Lessons in Impermanence, Part 1

David Bowie singing his signature anthem of impermanence, “Changes.”

If there’s anything to learn from this recession is that nothing is permanent. Way before our economy tanked to where it is now, corporations adopted the layoff as a quick road to profits during the Clinton years. Downsizing, reducing redundancies, etc – it became the popular way for companies to slim down their expensive American workforce and seek cheaper labor abroad. Even when times appeared to be prosperous, such as the late Clinton years or the middle Bush years, the stable job was not as easily obtainable as it once was.

After WWII and up to the early 1990’s, a whole generation raised their children under a paternalistic employment system. Susan Faludi in Stiffed observes a whole generation of men who found that the defense contractors they spent their lives working for had no loyalty to them, especially after they were restructured at the “end” of the Cold War. G.J. Meyers‘s Executive Blues chronicles his desperate job search in the late 1980’s after getting the axe from his executive position with McDonnell-Douglas. Both authors observe that this paternalistic employment system had an air of permanence, but Faludi’s interviewees and Meyers have first-hand knowledge that their jobs weren’t so permanent and that these companies had no loyalty towards them.

For Gen X’ers like me, the instability of jobs was a reality in our young adult lives. Douglas Coupland, best known for Generation X, coined the term McJobs for the not-so-sexy jobs young people coming of age in the late 1980’s would take on to survive, albeit with no personal investment. I wound up spending over a decade in a McJob, working in a grocery store. I hated it, felt grimy every night I worked there, and felt the need to wash the dirt and the bad customers off me when I got home from work. I told myself it wasn’t my career, that my real job as a teacher or something else would be within reach once I got my diploma. That said, the grocery store kept me employed during the fiscal crises of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s and it gave me a means to pay for my college education. Being averse to risk, I didn’t quit my job in the supermarket until the end of 2000.

I wouldn’t learn about impermanence until a little before I left the job. In my late 20’s, being disillusioned with the Christian fundamentalism of my late teens/early twenties, I read up on Buddhism and even came across this concept. Yes, I knew nothing lasts forever and I understood the doctrine. I understood I was feeling dukkha, a sense of dissatisfaction, but wasn’t every one of my co-workers. Then some unknown grocery chain from the midwest bought up the supermarket chain my store was with and then came changes, all at once and everyday. Of course, many of my co-workers quit, including me. I looked to the future of finishing my degree and getting into graduate school.

And I had no idea of the impermanence to come.

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