Employment Nostalgia

I woke up the other morning thinking about how when I quit my job more than seven months ago, I never thought I’d experience nostalgia about my twelve-year career there. At least not to the degree that I have.

It wasn’t the first time that I had quit a job, not the first time I left behind coworkers, not the first time I walked out of my work building for the last time. But there was a unique combination of the large amount of my life that I had spent there, the people I met, and the experiences I had that left me ruminating.

Working in three different positions and offices stretched out over twelve years of your life when you’re 35 years old, you just don’t get to walk away from that without feeling anything. When I stood in that parking lot next to my car on the evening of my last workday and I turned and looked back at that building, I told myself I wasn’t going to miss that place.

I was thinking about all the negative experiences I had while working there, especially those of the last three years. But what I hadn’t allowed myself to think about or feel were the positive experiences. Maybe because I was too spiteful or maybe because it would make getting into my car and driving away difficult.

Lately, I’ve been trying to put into words what my experiences have been like. Trying to find a new job has been far more of a challenge than I honestly thought it was going to be. I expected to be unemployed for no longer than 4 months, 6 months max. Maybe it’s the labor market or maybe all those years of bosses telling me my performance was great and my skills marketable – perhaps they were all just lying to me. After a while of unemployment you begin to lose confidence and convince yourself the latter is true.

At any rate, these last several months of unemployment have allowed me time and space to ruminate about the seventeen years I spent in the workforce in full-time employment, and the six different job titles I held over those years.

Being unemployed has mostly been a new experience for me, as I started working full-time right out of high school and except for a few short weeks here or there, I had remained employed at one job or another ever since. So for me, this experience has felt like a break-up or like a divorce. A strange and new experience I have never known.

One of those situations where you assumed you’d be together forever until you hit a few rough years and you’re so over the relationship that your prolonged bitterness initially makes you view the whole thing as a totally negative experience, only to later remember the good shit after you’ve separated and had time away to reflect.

That’s not to say you’ve forgotten all the drama or the bad things, nor even forgiven them, it just means that you’ve allowed yourself to see the bigger picture and remember that it wasn’t all shit all the time.

I had a conversation a while back with a friend who used to work a retail job in his twenties at an entertainment store that sold books, videos, games, etc., and I specifically remember him talking about how the pay and hours were shit, but that he had really enjoyed the overall experience and had nostalgia about it. This was not the first time someone had said something like that to me about low-paying past employment, it seems to be common.

Could there be something to that experience or is it all just nostalgia about what used to be? Is it merely a coincidence that so many of us look back on jobs we had when we were younger, jobs that had low pay, with a sense of fondness? Or are we all just under the illusion of nostalgia and in fact it was generally a crappy job that we’re all the better for leaving?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I share in the experience. I won’t go into the details of the last position I held at my former employer (the one I quit several months ago), but I really don’t have nostalgia for that position, at least not yet. What I’ve been having nostalgia over is the first position I ever held at that employer, during the timeframe of 2008 – 2017.

That low-paying position where I was struggling to keep my head above water, living paycheck to paycheck, complaining all the time about how I didn’t have enough money, terrified all the time that I was about to face financial ruin if my car broke down or if I got fired. Even though I’ve now been unemployed since February 2021, I’m still in a financially better place than I was the nine years I held that job.

Seems wildly absurd that I would have nostalgia over that time in my life. When I was hired into that job in 2008, it was a different world, or at least it felt like it was to 22-year-old me. Young and less concerned with the on-goings of the wider world, I didn’t have a lot of worries. A simpler time.

However, I don’t feel nostalgic over that job merely because I was younger. It’s the people I met and experiences I had over those nine years and two months that I spent there.

In many ways the job was easy in its mundane and monotonous nature, some times so boring you wanted to slam your face into the keyboard for the sake of a little excitement. So, not every day was butterflies and rainbows. I might have nostalgia but I’m not delusional about the reality of what took place there.

Like any workplace, there was all kinds of drama, gossiping, backstabbing, and the like. Admittedly, some of that drama was caused by me and my poorly treated mental illness, triggered by the stress I occasionally encountered. There are people I worked with during those years that I’m glad I no longer have to deal with or even see.

Despite all of that, there are things I miss. A lot of people joined and left the team I was a part of during those nine years, not only the full-time staff but also the temporary staff that we hired on a seasonal basis. I can safely estimate that I met and closely worked with over 1,000 people during that time in my life. Most of their names and faces I have long since forgotten because the nature of the temporary job only allowed them to work with me for six months.

That’s not to say I forgot them all, in fact I keep (or attempt to keep) in touch with many of them, the ones that made the biggest impact on me. Some of the most profound or memorable experiences of my life happened during this period due to the interactions I had with some of those people. A primary reason I harbor so much nostalgia about that job.

So much time has passed in the years since I left that some of the people I worked with are no longer here among the living and have already been gone for nearly a decade. I’m sure there’s some kind of life lesson in here somewhere, about savoring the time we have with the people currently in our lives. If there’s anything true about life it’s that it changes, all the time.

What feels like forever in the future, will quickly become a memory of a distant past. I think we all look back ever-so-often and think about what used to be, perhaps we do feel somewhat bitter about the more recent things, but the more distant the time and place the more grateful we become.

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