The Five Stages of Unemployment


One of the most common feelings of unemployment is the sense that no one else can understand what it is you’re going through. And they can’t. Not exactly. No one has precisely the same family or financial circumstances as you do. No one has precisely the same employment experience. No one has precisely the same goals and dreams.

What everyone experiencing unemployment does have in common is going through five distinct emotional stages as we process an ending and look for another beginning.

However, the manner in which you enter unemployment significantly impacts in what order you will experience these emotions.

Unemployment by Choice
Stage 1: Elation
When we choose unemployment, usually for reasons of a career break or a career redirection, as the final day of work rolls around, there is often a huge sense of elation. No more taking orders (i.e. no more boss). No more tasks that don’t interest us anymore (i.e. no more boredom). We are overcome by the beauty of possibilities. And there are many.

This stage can last for a long time and tends to be influenced by how long our non-work activities will keep us happily occupied and how long our financial situation will allow us to remain unemployed.

Stage 2: Determination
Once the elation finally wears off, we head into a phase of determination. We are resolved that we will return to work on our own terms. We will find the perfect job with the perfect blend of work/life balance. We will find the perfect salary and the perfect company. And nothing but that perfect combination will entice us back into the work force.

Stage 3: Compromise
Of course, we quickly learn that there’s no such thing as the perfect job, the perfect salary or the perfect company. And if there are, we quickly learn that the jobs and companies we want don’t seem to want us back. There’s always someone else who, according to them, has a skill set that more closely aligns with their list of criteria.

So we decide which areas we are prepared to compromise on. We expand the geographic search area. We lower our salary expectations. We widen the industry search. And we consider positions more junior than our experience qualifies us for.

Stage 4: Desperation
And when none of that works, we consider taking even more drastic action. We consider going back to a career that we hated. We consider crawling back to our old employers and begging for a job, any job. We consider imploring friends and family to keep us in mind for anything that comes up. After all, by this time, we’re usually not in a position to be choosy.

Stage 5: Despair
And just when you’re despairing of ever finding another job, something pops up. It’s not perfect but then nothing ever is. Nevertheless, it’s work. It’s interesting enough. It pays enough. You can see its possibilities, where it might lead, even if it isn’t exactly what you thought you wanted to be doing. And when people ask what you do for a living, it allows you not to have to say, “I’m between jobs at the moment.”

But for those of us who were so elated to be unemployed all those months ago, there’s also a sense of despair that our freedom is coming to an end. It was wonderful while it lasted and even before we begin our new jobs, we wonder how long it will be before we’re in a position to consider another career break or career redirection. We wonder how long it will be before we can experience that elation again.

Unemployment by Force
Stage 1: Despair
When you don’t see it coming and when it isn’t your choice, unemployment can be a real kick in the guts. Unlike those who choose unemployment for themselves, there is no elation (not at stage 1 anyway). There is no looking forward to free time, no anticipation of all those things we’ll be able to do now that our time-consuming job isn’t getting in the way.

Instead, we worry. About our family. About where the next meal is coming from. About how the next home loan repayment and electricity bill will be covered. About the humiliation of having to ask family for help or the bank for some consideration during this difficult time.

Stage 2: Desperation
After despair, which feels a lot like grief (because, after all, you have lost something that was important to you – your job and the sense of identity that came with it), we move into the desperation stage. Desperation usually sees you down at the government unemployment office applying for benefits. The benefits are handy but what we really want is help finding a new job. And we think they might be able to actually help. We’re soon disabused of this notion.

After sitting in the waiting room for hours and then being subjected to a series of questions that assume we have the IQ of a developmentally delayed ten-year-old, we realise there won’t be any help in finding a new job. Because a government implemented algorithm has determined that while you do qualify for a tiny amount of money that won’t be enough to prevent you from going into short-term, high-interest debt, that’s all you qualify for. There are people out there much worse off than you, usually with no skills and no interest in ever having a job, and the government has to spend all their time on them, meaning there’s little or nothing left over for you.

Stage 3: Compromise
Still, we’re assigned a jobs advisor so we’re going to make the best of it. Except the only jobs the jobs advisor can recommend for us is a position packing boxes in a factory. We used to be teachers and skilled labourers and office workers and retail assistants and hospitality specialists. We’ve got qualifications coming out the wazoo. Surely even if we applied for positions packing boxes, all those people with no skills the government is desperately trying to get off welfare would be chosen ahead of us because they’re less likely to cause trouble asking about occupational health and safety and the legal rights of workers.

But if it’s offered, we take that job packing boxes and become the best box packer who ever packed a box in the history of box packing. It’s better than nothing.

Stage 4: Determination
Of course, there’s only so much box packing we can take. So we keep looking for a job closer to the industry and role we actually want. We update and polish our CVs. We send off dozens, if not hundreds, of applications. We meet with recruiters and get added to their databases. We attend interviews, if we’re lucky enough to get them. And we swear to a power higher than ourselves that we will not be box packers for the rest of our lives.

Stage 5: Elation
And, eventually, all the hard work pays off. Something pops up. It’s not perfect but then nothing ever is. Nevertheless, it’s work. It’s interesting enough. It pays enough. You can see its possibilities, where it might lead, even if it isn’t exactly what you thought you wanted to be doing. And when people ask what you do for a living, it allows you not to have to say, “I’m between jobs at the moment.”

It’s a thousand times better than being unemployed. It’s an elation you despaired of ever feeling again since that despair of finding yourself unemployed all those months ago. It’s unbelievable. It’s wonderful.

It won’t last long before you revert to a more normal sense of simple satisfaction at simply having a job and being able to support yourself and your family again but it’s amazing while it lasts. And you’ll remember this feeling for a long time. Long enough to hope you never have to be unemployed by force ever again.


The point of all this is to reassure us that we aren’t alone. It’s something we all go through. It’s something we can all understand. It’s also something that is almost always temporary. The next stage of your working life, whatever that might be, is always just around the corner.

*First published on LinkedIn 28 May 2016


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