In the five months from August 2014 – the last time oil was priced above $100 a barrel – to January 2015, when prices dropped 60% to $40 per barrel, the industry went from celebrating our We’re Number One global producer status to getting knocked on our collective asses. That’s life in commodities. One day you’re on top, and the next you’re dreading checking the markets because it either won’t be good news, or it’ll be worse news.
The first layoffs at my company came in March. They were largely in the Canadian offices, but the numbers of those cut were impressive. I have diagnosed depression and major anxiety disorders, so from that moment when our boss told us what had gone down up north forward, every coping strategy I knew went into play. It was a month later in April when the first round of layoffs hit the US office.
It’s an interesting place to be: empathetic with your friends and colleagues who have been deemed unnecessary to the business, but so damn relieved it wasn’t you. This time.
At that point, the rumors flew daily about which company was letting what percentage of employees go. WPX was closing their Denver office. Anadarko was looking at double digit cuts. No one knew what Noble was considering. The private companies who could afford to were just hunkering down; that’s the benefit of not having investors to be accountable to. And for some reason, investors seem to think job cuts are the way to salvation.
Yet you go through your day carrying around the extra weight of anxious baggage, because you never know when the C Suite will decide that extra layoffs will assuage the investors. The apprehension sets everyone on edge.
I was in Brazil on a long-planned trip engaging in willful denial of the situation in October. In the weeks after I got back to work, I began to see the writing on the wall. Layoffs were imminent. I was going to be one of those layoffs.
I shut down. I honestly can’t tell you what happened in the 10 days leading up to the event. It was sheer and blind panic, mixed with making sure my job’s loose ends were tied up, that everything was organized so that colleagues could find things when I walked out the door. It’s such an interesting paradox: the personal emotional shutdown that comes with knowing, but also taking care of things for others prior to your departure.
By the time my boss and our HR manager walked into my office – on my boss’s birthday no less – I had steeled myself. I could handle this with grace and composure. Because that is what is expected of ladies, even in times of crisis: that we swallow the trauma with a smile on our faces. I was also grateful that I had paid attention to my intuition ahead of time, that it didn’t come as a surprise.
I only have a dog and two cats, and the horses. No kids. No husband. I was never going to starve because ultimately my parents are the most benevolent people ever; it wasn’t the golden parachute of 2008-era executives that crashed the economy, but it was more of a rose gold safety net.
The freedom and dignity of this job, a job that I loved, was the major loss. And that, in and of itself, is enough to mourn. The freedom and dignity of work, and the loss of that due to market forces beyond anyone’s control, gives me an insight into 2016 that is significant.
Somehow, during the election, we allowed this myth of ‘globalization killed all our jobs and our manufacturing sector’ to pervade. In reality, American manufacturing is the strongest it’s ever been. Our output is quite impressive. Globalization – the trade and specialization that comes with open markets – surely is responsible for some job loss, but what about the vast majority of it? We hold tiny computers in our hands, with access to all the information in the world. I have a tiny little machine that mops my floors without me, guided by a little black cube that sits on my bookshelf. I have two apps on my phone that instruct me on the fastest way home from the barn. That same automation means a computer, or a robot controlled with a computer, can do assembly line work more consistently, and without the shift changes or breaks needed by the humans who used to do those jobs.
It’s not globalization that has rapidly changed the course of the American middle class. It’s Silicon Valley.
Yet it’s easier to look out, rather than within.
I viscerally understand being laid off. When I think about it in the starkest of terms, and what came next, what comes next, my palms get sweaty, my cheeks flush, my pulse quickens and not in an exciting-romance-novel kind of way. I have worked hard, I did what I was supposed to do, and yet here we are. This is the repercussion from simply losing the dignity that came with my position.
So I understand the impulse to look south to Mexico, or east to China, and point the finger. Blaming a person, or a country, or outsiders is a lot easier than blaming market forces and a changing economy, especially when it comes down to complex financial instruments. I’ve read All the Devils are Here, and started The Big Short, and I’m a fairly intelligent person, and the most recent economic collapse still has me drawing pictures for myself to understand. We understandably search for meaning when things like lay offs, or plant closures, or entire industry changes occur. I get it. I have blamed a lot of various things for my layoff! In the end it comes down to oil markets. That’s all. That’s life in commodities.
Shit is changing, y’all. This is not the same economy, or the same country, of the 1950s or 1970s. There aren’t the same jobs, there are a lot more people competing for the jobs that are available… including black and brown people. A high school diploma, or even a college degree, doesn’t get you what it once did: a solid place in the middle class.
Dear god, though, I don’t need another deep dive into the Trump voter to understand what happened in 2016.