What Losing a Job in the Middle of a Pandemic Feels Like


What Losing a Job in the Middle of a Pandemic Feels Like

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Life, in general, and careers, more specifically, are all about upgrades. One is expected to climb up a giant, invisible, and proverbial ladder for more money and nicer words on a business card. We put in days and weeks and months and quarters with a sprinkling of occasional weekend hours to do this, until typically – if you’re an average Indian worker – “office” is pretty much the only thing on your mind each day.

After a year at a nice, foreign business school, I found myself at a job in a tech startup in Mumbai. It was a steady life trajectory, to be in a young place and learn the ropes of management in a small team at a lean company. Like most full-time jobs tend to be, it occupied nearly all of my day. The length of the days and the chaos of work increased, and somewhere, my interest in being at the office decreased. Cut to a few days before our beloved Covid lockdown, and I was at my last day at work – uncertain about my future, but certainly lighter.

After a short period of mourning my decision to join a startup, I found myself fitting the definition of the dreaded “u” word that has been plaguing so much of the country in previous months. Yes, big fat unemployment, or as they say on LinkedIn, “seeking opportunities”. This was right before our wonderful shared experience of a virus telling humanity, “ghar pe baitho beta”. Since then, not only have times changed, but even my experience and understanding of the concept of time has changed.

Being without a job isn’t easy on my psyche. I have always relied on the rhythm of a schedule, and the disruption of not having a full list of tasks was a shock I wasn’t prepared for. As someone who is generally organised, there was precious little for me to do outside of an office, except finding the next place to use my time and effort. There was also a sense of mourning for a career plan rudely interrupted by a detour.

Let’s begin with finding a job during this time. It’s, well, a bit like… how should I say this delicately? Like going to Rajasthan and asking for directions to Helsinki. Theoretically, it’s possible. You can get one of those private jet things if you’re, say, an Ambani type. But for all practical purposes, people are pointing and laughing at you. You too, are pointing and laughing at you. I mean, what says “Shut up, dude!” to a worker bee louder than a tanked stock market, eerily quiet Mumbai streets, and the general air of helplessness, anxiety, and fear? Oh, wait. There’s one thing. Practical jokes, yes.

Job postings, at the moment, are practical jokes and as one-way as a street gets.

Job postings, at the moment, are practical jokes and as one-way as a street gets. Your CV, cover letter, and company research will end up floating in empty space. So, while I find myself applying to as many suitable jobs as I can find, there comes a point every three days or so where my head begins to explode with Harry Potter-scar levels of pain from proverbially banging it against a wall. There’s very little respite from the frustration of typing into your laptop with sincerity, while breathing itself is chipping away at your emergency fund because, well, being alive has a way of costing money.

In the Kubler-Ross model of grief, emotions experienced after a loss include anger, acceptance, bargaining, denial, and depression. They can take place in any order, and it’s not necessary that all stages are experienced. On most days, I find my head doing a strange balancing act between anger and acceptance. There are days when I wake up optimistic, sign up on new job sites, develop “new skillz” by watching videos and taking online classes, but how far can optimism take you in the face of a silent, non-responsive reality?

To occupy my time, I finished a web course on investment theory that my girlfriend found, tirelessly researched and evaluated stocks to create a comprehensive stock portfolio, and cleaned my cupboard to the point of multiple spider extinctions. What am I going to do next, walk around believing in God or something? There are days when I find new rabbit holes, but I try to make them “worthy” by watching shows no one else is watching, slowly reading books that have always been on my list, and generally try to be a good job-seeking egg. Still, there is a sense of directionlessness to my time right now, a sense of wanting to belong to the great workers of the here and now, who are all, pandemic or not, pushing India forward.

For someone who typically runs like a well-wound clock, the abundance of time is unusual. It’s like being in a limbo version of summer vacation, except with exceptionally little fun to look forward to. And without something to look forward to, why would I wake up “on time”? Why would I sleep “on time”? What even is time?

What am I going to do next, walk around believing in God or something?

For a long time, life had begun to be measured in weekday mornings spent around colleagues and pressing buttons, Friday nights, and weekends. Lacking employment can sometimes be a robbery of those experiences too. Tolkein said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time given to us”, and I had decided to let someone else set my agenda. And now, it seems like their number is out of sampark.

It’s strange to think about a future right now. The “new normal” is so new even without my undesired employment status that processing things, contextualising yourself and work possibilities around you is a heavy, unpredictable task. I sometimes wonder when I’ll find myself at work again, but more often than not, I find myself wondering what work itself will be like in the days to come. Will it be in an office with glass walls and face-masks? Will it be over Zoom calls with manufactured backgrounds? Will I have the opportunity to be in a room, feeling like a part of something bigger again? Maybe. And for that, I will await the next  ping from LinkedIn.