One can become unemployed through no fault of one’s own, due to circumstances beyond one’s control. That’s an exact but twisty sentence designed to avoid all of these words and phrases: laid off, excessed, downsized, surplused, separated, sacked, terminated, reorganized, released, reallocated, managed out, fired, let go, discontinued, displaced, discharged, dissolved, RIF’d, canned, hosed, and blown out. This is the language used by the people who endured it, and none of the verbs fully serve the experience of having your work, identity, livelihood, and dignity swept out from underneath you. As one human resources manager put it, “There is no way to say it so that anyone can hear anything but ‘you don’t want me here anymore.”

Layoff seems to be the most commonly used word despite—or maybe because of—a passivity that cheats the impact of the experience. As recently as 1989, the Oxford English Dictionary defined layoff as “a spell of relaxation; a period during which a workman is temporarily dismissed or allowed to leave his work.” But to my understanding losing work does not contain spells of relaxation, and not one person I talked to characterizes the event as something he or she was allowed to do. It is something new, the layoff, and something ubiquitous; as the writer Louis Uchitelle puts it, it has become “a mass phenomenon of American life.”

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