teaching skills that she acted as if she was impervious to her superiors' warnings. (An attitude not entirely unlike my own - and many other workers about to be axed.)
Eventually, the day arrived when her superiors' concerns came with consequences. Zina, they charged, spent too much time in the field teaching at local schools rather than at the University. She was suspended.
Zina's students petitioned the administration, to no avail. Zina appealed.
When the day of her hearing arrived, Zina was sure her defense was ironclad. Her supervisor, after all, had directed her to work off campus. She was only following orders. But when that supervisor took the stand, he denied it.
As in America, when the powers that be decide you are gone, there is no reprieve, regardless of how unjust that outcome might be.
"After the hearing, I confronted him," Zina recalled. "I asked him why he lied, and he simply said there were things I did not understand." Obviously, Zina had stepped on one too many toes.
Yes, Zina would indeed have a job, but not at the university. She was ordered to report to work at a cultural (nonacademic) school that emphasized music, not the subject she loved (English).
"I wanted to die. I felt my life was over," Zina remembered. "Rich, I know how you feel. People you trusted betray you. People you thought were your friends, aren't. Yes, I know what it is like."
When she finished, I was speechless. I too had put by trust in my supervisor, only to be betrayed. I too had ignored the warning signs, confident that my record of success made me untouchable.
She was right. She knew exactly how I was feeling. It was eerie how similar our experiences were, even though one system was communist and the other capitalist.
And like Zina, the emotional shock was overwhelming. "Finally, Nick (her husband) told me I had to pull myself together," she continued. "I had to get over it or it would kill me."
A Fresh Start
It took ten years before Zina's career finally took a positive turn when Nick received a promotion to the capital, Almaty. There, Zina landed the job she still holds today, as a teacher at an English institute. She makes her real money, however, as a tutor. Learning English, it seems, is a highly prized pursuit in her part of the world.
Looking back, Zina would not change her conduct. "You have to stand up for what you believe in," she insists. "You can always find work doing something, but if you lose who you are, you lose everything."
As for my own predicament, I should have heeded the warnings signs. If I had listened to my intuition, I would have found new work - an option Zina did not have behind the Iron Curtain.
That's why I look at unemployment differently today. To some extent, I feel it is a measure of healthy change in our society. While your boss is free to fire you, you are also free to quit at any time.
Would you have it any other way?
SIDEBAR: 13 Signs You Are About to Lose Your Job
Strategic Outsourcing, a placement firm, asked corporate human resource managers this question: "What are the signs that should tell an employee his career with a company might be in jeopardy?" Following are their answers in order of frequency:
- Your bonuses or raises cease to be above the average.
- A merger or acquisition involving your company takes place.
- Huge debt is assumed by the company in fending off corporate raiders.
- Corporate earnings drop precipitously with little hope for early improvement.
- Your boss circumvents you to deal directly with your subordinates.
- The company is continually losing market share and does not develop new products or services.
- You are not invited to attend important meetings, management courses or seminars.
- Outsiders are hired into management positions and begin to bring in their own friends.
- A number of respected performers leave the company voluntarily.
- Work is no longer enjoyable and your attitude begins to affect your performance.
- Severe cost-cutting measures are implemented with little notice.
- Your mentor leaves the organization or falls into disfavor.
- Restrictions are placed on previously sanctioned activity.