The Economics of Happiness

I’m unemployed.

For the first time in my adult life, I have no job to go to.

I got laid off from my job a week ago in a series of company-wide layoffs in which “nonessential roles” were eliminated to “keep pace with client expectations in a rapidly changing economy and technological landscape.” Or some bullshit like that.

I get that it happens to people every day. I grew up in mid-Michigan in the 90’s—company layoffs were as seasonal as lake-effect snow and spring mud. It wasn’t like this 100% of the time, but the years when both of my parents were gainfully employed were few and far between, and that was in addition to the bitter reality that my mother had terminal cancer. Financial instability was the norm.

My life up until recently wasn’t much better off. I graduated at the height of the Recession and although I was one of the lucky few who found a full-time job in my field, my wages barely covered basic life expenses, let alone my mountain of student debt. Even when I was employed by the alma mater that gave me my degree. (side-eye emoji)

And then about 18 months ago, I found a new job, and first of all, it was an amazing opportunity to grow my skills in my chosen field (digital marketing) and work with really smart, kind colleagues who let me learn so much from them. But also? That salary changed my fucking life. I started saving money for the first time ever—not just a couple hundred dollars that hung out in my account for a month or two; the kind of savings that could buy a house one day. I PAID OFF A STUDENT LOAN. I was able to be generous with loved ones who needed financial help and causes I care about. Matt and I saved up for a vacation for the first time in our ten years of marriage. We started trying to get pregnant.

And then I lost that job.

I keep thinking about that scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” where Harry Burns is sitting with his friend Jess at a football game, absentmindedly doing the wave along with the crowd while explaining that his wife has just left him.

“And do you know, I knew?” says Harry, “I knew the whole time that even though we were happy it was just an illusion and that one day she would kick the shit outta me.”

It wasn’t necessarily that I knew I would lose my job in a company-wide layoff less than two years after I started. It’s just that when I was sitting at a cafe in Hamburg, Germany, with my husband a few months ago, on our first real vacation, drinking Duckstein and eating schnitzel in the early autumn sun, I was so acutely aware of how perfect the moment was, how grateful I was to be there, how lucky we were to be in a position to take this trip, how it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten this job. And how we could lose all of in a moment.

I never, not even in my happiest moments, lost my fear that the stability and happiness was an illusion, and one day it would kick the shit out of me.

Being grateful and aware of your blessings and privilege is one thing; feeling like the grim reaper is quietly following you around and standing in the corner of every happy moment is another. I’ve spent years in therapy trying to detangle all of the trauma of growing up in a financially unstable home with a parent who was terminally ill, only to have the exact thing I was afraid of—losing my job—happen.

I worked and I planned and I saved and I therapied and I vacationed and I still, after all of that, lost my job and landed back at square one.

Yesterday I fielded a call from a recruiter for what is 100% a pyramid scheme to get unsuspecting young professionals to sell cable TV to innocent shoppers just trying to buy toilet-paper at Walmart, and another call from an online apparel company in which all of the models look like Tomi Lahren in a Hallmark Christmas movie for neo-nazis.

And it’s hard for me not to feel like it was my fault, for believing that I could be happy in the first place, or for daring to say out loud that I wanted anything at all.

I know I will be fine. I have a great resume full of amazing experiences and I’ve already interviewed with a recruiter for a staffing agency (a real one, not a scammy one) and there is an opportunity out there, waiting for me.

But right now, today, I’m resentful and tired.

Not just because job searching is stressful and I may be facing a pay cut or a substantial lapse in regular income, but because as a woman in the workplace, a job change in this stage of my life resets the clock on how long it may take before I’m in a financial position to pursue all of the other things I hoped to do in my early 30’s, like have a baby. Buy a house. Pursue a master’s degree.

It’s not even just about my own needs and my own dreams, but about the systemic economic injustice that exists for all women. Because we make pennies on the dollar compared to our male colleagues. Because when healthcare is tied to our employment, we have to be almost supernaturally strategic about waiting until we’re eligible for benefits to try to have a baby, but get pregnant soon enough that they won’t legally be able to eliminate our jobs when Q4 sales take a nose-dive. Because you can’t admit that you’re trying to get pregnant to anyone at the office without risking that promotion you’ve worked so hard to earn. Because maternity leave, in the United States of America in the Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand Nineteen, is still not federally mandated. Because employers can still choose not to cover medical benefits for our transgender siblings or fertility treatments for queer couples. Because even if they do get healthcare coverage through their employer, for black and brown women, that care is often subpar and life-threatening.

(Elizabeth Warren, if you’re reading this, please let me come work for your campaign.)

Anyway, if you need me, I’ll just be over here thinking about income inequality and the economics of happiness. And I guess, for the first time in quite awhile, writing. I suddenly have a lot of time on my hands.