The following post is a guest submission from JR about his personal experiences living with economic difficulties in Canada similar to those that we are experiencing here in the United States. Not only is it encouraging to know that this too shall pass, it provides me motivation to continue to prioritize decisions and make preparations for any unexpected times ahead.
The End of the World: The Sequel
Almost 48 million souls are on food stamps today in Obama’s America, with around 100 million adults not working. The real unemployment rate, the U6, is around 12.6% (hello, Jimmy Carter years!) while true unemployment, as reported by Shadowstats, recently showed a real unemployment rate of 23.2% – very close to the Great Depression rates. Meanwhile, the young – many of who voted for Obama – are now saddled with $1 trillion in student debt, that they cannot get rid of, short of renouncing their citizenship and moving to Mongolia. The Obama administration has arguably done more to destroy the financial well-being (which results in destroyed careers, damaged relationships, un-started marriages, and a hundred other social ills) of this country than any other political movement, war or disaster this nation has seen or experienced throughout its almost 250 year history.
You are 25 years old. Or perhaps 35. You have no career (or real career) to speak of. You have little to no money, and an equal or perhaps lesser amount of hope for the future. You have damaged relationships because of this and marriage, a home, a fulfilling career and children are only a dream.
What Do You Do?
There is, of course, no easy answer. However, similar to Fernando Aguirre, the author of the blog Surviving Argentina, whose website details his living through the even more profound Argentinian socialist financial meltdown of 2001 – I, too, went through a similar experience in another area of the world, British Columbia of the first half of the 1980s. No, it was not Argentina of 20 years later; on the other hand, how does an official unemployment rate peaking at 17.9% (Vancouver) and 24% (Nanaimo) – both of where I lived – strike you? I can tell you it struck me – and profoundly. Perhaps you may benefit from what I experienced, and what I did to get through that time. I hope that is the case. Just as with you, I, too, went through an “end of the world as we know it” scenario, economically speaking. It took many years to emerge from it, but I did. And this was without inheritances, money being given by sympathetic relatives, some profound stroke of good luck, or the like. I was totally and utterly on my own, as many of you are. Like me, you can make it, too – but it will take courage, creativity, elbow grease, and a good dollop of humility. So… let’s get started. I will recount my own story, with the hope that you can extrapolate from what I went through, and hopefully find a way to apply it to your own current situation.
In Feb. 1981, I finished my second graduate degree at University of British Columbia. Both my degrees were in a humanities area, and I found out very quickly that neither of them would provide a salary that would much surpass that of a bus driver. In fact, quite literally, bus drivers made more than more than a few of the jobs I was looking at – and there was competition for them. What is now lost in the mists of time, but critically important for you, the reader, to know, is that during this era, interest rates pushed upwards to 20%. Housing construction collapsed, and British Columbia, which saw 50% of its provincial revenue derived from lumber, imploded financially. Unemployment skyrocketed. One year I submitted between two or three thousand resumes to jobs, using a manual typewriter. The prognosis was that western Canada would be in the financial doldrums for many, many years, and perhaps decades.
In short, if you have gotten this far, I was in the same shoes you most likely are now – with the added misfortune of a former wife who had an affair, then I nursed through a benign brain tumor, and who finally divorced me, resulting in a serious clinical depression, as well as a significant flying phobia, further curtailing my work opportunities. There’s more – much more – you get the drift, which is why you are reading this. Your details vary, of course, but no doubt are similar in many respects.
The question was, what to do? Here are some suggestions from someone who has been there:
1. Paul Tournier, a Swiss psychologist who was an adult during the Great Depression and World War II (another era that was not brimming with hope!) has a wonderful, decades old book, called The Adventure of Living (available for free here from Google Books), that might be a good place to start. Part of the book is addressed to women, many of whom wanted nothing more than a good marriage and family. Of course, after World War II, many of the men were dead. While Switzerland was unscathed, the rest of Europe, which he was writing to, was very “scathed.” These people had come through fifteen years of financial depression and the unspeakable horrors of total war. And now, for many of them, their fondest, highest dreams were gone, most likely never to be fulfilled.
Tournier’s book is a short read, but to summarize this for you, his advice was to look for the adventure God calls one to. It may well not have been what you wanted or planned. As a matter of fact, it very likely is not. But Tournier’s call was for his readers to take the unique challenges that present themselves, and take that as an opportunity – and as an adventure. To bring this to the modern day where you live now, do you have the opportunity to teach English in China? Perhaps take what you have trained for – which is unemployable here – and utilize that skill in Lithuania or Liberia. The goal is to get moving. Doors will open up much more readily if you start by putting one foot in front of the other, following what light – however little that may seem – you have. Think of driving: it is difficult to steer a car that is not moving; it is much easier to steer a car that is in motion. Of course the hardest thing is to initiate that motion – a body at rest tends to remain at rest. So engage friends or family as you strategize; make specific plans, and hold to them. In my case, I ended up in northern Canada, living in temperatures Americans, and even 90% of Canadians, have never even imagined. And you know what? I had the time of my life. I learned, I made some money, I got experience, and set the stage for the next step in my life. Yes, I was afraid – very afraid – to make the move. In fact, I was more afraid of making that move than anything else in life, except for one, single thing – and that was never having had the courage to have taken a reasonable risk. (I mean by this that you should not do stupid things; but a risk that is weighed out, and not going to result in putting life or limb in jeopardy, should be considered, in conjunction with counsel from friends, family, and both reflection and – if you are of the type – prayer).
2. Retrain. Many people are intellectually lazy, which is often in part built around physical laziness. It was the famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi who once said “fatigue makes coward of us all.” Get in shape, and stay there. You needn’t become a triathlete, but you must keep in physical shape and maintain your physical edge. And you must retrain. After leaving British Columbia, I also left the field I trained in. In the mid-1980s, I had never turned a computer on in my life – nor am I naturally gifted at computers. Nevertheless, within four years, I had become a network engineer and proficient enough to make a good living in the computer world. Was it easy? Absolutely not. Was it my ideal job? No. But it was acceptable enough, and it allowed me to buy a home, slowly move out of the clinical depression I was in, and I made reasonable money. Quite a move forward from just a few years earlier. And once the ball was rolling, it continued forward. But none of this would have happened if I had not weighed my options, and taken reasonable risks.
In 1986, I had made a major move across the continent to a city where I knew not a single soul, but where there was a better economy – Ottawa, Ontario. I am not an eastern boy, nor do I like the east. I either lived right on the border of, or in, Quebec – a stretch, given that I knew not a word of French at the time. Yet, I was able to progress my new career in technology further, and eventually met and married my lovely wife, with whom I have now been happily married 25 years. None of this was easy, and I was not – and still am not – a natural born technical person. Rather, I had to put in what seemed to be double or triple the work of those around me, just to keep pace. But the alternative was a slow emotional, financial and spiritual death if I had remained in place. As I often reminded myself, “the only way out was through!”
Speaking of being rooted in place, and not amenable to change and growth, I am reminded of one of the worst ferry disasters in recent history, the MS Estonia that sank in the Baltic in 1994, killing 852 passengers. One of the few survivors recounts running by one passenger, immobile on deck, cigarette between his lips, as he dashed to safety, encouraging him to move. The other person clearly did not – and his immobility killed him. Your immobility may not kill you physically, but it well might kill a career or other opportunities.
No one is saying you should take foolhardy risks. In fact, doing this is the precise equal and opposite error of staying in place and dying a slow death of attrition. Rather, there is a third way, between the twin horns of stupid gambling and craven timidity. It is your job to thread that needle between the two. While it isn’t easy, it is your only chance. The good thing, though, is that this is like baseball – you don’t have to hit one thousand. A swing and a miss is not catastrophic usually – so remind yourself that all you can do is the best you can do, and then if you have left everything on the field, then you have done what you could.
Fast forward to 1994. I am either living in Quebec, near Quebec in Ottawa, or working there. The province is an eyelash from separating from English Canada, which would lead to a financial disaster. My French is still not winning any awards, so we decided to take another calculated risk: move to the US. Another adventure, another major change. More retraining and into yet another field. And despite many similarities between the Canada and the US, they are not the same. (Just imagine moving from Selma, Alabama to NYC – then multiply that by ten). I moved into hospital automation, yet another new field I had never worked in before, and finally end up leaving the technical world and moving into project management – which was finally utilizing some of the skills I did my graduate work in. And I am finally being paid well.
But none of this would have happened if I had not taken the risk to make the moves noted above. But, you say you don’t have the courage? Remember: Courage is what you show when you precisely don’t feel like it. There is an old story from WWI of a new recruit to the front trenches. Just before they went over the top to charge the German lines, the recruit, full of bravado, saw his sergeant shaking. “Sergeant, I believe you are afraid,” he remonstrated him. “Yes… and if you knew half of what I know, you’d be shaking, too!” was his reply. If you don’t have the courage to take big steps, then take the largest steps you can, no matter how small. But get moving.
Upon moving to the US (the Chicago area), I was offered a job which entailed driving to Gary, Indiana every day for two years. At that time, Gary had been voted the most dangerous city in the US nine of the previous ten years. Worse, it was 175 miles round trip per day. No one in my company wanted to take it, of course. However, I checked out the city, and the one safe area of the city was where the hospital was – there was really no danger to my safety that there wouldn’t be anywhere else in a big city, as long as I stayed within the bounds where it was safe. Even better, I made $1,000/month for mileage back and forth to the customer site. I went out and bought a very used Hyundai Excel – no power brakes, windows, nothing – for $3,000 – and the rest of the money went on my mortgage. Over two years, this amounted to $20,000 tax free dollars. All money that everyone else shunned by not looking into opportunity, but rather dismissed out of hand. Even better, the people at the hospital were some of the most pleasant people I have ever worked with, and it was a pleasure to go to work every day. Does “the adventure of living” start to become reified to you now?
3. Finally, shun debt. The problem with “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is that you don’t die. Rather, you wake up with a headache, a soiled carpet from retching all night that you now have to clean, and the bill for the party. A couple examples for you: By our mid-50s, my wife and I had, between the two of us, since we got our driving licenses, spent a grand total of perhaps $55,000 dollars total, between the two of us, over 40 driving years. An automobile is the biggest drain on money you will have in this life. Be creative and keep costs down with what you drive. And for you guys, who want that “hot” car to get the girls, let me ask you this: Exactly what kind of long term relationship are you going to have with a woman who goes out with you for the kind of vehicle you drive? In contrast, I knew my wife loved me, because she put up with the 15 year old car I drove at the time. I had a good girlfriend and a crummy car. Much better than a crummy girlfriend and a good car.
I am not advocating being a miser. If there are things you really and truly enjoy, do so. But don’t buy into the materialism trap. Many of those in trouble buy things they don’t need, to impress people they either don’t know, or like, and with money they don’t have. Why? As with the old drug commercial, “Just say no.” Brown bag your lunch. Car pool or take the train. Find creative ways to vacation, such as house swapping. Be creative in saving money, particularly in areas where you don’t really have a strong predilection towards something.
To bring this to a close, the above provides you three golden threads (read George McDonald’s 1872 fairy tale, the Princess and the Goblin, if you want to learn more about golden threads) to at least start you on the path.
I, too, have been in a similar situation. Your mileage will vary, but as Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn once sang, you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. I titled this article “The End of the World: The Sequel” because there are others who have gone through similar, exceedingly difficult things, as you are now. You are not alone in this experience. But you can find that adventure that is yours. Just keep knocking and keep seeking, and the door will indeed be opened for you.