Bitterness

18 04 2014

I lost a former coworker this week.  He wasn’t much older than me – only three years – but a couple of weeks ago I heard that he was in the hospital.  Then I heard that he was “septic,” that things were bad.  And then earlier this week he died.  As always, death is a mystery to me, how someone can be a living, breathing presence in one second, and in the next second they are gone, with nothing to announce their absence.  It seems like there should be something, the sound of creation rushing into the space that they used to occupy.

My cowrker lost his job at our former company the same way I did, but a year later.  He started with the company right out of college, and had worked there for 33 years when he was laid off.  He was, as a mutual friend described him, “a man of helpfulness and industry”.  He had been with the company long enough that he remembered the history of the various processes we supported.  He knew where things were, where to find the equipment you needed… and if the equipment didn’t exist, he could improvise something that would do the job.  He took care of business.

He had some idea that the business would take care of him as well, and was left bitter by the layoff, by the realization that the passion he brought to his job was largely unrequited.  I remember the emotion well.  I was bitter for a while.  And beyond that came detachment, of no longer tying so much of what I believe about myself to the job I have.  For the years I was with our former company, I described myself as an employee of that company first, and as a scientist second.  Now I am a project manager.  And I only mention where I’m managing projects if someone asks.

The detachment is good in many ways.  You shouldn’t define yourself through something that can be ripped away so easily.  But it comes with sadness.  There was a time when I didn’t think companies worked that way.  I believed that my company was decent, that there would always be a place for me.  I wanted to think that if I sacrificed for that company – the long hours, the weekends and holidays that I was in the lab – somehow the company would recognize that and be loyal to me.

Now that belief seems laughably quaint.  It certainly isn’t the way business works any more, and it’s getting more heartless out here in the corporate world every single day.  Corporations owe us nothing.  And they know it.  But at the same time they are still using the old beliefs of those who have managed to hang on, the ones who still cling to the idea that the company thinks of them as more than an interchangeable cog in the machine.  Corporations will happily use that unwarranted loyalty to milk ever more out of those employees, until they have wrung them out and tossed them into the same heap with the rest of us.

I am not bitter about my former company.  But I’m a lot more cynical about employment in general, and I will never again willingly offer myself up the way I used to in my younger days.  And I don’t encourage today’s young workers to do it, either.  If a company is willing to discard their experienced workforce, if they are willing to use contract labor to fill entire departments – then they have committed solely to short-term profit and aren’t committing in any way to the people doing the work.  I can and will commit to doing a decent job during my work day.  But when I finish at the end of the day, I’m done and I walk away from it.

My coworker spent the last year of his life bitter about what our former company had done to him.  He felt betrayed and discarded.  His feelings were accurate.  Some would say that his last year shows that life is too short for bitterness; I think the truth is that life is too short for loyalty to a corporation.  I lost a lot of time doing more than I needed to for my former company.  So did my coworker.  And life really is too short for that.

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