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Out of work and coming undone. Who am I without my job?

daniel fishel The Globe and Mail

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Whenever I ride the streetcar these days, I find myself chanting a line from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett under my breath: "Ever tried, ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

The words have become a kind of verbal talisman. Beckett must have known what it was like to be unemployed.

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Searching for work is the hardest job. The hours are long, the work often doesn't yield results, it's fiercely competitive and the pay is terrible.

When I am told, before the holidays, that my job is going to be dissolved, that it doesn't meet a current "business need," I don't know how to react. I sit across a table from my supervisor and a human-resources manager as they tell me: "This sometimes happens with newly created positions," "It's not your fault," and "It's not you, it's us."

I stare at the colourless, tufted carpet, at the plant in the corner of the room, as they hand me my notice and a taxi chit.

I go home, curl up in my pyjamas and watch Office Space. I feel like I've been dumped.

The contract job is the dating equivalent of a casual relationship with a commitment-phobe, and it's all I've ever known. What I really want is for an organization to want me, full-time and permanently.

While my old job is terminated and reworked, I am out of work and undone. When I do cry, bitterly, it isn't just for the job I lost, but for my lost sense of purpose. Even more than the steady paycheque, I miss being a contributor, having a concrete reason to get up in the morning and a place to go. In the absence of those things, I feel stagnant. My job is a defining feature of who I am; it's as if someone has chipped away at my identity.

At lunch, my friend Sean pats my hand sympathetically. "You're not unemployed," he says, "you're fun-employed! Just think: When are you going to have the free time again?"

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Never again, I hope.

I read, I write, I run, I volunteer. I watch unseemly amounts of television, breezing through five seasons of Friday Night Lights and every episode of Homeland. But when I'm not applying for jobs, guilt creeps in.

I meet someone new at a party. "So, what do you do?" he asks.

I clutch my wine glass and bite my lip. The question dangles in the air, a space opening up where a solid answer used to be.

I prevaricate, stammer that I'm "in transition," a polite euphemism for an uncomfortable topic.

What I have become, what has filled this gulf for the time being, is a job seeker, a job hunter.

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Finding meaningful work is like stalking slippery prey. Applications go unacknowledged, phone calls are not returned, and interviews come and go. I live and breathe resumés and cover letters. I comb through job boards. I network. I shake a lot of hands and take a lot of business cards.

I mask feelings of doubt behind smiles. "Fake it till you make it," says my friend Paulina.

People tell me that I'm doing all the right things. A mentor scans my CV. "You have great qualifications," she says. "Someone will snap you up again." But when will all the right things lead to the right outcome? Securing a job is a strange alchemy of being in the right place at the right time, being the right person for the right position.

I meet weekly with a career coach. We talk about marketability and my personal brand – terms I've grown to detest. I learn to sell myself to potential employers. She gives me new mantras to keep in a jar, little strips of paper with wise words from Winston Churchill, Marcus Aurelius and Margaret Mead, great men and women who overcame greater adversity than unemployment.

I take them out to read one by one, furling and unfurling them as if they might strengthen my mettle through osmosis. It's hard to believe in words.

It's hard also to separate who I am from what I do.

I think about the question from the party. I'd usually reply, "I am a … ." Even syntactically, I link my job to my selfhood. My self-worth is tied so firmly to my career that being without a job makes me feel worthless. I realize I haven't just lost a job – I've lost myself.

My generation of twentysomethings trying to get a toehold in the work force is educated, work-ready and search-weary.

I have read about youth unemployment hitting 60 per cent in Spain, and Ireland's mass exodus of skilled young people, so I know that by comparison I am lucky. I'm not desperate. I have friends and family who love me.

Right now, I rely on the assurances of those friends and family to prop me up.

"Will everything be okay?" I ask them, and myself, more and more often.

"Yes, of course!" they assure me.

I know that they are right, that eventually I will get rehired. But I also think it might not happen until I can answer that question as definitively on my own.

Maybe then I won't just "fail better," I'll succeed.

Amy Stupavsky lives in Toronto.

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