Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unemployed need not apply

I saw an article recently on CNN about how some businesses are increasingly unwilling to consider currently unemployed people as job candidates. I filed it away mentally as something to blog about once I get back in my groove, but never got around to it. Several more friends were laid off recently, though, so the topic's definitely been on my mind. A similar article appeared on CNN today, so I'm not going to let this one get away.

You can read the article yourself, but the general synopsis is that it's an employer's market right now, and the stigma of being unemployed is increasing. The perception that laid-off workers have gotten rusty or are substandard employees to begin with is not only on the rise, it's getting worse the longer people are out of work. Even candidates who are in play for jobs are getting hit with a double whammy: Taking a salary cut is a step back in its own right, but someone willing to take a cut in the first place is now often viewed as a flight risk when the economy turns around.

I can kind of see where the employer's perspective is coming from because layoffs generally target weaker performers. Layoffs are also a nice way to dress up a firing based on the employee not performing, not being a good fit for the job or environment, or on the employee's skills being out of date. That's far from the whole story, however, and instantly associating unemployment with performance or management issues is short-sighted and wrong. Other reasons for layoffs include:

--Employees are highly paid
--Sweeping change in management
--Offshoring/outsourcing work
--Employment facilities closed
--Survival of the company is at stake
--Company exited a major division of the business
--Company folded
--Corporate merger or buyout

Layoffs under these conditions are more fallout than anything else. As a result, discounting applicants on the basis of current unemployment automatically excludes a tremendous number of skilled and talented people, and that's not good business.

Having said that, it's still vitally important for unemployed job-seekers to maximize their ability to compete in a vicious job market. The contention that job-seekers become rusty after being out of work for some time is potentially valid. There are many ways to keep job skills sharp, such as:

--Getting involved in industry networking events
--Going back to school for additional study
--Getting additional professional certifications or training
--Volunteering or mentoring
--Working with industry mentors

In other words, I think the best way to fight against the perception that a laid off employee is a bad employee is to spend the time out of work not only job-seeking, but in using the time to grow professionally.

Were you laid off in the current economic downturn? Were you able to find work again? What has your experience being out of work and job-hunting been like?

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Friday, June 25, 2010

It takes two to tango

Budgeting for myself is easy. My income is comfortable for my standard of living (which isn't very high), so I'm able to put a decent amount away every month. I'm pretty good at distinguishing needs from wants most of the time, and I tend to put a lot of thought into wants because it's important to me to understand what's driving desire before I start throwing money at it.

Bringing my SO into the picture complicates things somewhat.

We don't live together and have no plans to do so, and that's mostly because of me. Our finances are completely separate, with no plans to merge. (Things like that get messy when it comes to ex-spouses and kids, and we are more comfortable managing our own finances anyway.) Deciding how we're going to spend money jointly is usually pretty easy because we tend to meet each other halfway most of the time.

During the seven months that my SO has been unemployed, we've stayed in, cooked at home, and done things that cost little to no money much more than before. This was fine with me all the way through. I'm glad like anything that he's working again starting next week, but I'm wondering how the fact that he's now making much less money than before and about 10% less than me is going to change the dynamics of how we operate financially, especially given the fact that he has two kids.

Argentina was a good case in point: We're both pretty fired up about the idea of going to Argentina next year, but I was a little surprised to find out that we want to do vastly different things. I wanted to cycle through wine country; he wants to do something else, pretty much anything else. He's not into athletics the way I am and that's part of it (admittedly, I should have seen that one coming), but he also thinks the trip I found is far too expensive and isn't willing to sink the money into it. I could chip in to cover his trip, but I don't think he'd like that idea, since I think it would come across not as being generous but as manipulating him into doing what I want regardless of his own wishes.

I won't lie; I'm kind of disappointed. At the same time, however, the cycling trip is something I can do myself at a later date. I want to experience Argentina, but it doesn't have to be exactly the way I initially envisioned it. Having said that, I can't help wondering what else the relative shift in income might bring.

Have you and your spouse or significant other experienced a dramatic shift in terms of who is the primary income earner? If so, how did it affect your relationship?

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pulling the trigger

All I have time for just now is a brief update on the travel topic.

I totally get what some commenters on the last post said: The only person who can get me out of my rut and out to see the world is me.

While I was trying to juggle vacation dates for next year to figure out how I can get to Argentina and cover all my family obligations, I made a wonderful discovery: I forgot to count days I've already taken against my carryover days from last year when figuring out my vacation, so I actually have a few more vacation days than I thought this year.

It's not enough time for what I want to do in Argentina (a cycling tour through wine country, but that's up for grabs anyway since SO hates the idea). It's enough time for someplace closer, though, especially with the weakened euro. This one was a no-brainer, because there's one place in Europe I've really wanted to go for a long time and I have more than enough air miles to score a free flight.

The end result?

At the end of October, I'm going all by myself to ITALY!

Woo!

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Opportunities and opportunity cost

When I arrived back in New York a couple of weeks ago, my flight landed shortly before midnight. While I was waiting for the city bus into Manhattan, a young guy with a much smaller and lighter backpack started talking to me. He asked where I was going, and I muttered Just going home. I asked where he was headed, and he answered On the trip of a lifetime!

This young guy's eyes sparkled as he talked about his adventure. He started out by hitchhiking from Knoxville, Tennessee to Raleigh, North Carolina. From there, he flew to New York and was about to take a city bus to the other major metropolitan airport so he could board a flight to Cairo. It turns out that he had a job lined up as a deckhand on a private yacht through October, and then he was planning to take his savings and wander through the world as long as the money held out.

Wow. That really is the trip of a lifetime. I tried to explain that I had done something similar when I was his age, living and working abroad and traveling (alone at times) on a shoestring with no fixed agenda. I tried to explain that this trip will open up his worldview and change him in ways that he cannot possibly imagine, but how do you explain something like that to someone who's just getting started?

I can't.

Instead, I tried to repay some of the many kindnesses I experienced when I did the same kind of thing at his age: I offered the guy all the money in my pocket, plus my metrocard in case he wasn't prepared. He declined it all with a smile. When his bus came, he hopped on board and drove off in the night to another life.

I've thought a lot about that chance encounter over the past couple of weeks. Twenty years ago, it was so easy to just pick up and go somewhere. I remember bumping into the same two guys from two other countries in three different cities. Comparing our itineraries and traveling together for the next couple of weeks made perfect sense even though we were all total strangers to one another. In those days, I remember showing up at a friend's place with no credit cards (I didn't have one then) and less than a dollar in cash left, and this didn't strike either of us as anything to be concerned about.

One of the great ironies in my life is that now that I'm financially able to see the world in conditions that don't require swiping yards of toilet paper from McDonald's, I'm not doing it. There are so many other barriers in the way. With the exception of Ireland and a long weekend in San Francisco last year, virtually all of my vacation time for years has gone towards my parents. I've also been hesitant to take more than a week off from work at a time. Even while I'm on vacation, I find I'm shackled to my Blackberry far more often than is healthy (a situation that is mostly my fault).

Those things are barriers, but they're also excuses. The biggest barrier that has kept me back in recent years is fear: It's been so long that I'm just not sure I could do it alone anymore. I don't think there's any way to get over that other than just doing it, so I'm setting a goal for 2011: Argentina.

In the meantime, I don't know how many twenty-somethings pop in here now and again, but for any who do, take some advice from an old fart: See the world while you're young, broke, and have nothing holding you back. Relish the freedom while you have it: The payoff is greater than you will ever imagine.

I'd love to hear about other people's epic trips. Where have you been, and how has it changed you?

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Yay

Things are better. . . much better. I'm afraid I've been awfully quiet this week mostly because I've been buried in work.

There's excellent news to report, though. After seven really, really long months out of work, it's definite: SO's background check and university credentials were all approved, so he's officially hired. (He was a little nervous about the university credentials given that he went to university in his home country, which has a different degree standard and system.) He's starting his new job the week after next.

What a fracking relief.

I'll have a real post up this weekend. In the meantime, I have a friend coming over and we're going to enjoy the sunset over a cheap bottle of wine. I hope your Friday night is equally satisfying.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

The end of men?

Someone sent me a link to a fascinating Atlantic article titled The End of Men. It's long, but well worth the read. The key premise of the article is that in a trend accelerated but not created by the recession, men are becoming less and less relevant compared to women in the workplace, family life, and society in general, both in the US and abroad.

Wow. That's quite a claim.

More specifically, the article noted that parents in the US who rely on sex selection technology choose to have girls over boys 75% of the time and the same preferences is also becoming evident in other countries, including South Korea, India, and China. The article linked this preference for girl children to changes in social conditions that have opened up a wealth of new life opportunities for women. In addition, the article noted that in the US, more women graduate college than men, more women are currently employed than men, women are increasingly choosing to raise children on their own, and it's becoming more common for women to plan on being the primary or sole income earner in their households. The article goes on to note that the most successful organizations are ones employing female executives, and that in the wake of the housing and banking disasters, researchers are beginning to examine the link between high levels of testosterone and excessive risk-taking behavior.

Other interesting points brought up in the article are that the image of slacker males is becoming a mainstay of film and television, and that some colleges and universities are applying a sort of affirmative action standard to male applicants in hopes of keeping the gender balance from swinging too heavily towards women.

There's more, but you get the point. All in all, the article summed up a scenario of a changing world that is more suited to women's strengths, with men struggling to adapt and overwhelmingly failing to succeed.

I agree with many points in the article, but not all. I think it's probably correct that boys and girls learn differently, and if schools today are more geared towards how girls learn, it sounds like there are potential benefits to more single sex education. In addition, I think job flexibility is only fair if it's available to men and women equally: I'd love to see equal maternity and paternity leave and equal telecommuting or other flex time benefits across the board.

I was fascinated by the description of how women are transforming business culture, but with only 3% of large company CEO's being women, executive leadership is still a man's world. In addition, I think the article missed a key point in describing why women now outnumber men in the work force: For a wide variety of reasons, women still don't make as much money as men on average, and layoffs usually target high earners.

In terms of my own experience, I work in a heavily male-dominated environment, and it's not at all unusual for me to be the only woman in the room at meetings. I don't see the workplace demographics that the article describes: In my world, they don't exist. (I should add that I can't recall a time in the last ten years in which I felt my gender was a liability at work, though there were definitely times before that in which it was.)

Having said that, most of the people I know outside of work who have been laid off are men. My SO (yup, the break is pretty much over) went through an enormous crisis of confidence after being laid off in which he questioned his abilities and his overall worth as a man. He's starting a new job at the end of the month, but he's taking an enormous haircut in salary that puts his income where mine was three years ago. I don't know if his self-confidence is ever going to fully return.

In the big picture, I've mentioned before that I don't really see myself getting married again. I think I'd be okay living with someone, but I find it hard to picture a realistic scenario in which marriage wouldn't turn out to be a net negative for me.

Do you agree that marginalizing men is becoming more and more common? Do you see any changes in men's and women's roles, social or relationship dominance, or economic success in recent years?

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Re-entry shock

I'm back in New York; thank you so very much for the continued kind thoughts.

My mom is doing much, much better. The trip back out West was hard on her, but she made enormous progress during the week I stayed with her. I worked from 5 am to about 2 pm local time Tuesday through Friday, with breaks to help my mom shower, dress, go to the bathroom, and take walks. I tapered off on the help and monitoring as she got stronger, so by the end of the week I was only helping her shower and go on walks. My sibling took over so I could come back Saturday night for some work obligations, and it sounds like my mom's progress is continuing. She wants to stay in the independent-living part of her retirement community and she won't accept help coming in, so we're going to give her two days alone after the end of this week to see how she does. If it doesn't go well, then we're going to have to figure out a better plan.

I'm really not looking forward to that conversation.

One thing I've noticed is that my mom's short-term memory and cognition (to some extent) are impacted. These should come back over the next few months as her brain maps new routes for processing information. The other thing that really stands out is that her personality has changed somewhat. The changes aren't necessarily bad, just different. I'm not sure if those changes will recede over time, but they take a little getting used to.

I didn't pay attention to my finances at all over the past few weeks, but I also didn't spend on anything other than a shocking amount of eating out on the cheap. Even with that and a pricey last-minute plane ticket, though, I was only a couple of hundred dollars in the hole relative to my normal savings target for the month.

While I was gone, I developed a powerful case of wanting some very expensive Le Creuset cookware, though, to the tune of $900. It's not clear to me why I'm fixated on wanting this, and that's a signal not to rush into buying anything.

Also, my mom's place is clean, but there's some clutter; by the end of the week, the clutter was getting to me. After I got back, I did a massive decluttering binge in my own apartment and unearthed a surprising amount of stuff I didn't know I had, including two pairs of Levi's that I brought to New York seventeen years ago. My closets are neat and much roomier now. Since cleaning is my therapy, I felt much better afterwards.

After the last four weeks, going back to work today felt like a vacation. I'm just saying.

While it's possible that I might need to go back out West in a couple of weeks, I'm trying to find my feet again, at least for now. To that end, I hope to get at least one less stream-of-consciousness post out there sometime this week.

It's good to be back.

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