2009 / 9月
Chen Hsin-yi /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell
The information age has changed the types and nature of work. With rigorous competition resulting from globalization, working life has become filled with uncertainty, pressure, and anxiety. Last year's financial tsunami has only added to feelings of insecurity. Stories of sudden "derailments" of working life, whether from health factors, "structural unemployment," or sudden layoffs, are playing out all around us.
Therefore the subject of this article will not be "how to get from one peak to the next," but: How can one deal with unanticipated valleys in career life? We will look at some people who have been at the top, and see how they are getting through the low times. When life is no longer a wild ride in the fast lane, what kind of scenery do they see? What have they learned?
"Every day I work until late at night, and I've been suffering from insomnia, depression, and high blood pressure for four years. But all my co-workers are the same way, so how can I not go along with everyone else?" Ah Zhe, a product project engineer in the hi-tech industry, discovers as he is nearing 40 that he is facing the difficulty of a mid-life career change, with no chance to go back to square one and prepare for a new future. A "high-end coolie," as he wryly calls himself, he makes little more on a per-hour basis than a worker in a fast-food restaurant. And although there is profit sharing to look forward to, you have to be careful that you don't get laid off first.
Dramatic changes in the workplace environment have not come overnight. Besides the hi-tech industry, many other white-collar professions long thought glorious had begun to lose their luster well before the current economic downturn, because of changes in the environment for the given industry or because of extreme competition in the marketplace.
Take for example the electronic media. Back in the 1990s, three terrestrial broadcasters enjoyed an oligopoly, but today, there are more than 100 cable or over-the-air stations. News workers with passion and a capacity for hard work enjoyed sudden career take-offs, never expecting that there would come a day when they couldn't beat out the competition, and it would all collapse.
Born in 1970, Yang Zhonghua attended the World College of Journalism (now Shih Hsin University), and, three years after completing his military service, entered the electronic media profession. Starting as an ordinary reporter, he later became an anchor, head of the "special case" task force, and vice-director of the Center for Crime and Social News at SETTV television network. But in his eleventh year, he suddenly began to wonder what all the hard work was for.Hard times
"As a reporter we were on call virtually 24 hours a day, and when I moved into management it was even more like fighting a war. Every day there were endless meetings, and you also had to deal with internal backbiting and office politics." When he submitted his letter of resignation, in fact he had not thought at all about what he would do next. "Leaving the protective umbrella of the company was quite a big risk, all the more so as I had a mortgage to pay and my family to look after. But I felt in the end that if work was just burning yourself to ash, rather than giving off light and heat, then to keep on would be like throwing my life away."
In December of 2008, a small street stall of only about six square meters, hung with the sign "Anchorman Gongwan," opened-to the astonishment of many passersby-in the Xizhi evening market. Before then, Yang had gone through a tough year, only earning a little pocket money by getting voiceover jobs through his connections in the media, and he had begun to wonder if he shouldn't go back into media. But suddenly his uncle, who sold hand-made gongwan (meatballs), passed away. On his deathbed he ordered his nephew to "carry on the tradition of craftsmanship." It was only then that Yang woke up, and he took over his uncle's business.
In fact, Yang had worked with his uncle for a while after getting out of the military. "My uncle insisted on doing things by hand the old-fashioned way. The trick to getting the gongwan chewy and crispy is in the wrist action that second that you put them in the pot." In order to be able to do this "simple" movement repeatedly without error, Yang practiced 12 hours a day for the first three months after opening for business, enduring joint inflammation and numbness in his hands, gradually mastering the necessary skills.
What about outsiders who wonder how he was able to give up his high social status? Yang responds: "In fact, when I was a reporter, every day I spent my time in crowds and in the streets, so now it's just a case of going back into the crowds." Having grown up in a military dependents' community, the ambience of his life today, sweating with labor and shouting out to attract customers, is actually closer, as he says, to "the real me." "What's more," he adds, "when I was an anchorman I just looked into machines all day long, which felt very empty, but now I can rediscover the fun of interacting with other people."
Business is currently steaming at "Anchorman Gongwan." Besides his own shop where he makes fresh gongwan every day, there are four franchise shops in Taipei, Taichung, and Chungli. He also offers a 50% discount on the NT$150,000 franchise fee for the first 10 people to join. All in all, monthly revenues are nearly NT$1 million.
Yang offers the following footnote to the story of derailed lives: "From anchorman to street vendor, a lot of people encouraged me to persevere along the way. But what I really hope is that everyone will persevere. In these hard times, please don't kowtow to life!"Song of the failures
For a long time now, the media and bookstores have been packed with stories of corporate giants who built empires out of nothing, or overcame tremendous obstacles to succeed, as well as purported "how-to" handbooks for similar achievement. They have stimulated many people to aspire to vast wealth and perfect bliss. Although such stories and books can have a certain inspirational value for readers, the implied standards of materialism and elitism also deepen the feelings of inadequacy and sadness of ordinary people.
In his book Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Zygmunt Bauman points out that in advanced countries the "producer society" has passed, never to return, as the industrial age has become history. Such a society is characterized by careers that are stable and long lasting, with jobs that have a uniform logic and tight structural integration. The "consumer society," which took shape beginning in the late 1950s in many countries, is dominated by a surplus of labor and consumer aesthetic. The new poor quietly endure the double stress of "a low standard of living" and "a high sense of relative deprivation." This type of stress, under current conditions of an economic system of deregulation, will only increase, not decline.
Faced with a changing world, maybe we need a different perspective than elitism that will be more broadly humanistic.
The Akira Kurosawa film Tokyo Sonata (2008), which has won 14 international prizes, vividly and accurately captures the sadness and pressures of midlife unemployment.
The film is set against the background of Japan's long period of economic stagnation. The main character, a 46-year-old corporate executive, has devoted most of his life to work, but becomes sacrificed to corporate downsizing. To maintain his authority as head of his household, he dares not tell anyone, but spends every day in the park as one of the "homeless office workers." Picking up free meal tickets handed out by the government, he meets a past classmate who has also fallen on hard times. The latter, to deceive his wife, even has set his cell phone to ring automatically five times an hour so he looks constantly busy, when in fact he is forcing himself into a dead end....Facing the real you
Dr. Wang Jen-pang, who practices at the Songde Branch of the Taipei City Hospital and has a lot of experience with family therapy, says that career stability is critical to contemporary people not only for the income, but for a deeper reason: Job status is an important factor in the respect and attention we get from most people. Perhaps before losing our jobs, we can think, "Without my title, without my sales achievements, without my workplace personal network, without a salary to calculate my value, what do I have left? Have I been using being busy at work as an excuse to avoid personal or family problems?
"KenWorker" (Wu Chien-i), who is fairly well known in the blog world, has revealed that his life also ran aground at one point.
In an interview with Cheers magazine, he said that between 30 and 36 years of age, he left his well-paid job as a music video director to throw himself into the then-budding Internet industry. But after the global dot-com bubble burst in 2001, his morale was completely shattered. Unable to cope with his disappointment, he became fearful and anxious, leading to divorce, excessive drinking, insomnia, barhopping.... Finally he escaped to Canada where, getting help from relatives, he worked as a part-time house painter paid by the hour.
"What's strange is that when I slowed down, the world became wider, and I refound the passion for travel that I felt many years before. That passion brought me back to life," says Wu. He recently left his job at a travel agency, and became a full-time blogger. At 43, his motto today is: Happiness means having an ordinary, simple life.Slow down!
Sudden career transformations are unpredictable, and do not spare anyone just because of status or age. Penny Pan, who was assistant editor-in-chief for food and travel at Next magazine and turns 50 this year, is a case in point. When the financial tsunami rolled in at the end of 2008, she was unexpectedly "pulled down out of my position." But like KenWorker, after going through this derailment, she feels "filled with gratitude."
Pan, a longtime media veteran with a natural "godfather" (or rather "godmother"!) personality, handled three episodes of downsizing for the company over past seven years before 2008. However, thinking back to the economic implosion at the end of 2008, when there was a sharp decline in circulation and advertising revenues, "That was really frightening," she recalls. "I was really worried about the company's stability, and I also felt a duty to do something to look after coworkers who had been laid off."
Therefore, with her eye on the budget that government agencies have in recent years been setting aside to promote tourism and dining in Taiwan, and acting on her own initiative, she ran all over the place getting projects for the company. Even her semi-retired husband was enlisted as a "volunteer" assistant, while Pan ran herself so ragged that she had painful skin rashes all the time.
Little did she expect that burning the candle at both ends to protect the company would invite a rumor that she was really off pursuing personal profit. One day she was called in by her superior, and the same day it was announced that she had been laid off.
The day after the incident, she returned to her office to collect her things, and she wrote a letter to the boss of the company expressing "regret, but also gratitude." "At that time my team were really stunned, and they thought that my tranquility was just putting a good face on things. In fact, I think that the workplace is a bit like a marriage. When my superiors no longer trusted me, I could only say that we had lost our chemistry, and I didn't feel like trying to explain."
In fact, back at home, it was she who had to spend three days and nights calming and consoling her husband. "He was sad and angry. He wondered how my sincere and honest efforts could get twisted into such a story. He thought he had to force me to go back and clear my name." One colleague also phoned her privately to encourage her to go back and fight.
Pan explains that she was personally able to accept the facts calmly largely because of her naturally optimistic personality and her Christian beliefs. It was also because she didn't lack for material things in life, including a large severance payment and her own endowment insurance, which had matured and could be cashed in. "I could finally take a good long rest."
Nonetheless, in her heart she still felt an inescapable regret that "my character had been sullied." To herself she thought that if only she had been a little smarter, she would have chosen "early retirement" back when the company offered employees a choice between reduced salary and a package of incentives to retire early. Then she would have avoided the whole mess. "On the other hand, if I had not been pushed down by such an overwhelming force, maybe I would never have dared to leave for the rest of my life. All I can say is that there are few opportunities to turn your life in another direction, and it was lucky for me that I ran into one."
With time on her hands in the half year since leaving her job, Pan's greatest gain has been "I am starting to learn refinement." From culinary reporter to chief editor, her mind was preoccupied with being critical, finding fault. The whole rhythm of dining was uptempo leading to problems of weight gain, stomach infections, and similar "occupational hazards." Now she takes her time shopping in the market, tasting this and smelling that at a leisurely pace, and she cooks healthy food at home which she eats slowly, with concentration. As a bonus, she has also "begun to feel more of the satisfying aspects of married life."Glory days....
In a lost era, ordinary people seem to get a particular kick out of stories of how the mighty are fallen, from former "beauty-queen legislator" Wang Hsueh-fung (who was seen by the media helping her mother-in-law scavenging garbage) to entertainers brought down by romantic or sexual antics, to the many athletes on the verge of losing their professional careers. These types of stories have a certain "voyeur" impact, and also (not necessarily consciously) reinforce the mainstream social moral lesson of "nothing is more important than fame, wealth, and status." These factors often cause people to overlook the fact that careers in these special professions are by their very nature likely to be short-lived, because of the fickleness of voters, or the inevitable decline of physical skills or beauty.
Nevertheless, before we lapse into pathos, why not have a listen to how people who have "returned to the common crowd" have dealt with these changes in life?
Chiu Chi-pin, now 35, was once captain of Taiwan's Asian Cup baseball team and was formerly a coach on the Chinatrust Whales. He says that professional players spend all their energy and attention on the diamond, and often don't have the time for, or even give a thought to, developing a second skill. "But I knew that sooner or later I would leave the playing field, so three years ago I enrolled at the National College of Physical Education and Sports (now National Taiwan Sport University), using every weekend to take courses in the undergraduate program there. I hoped that I could eventually carry on my passion for baseball through teaching in school."
Although he was studying in his spare time, the year before last the company forced him and four other coaches to take a leave of absence from school on the grounds that "player development requires complete commitment." Then, last November the Whales announced the team was disbanding. Although a coach, he was notified only on the day of the announcement. "I felt really let down. After investing 11 years of my life, I got only two months severance pay. And when you figure that the economy was so bad last year, everyone was really at a loss for what to do."
Early this year, Chiu and more than 20 other retired pro ballplayers collectively went to take the test to fill technician openings for the maintenance team of the Hydraulic Engineering Office of the Taipei City Government. Unfortunately, there were too many people for too few jobs, and only three were hired; Chiu himself narrowly missed out.
Fortunately, under a government program to encourage development of baseball in Taiwan, the four cities and counties with teams began recruiting. Chiu, filled with hope, joined in the selection process for coaches for the Taipei City team. However, with a lot of more senior people also competing, he ended up being first alternative.
"After seeing the list, I swallowed my pride and called Li Anxi, one of the coaches who had been selected. We had only met once before, when we all took the test for the maintenance team, but I knew he had gotten one of those openings, so that now he had two job opportunities. So I said to him: I really need this job, and am willing to work hard to help professional baseball, I wonder if you would be willing to give this opportunity to me?"
It was in this way that Chiu was fortunate enough to become infield coach on the Taipei City baseball team. "I called Li to thank him for making way for me, and all he said was that he did it as his own personal choice. I was moved by his maturity in the way he looked after me."
Chiu certainly values his current position, but he knows from his brief experience "off the rails" that the tracks under his train can change direction without warning at any time. He is no longer so extravagant that he hopes for a permanent job, which has made him even more determined to continue studying.After the fall
Just like those in sports or entertainment, political figures may also see their careers come to a screeching halt. Some democratic countries have retirement plans for elected officials to attract professionals into politics. After former legislator Wang Hsueh-fung had her situation revealed in the media, on top of the fact that last year the number of legislative seats was cut in half (from 225 to 113), some political commentators began to call for something similar in Taiwan.
In contrast to politicians who are complaining about their fate and calling for lifetime guarantees, former Democratic Progressive Party legislator Phoenix Cheng is of the group of genuinely capable people who are consciously "separating themselves from all forms of special privilege and making their own way in life."
Fifteen years ago, Cheng, then still studying in the Department of Civil Engineering at National Taiwan University, followed one of his teachers in becoming actively involved in the first election for the mayor of Taipei City. After finishing his military service, he became director of the office of policy in the campaign of Kaohsiung mayor Frank Hsieh. Later, at age 27 he became the youngest-ever director of the Department of Information in the DPP's history, and in 2004 was in charge of PR for Chen Shui-bian's presidential campaign.
"I didn't belong to any faction, I didn't come from a political family, and I wasn't the heir to some big corporation, so my political career was really fortunate, because those above dared to give me an opportunity, and I was not afraid to take the chances offered," says Cheng.
Describing the nature of political careers, he relates: "Looking around at the people of my generation in the DPP, most of them came out of backgrounds as legislative assistants or as student activists, and got into politics right out of school. But once this job disappears, we have no natural profession to which to return."
Nonetheless, maybe because he's still young, when Cheng lost in his party's primary in 2007 and the loss of his legislative seat was imminent, he didn't panic at all about coming down off the political stage on a moment's notice. On the contrary, working with his assistants and a primary school classmate, he happily came up with hundreds of bizarre career ideas (including a health tea shop), until he ultimately decided to try to make his fortune in the field of cell-phone advertisement ringtones.
Discarding the suit and tie, Cheng looks a lot more comfortable and at ease than before. What hasn't changed is his skepticism and idealism. "I feel that legislators asking for retirement pensions are just fattening themselves at the public trough. The real problem is that politicians in Taiwan enjoy too many special privileges as it is. They take it for granted that they have power and status, and once they've tasted what its like to be around all that power and money, they become obsessed, even morally lost and confused, which is why they feel so angry when they lose their place!"
Looking at the way things are overseas, perhaps we can see even more clearly the excessive anxiety in Taiwan about "what happens to the powerful and famous after leaving the public stage." In 2005, after a 58-year-old legislator in Germany left office, she rejected two job offers from insurance companies. The reason was that "I don't want to find a job from my network of personal contacts; such an action would be detrimental to the public interest." Finally she took a job as a cleaner.
In fact, in Germany there are many cases of both elected officials and high-ranking government officials moving way down the social ladder. Some of the jobs taken include hotel doorman, nanny, and mason. Even more important is that both citizens and officials believe, "There's nothing wrong with being a cleaner. The important thing is to be positive and optimistic in carrying on in life-no jobs are necessarily more noble or ignoble than others."In a lost era, find yourself
Since the 1990s, many sociologists and trend observers have been discussing transformations in personal lives and careers from the three angles of generational change, societal transformation, and mass psychology. Concepts like the cyclical life, the "multi-band" life, and even the "flea lifestyle" (from the book The Elephant and the Flea), have all put a more positive and proactive spin on major changes in life's direction.
To take one example, the American trendologist Maddy Dychtwald wrote in Cycles (published in 2002) that by the end of the last century, people's lives had become more and more "cyclical" rather than "linear." This change is the result of three major developments: the longevity revolution, the reversal of population structure, and the value system of the baby-boom generation in daring to seek self-realization. All aspects of life, including work, love, family, and even recreation and learning, can experience multiple changes in direction in midlife. She concluded that people achieve greater personal growth and satisfaction from these circular rather than linear lives.
Such an outlook undoubtedly has a "liberating" effect. However, in practical daily life, the transformations that people experience in their careers are often the result of layoffs, illness, or natural disaster, and all they can do is passively deal with it.
Check out When Things Fall Apart by Ani Pema Chodron, the first director of North America's first Tibetan Buddhist monastery and one of the few female Buddhist masters in the world. She gently reminds readers that they can build up an enormous reservoir of energy if they are sometimes willing to get close to fear and live tranquilly in a state of non-dependence on anything. So long as you understand yourself, and abandon the inner desire to control everything, she teaches, only then can you develop an open heart and mind, enabling life to move in the direction of true harmony and freedom.
From another point of view, the situations that result in a life that "goes off the rails" are in fact "prompting us to seek the most meaningful things in life, and encouraging us to not care too much about what other people think, but recognize and affirm our own uniqueness" This is the conclusion of Yu Chien-kui, a self-defined "liver of life," who suddenly resigned his job 13 years ago.
Based on similar observations, Shih Hsin University Department of Social Psychology professor Chiu Tian-juh responds that individuals struggle and fight for many things that are simply part of a habitual way of thinking created by the social collective. In a time when the economy is in a downturn and people are anxious, people's attitude toward existence has to be adjusted: The individual has to learn self-control, humility, and perseverance, while relations between people have to shift from competition to tolerance and mutual support. With more kindness and unselfish love, people can walk hand in hand through the turbulent storms of life.