Tech layoffs can trigger an identity crisis for workers who are let go
Feb 7, 2023

Tech layoffs can trigger an identity crisis for workers who are let go

Many firms cultivated an almost religious sense of devotion from their workers and offered great benefits and perks. Some laid-off workers are now suffering existential distress.

During Meta’s earnings call last week, Mark Zuckerberg said something that seemed to perfectly capture the vibe in tech as layoffs continue to climb. The CEO said the company was in a “phase change” and that 2023 will be “a year of efficiency.”

For tech workers, it’s a striking contrast to a mythology that had been building for more than a decade: the conspicuously cushy tech job. You can see it on TikTok, where videos like those from @missnicoletsai have become a popular genre. In some, she illustrates “a day in my life working from the Google LA office” or says, “I’m gonna head over to the Confetti Room to take my next meeting. It’s so sparkly and beautiful in here.”

It was a glittering vision of rainbows and all-you-can-drink cold brew. But a few weeks later, she posted “a day in my life getting laid off at Google.” Cue the online schadenfreude.

“I’m not rooting for anyone to lose their jobs. But I think there’s a big reckoning happening right now with employee expectations,” said Nolan Church, who is now a tech recruiting consultant and previously worked with DoorDash and Google.

Over the last decade, he said, there was a combination of easy money and hard-to-find talent in tech. That spurred a kind of arms race to be known as the best place to work. “But in hindsight, this created a generation of employees who expect to be coddled,” he added. “Now, employees are candidly shocked that their jobs are no longer safe, that the perks and amenities that they once had are evaporating quite fast.”

But to software engineer Negar Bayati, Google’s catered lunches, on-site doctor and unlimited time off were more than just fringe benefits. “It meant a lot to me. Like, oh, this company doesn’t view me as a robot, they actually see me as a human being,” she said.

This made it all the more jarring when Bayati woke up a few weeks ago to a big, red exclamation point on her company login screen. “Just to see that my role was eliminated overnight, it was a little bit disorienting,” she recalled. “And I didn’t realize how it was getting intertwined with my own identity until I lost it.”

Tech companies have cultivated an almost religious sense of devotion from their workers, said Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book “Work Pray Code.”

“They’ve built this kind of ecosystem where work is really your sole source of identity, meaning and purpose in life,” Chen said.

Not to mention child care, transportation and food. “When that is taken away from you, when you’re laid off, you’re completely flattened, devastated,” Chen added. “It really starts an existential crisis.”

Chen said these mass layoffs and the casual indifference with which many people have been let go could forever shatter the illusion that a “dream job” in tech is anything more than just a job.

Bayati had a lot more to say about her experience working, and then being laid off, at Google. When she moved to the U.S. from Iran about six years ago to attend graduate school at Georgia Tech, she said she never imagined ending up at one of the most legendary tech companies in the world.

Negar Bayati: We had these stickers put up in the office just a few weeks ago that said, “You belong here.” And I love the idea behind it, especially because imposter syndrome. I think a lot of us felt like we didn’t belong, or when I felt that I wasn’t good enough on a weekly basis just because I was in a place that I never thought I would be. And I remember two days before [getting laid] off, we went to grab lunch with my team members. And I saw this big sticker on the door, and I said, “I love what you’re doing. But I feel like if you’re going to have layoffs at some point in the future, these stickers [are] gonna turn to a dark joke of like, ‘You belong here. But also give me your badge.'”

Meghan McCarty Carino: Tell me about getting laid off. How did you find out about that?

Bayati: I rushed to get my laptop, I opened it and I saw a big, red exclamation mark saying, “You don’t have access.” And my heart just sank. I remembered how excited I was when I called my parents to tell them that I got the job at Google. And I just couldn’t bring myself to call them and tell them that I lost it. And I remember sitting there and thinking, “This is just a job, but why [does it feel] so much more than that?” And I feel like it wasn’t very healthy for me to put this much weight into a job. And it felt so contrasting of: I spent the last year trying to fit in, trying to believe that I belong, that I was working on something important, especially working on accessibility. It has so much meaning for me that I felt like I was doing something very impactful. And just to see that my role was eliminated overnight, it kind of was a little bit disorienting.

McCarty Carino: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about how much of your life was kind of built around work. I know there’s been a lot of commentary about the Google bus and the meals and how all of those things kind of serve to make your workplace kind of the provider of so many things in your life, all the social activities that happen. I mean, was that the case for you, especially given that you were new to this place?

Bayati: So it was this one place that provided everything, and losing that was also a little bit … it caught me off guard. For instance, I had a doctor’s appointment today, and I just realized that, “Oh, I cannot go into that building anymore because it’s for employees, and I can’t even access my doctor. I need to find another doctor.” And I feel like it wasn’t very healthy for me to put this much weight into a job and kind of define my self-worth or my “Who am I?” as “Oh, I’m an employee of this company. I’m a Googler,” and let it become part of me instead of just being part of my professional life.

Carolyn Chen, the UC Berkeley sociologist, said she’s been hearing similar things. For her book “Work Pray Code,” she spent years interviewing tech workers in Silicon Valley about the spiritual dimension of their jobs and their devotion to their employers. Now, with the layoffs, many say they feel betrayed.

Carolyn Chen: It feels really arbitrary. It’s just like, “What? I’ve been working my butt off for this, and you’re taking the job away from me.” It feels really arbitrary. And it’s really hard to then put your faith back into the system.

McCarty Carino: It’s been this run of almost 15 years where to be a tech worker has been like a fantasy. It’s been like this golden dream. Does this fundamentally change the calculus, does it change something fundamental?

Chen: The last time something like this happened was in the early 2000s. And in my research, I saw that there were two different attitudes towards work. The prevailing attitude, which was among younger workers, millennials, that really work was a source of fulfillment, your sense of meaning and purpose and identity. That’s sort of the prevailing, I think, Silicon Valley approach towards work. But there’s this other set of workers, and these were older workers who had been laid off in the early 2000s. And they had at one time had that same kind of approach towards work. And they believed the promises of the company. And then they were sidelined, and they were laid off. And these were folks who had different attitudes towards work. This is the kind of event that really can change, I think, that could really shift a culture, and I think that this, along with a pandemic, I think we’re at the edge possibly of something changing.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer