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Job Losses and the Death of Tenure

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

History has taught us that economic catastrophes are the rule, not the exception.

History has taught us that economic catastrophes are the rule, not the exception.

Historic Job Loss

In the month January 2009, more than 818,000 jobs were lost in the United States – one of the worst months in the history of employment. That’s almost a million different people in a single country being told that their source of livelihood was gone, in a span of 31 days. January 2009 was only a fiscal quarter removed from the failure of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, a company name that’s almost synonymous with the Great Recession.

Cherry-Picked, a New Series

If you’re reading this article, I’d like to welcome you to the first in my series entitled, ‘Cherry-Picked’, a series which I hope will resonate with readers who are fond of numbers with a rich story behind them, and the tales of certain situations in society at some point in time.

The very idea of cherry-picking is using a number from a source, often misapplying it or charging ahead to a fast conclusion, without really providing the proper context. But that’s my personal definition, and I myself might just be cherry-picking words out of the linguistic parts of my brain.

What Is 'Cherry-Picking'?

Here are a few definitions of cherry-picking I found on the Internet:

  • Oxford Languages: the action or practice of choosing and taking only the most beneficial or profitable items, opportunities, etc., from what is available.
  • Merriam Webster: to select the best or most desirable.
  • Gary Klass (as cited by Wikipedia): the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. It may be committed intentionally or unintentionally.

I find the Gary Klass definition as the most complete among the first three that were displayed by the search engine. It sounds more illustrative. But without further ado, let’s go back to discussing the 818,000 jobs that were lost during one of the toughest months of the Great Recession.

Was 818,000 Jobs Really a Lot?

Losing almost a million jobs in a single month as a country seems like a lot – and it is. But to put that into perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 20.5 million jobs were lost in April 2020 – which was an all-time high. With that, the 818,000 jobs lost looks like a piece of cake – it was less than 5 percent of the number of people losing jobs due the first awful month of the COVID-19 pandemic. 20.5 million jobs lost is remarkably severe.

Then again, the job losses in 2009 would continue further for the rest of the year, but statistically never came close to what the country suffered in 2020. Although some would still argue that the United States and the rest of the world haven’t yet fully recovered from the recession – and so incremental, scattered effects happen such as stagnant wages, unaffordable housing, and high volatility on the price of goods and services.

But I’m not an economist, nor do I think or feel that I have enough competence to provide a full-blown analysis on the economic effects of either the recession or the ongoing pandemic. What I can provide is my own perspective, perception, and experience – what does the 818,000 jobs lost in 2009 mean to me? What was happening around me here, in my home country of the Philippines, when 20.5 million citizens of the United States became unemployed?

What Job Losses Meant to Me in the Philippines

In January 2009, I had no such direct experience with losing a job or having my personal income impacted borne by the recession. I was in my graduating year of high school and thankfully, I had the privilege of going to college because of the relatively low cost of intermediate education in my country and also because I received financial support from my family.

In April 2020 though, it was a whole lot different. Like many of the private companies at the time, my employer was at its early stages of implementing remote work. It was a very confusing and anxious time for me.

Knowing through mainstream media that all these companies laid off thousands of their employees (and sometimes over a Zoom call), there was no telling whether I’d wake up one morning and receive the terrible news that a regular paycheck was no longer coming my way.

Being bombarded by news of job losses felt like no one’s job was safe – thousands of employees from around my city lost their jobs and were involuntarily included in the government’s Social Amelioration Program, a temporary monthly handout of 5,000 pesos (roughly 100 USD) to each who lost his job because of the pandemic.

While I felt and am feeling lucky to have kept my job all this time, witnessing the layoffs that happened during 2020 was a stark reminder that job security is a mere fantasy. We’d all like to think that someday we will find a calling that’s stable and untouchable by external factors such as recessions and pandemics, but economic disasters are the rule, rather than the exception.

Major worldwide disruptions to the economy happen almost every decade – they’re easier to expect rather than avoid and grow anxious over.

The fact that major economic upheaval is fairly common on a global scale has changed my idea about "job security." Does "job security" truly exist?

The fact that major economic upheaval is fairly common on a global scale has changed my idea about "job security." Does "job security" truly exist?

Macroeconomic Catastrophes Are the Norm, Not the Exception

If we look deeper into history, we will find that macroeconomic catastrophes which displace workers from their jobs and cause instability are rather the norm than the exception.

  • In 1920, a post-WW1 recession happened.
  • It would be followed less than a decade later, when the Wall Street Crash of 1929 happened which was a prelude to the 1930’s Great Depression.
  • And who could forget Black Monday in 1987, as dramatized in the movie Wolf of Wall Street, when the stock market crashed on October 19, 1987. Worldwide losses were said to be around 1.7 trillion USD.
  • Then the Asian financial crisis of 1997 happened, which caused the Dow Jones to drop 7.2 percent on October 27, 1997.
  • And before the Great Recession of 2008-2009 happened, in 2000 the Dot-com bubble burst, leading to several Internet companies losing millions in value in a short span of time.

Capitalism, which is the world’s financial system, is unpredictable. The degree to which governments regulate (or de-regulate) their markets means that unsound decisions can be made by big businesses very often – sometimes leading to an uncontrollable chain reaction that unintentionally affects other sectors of the economy. Sometimes it is the system itself that causes the catastrophe – such as inefficient supply chains and local government red tape.

What Does This Mean for Job Security?

When I got my first real job as a maintenance engineer back in 2015, my assumption was that I’d stay employed by the same company for the rest of my career, moving up the ladder until there were no more rungs to step on. Six years later, my assumptions have completely changed.

I no longer see any straight path to career advancement – what was once a ladder now turned into a maze, a ‘river maze.’ Sometimes I go whichever direction the water takes me, but when I’m lucky and the current isn’t against me, I paddle towards the destination I desire for my career.

Acknowledging the several economic disruptions that have happened throughout history – remembering the 818,000 Americans who were forced to look for new jobs in January 2020 – you come to the realization that job security is just an ideal.

While the Labor Code of the Philippines tells me that, statutorily, all employees ‘enjoy’ security of tenure – really, this is just a regulation to prevent employers from abusing their power over their workers.

At the end of the day, employers are not immune to the effects of major economic catastrophes. They either overcome it, suffer through it, or go out of business. Knowing that companies ultimately cannot escape these disasters, job security becomes all-too-fragile.

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.