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Creative unemployment: making the most of not working

Behind the unemployment statistics are untold stories of frustration, financial struggle, and self-doubt. Perhaps even less known, however, are the stories of unemployed people who take control of their free time and turn the hiatus into a progressive experience.

In the late 1970s, when unemployment was increasing dramatically, Walli Leff and Marilyn Haft, authors of ''Time Without Work'' (South End Press, Boston, $9) , set out to discover how unemployed people felt about the experience, what they did with their time, and how they made ends meet. They interviewed 145 unemployed men and women, ages 19 to 85, across the country.

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''When we started interviewing, we assumed there would be a big difference if the person was voluntarily or involuntarily unemployed. But in fact we found that did not make a great deal of difference,'' says Ms. Leff. Instead they began to divide the interviewees into those who took an affirmative view and those with a ''resistant'' view toward their situation. Ms. Leff estimates about half the people they interviewed took an affirmative view.

For the most part, she found that those who were able to structure their time creatively were not overwhelmed by the fact that they had 24 hours of time to do what they wished and were able to cope with not having enough money coming in.

''Even if they were poor, they would never let (the lack of money) stop them from doing what they wanted to do,'' says Ms. Leff. Those with a negative view ''were stymied by not being able to pay the rent and let it take over their whole consciousness.''

One laid-off construction worker had been out of work six or seven months but still found money to take his children out to eat occasionally and to take them traveling: ''I have as much going for me as a lot of people do when they're unemployed. I handle my money well. A lot of men in construction don't know how to handle their money. They make $500 a week and they're broke in the middle of the next week. But I'm a widower with three kids. . . . I really save my money, '' he says. ''Sure, sometimes it's bad, but you don't show it. I don't let a lot of things bother me.''

The unemployed people with a positive outlook usually ''had a strong identity independent of a work identity; they valued their free time for what it was and used it in productive ways,'' says Ms. Leff. Some used their time off to become active in political and volunteer organizations or to develop creative talents such as dancing, writing, or painting. Others used the time for self-evaluation to make decisions about what type of work they would like to pursue in the future.

Stan, a laid-off sheet-metal worker in his 20s, says, ''Not working I can do the things I like, the things that make me happy. I'm going to college and I take karate lessons on the side. I'm with my two girls a lot more. I can write if I feel like writing. I write mostly poetry. I used to write poems on the job. . . . I spent so many years forced into doing things that made me unhappy that now I feel productive because I'm doing things that I like to do. . . . If I had a lot of money but didn't enjoy what I was doing, I wouldn't be secure. Money is not security; security is feeling comfortable with yourself.''

The authors found one of the major roadblocks to creative unemployment was simply dealing with the status of a nonworker in a society with a powerful work ethic.

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''Not working is a stigma,'' says Ms. Leff. In this country particularly, ''people's identities are defined as their job or occupation.''

''We are very much identified by our position in society,'' says a professional who left a teaching job about five months ago. ''I'm not a wife, I'm not a mother, and without a job I'm not considered a contributing member of society. I've really had to search for my identity.''

One of the challenges of unemployment, she says, was making the transition from a rewarding but overly time-consuming job as a sociology professor and resident counselor to a period of open-ended time with no commitments except those she made herself.

During her time out of work, she scheduled job interviews, wrote letters, and did other job-search activities three or four days a week before landing a new job as a family counselor, which began in April. In addition, she did volunteer work for Parents Anonymous, did some traveling and skiing, put new flooring in her house, and visited friends.

''I've also been exercising a lot,'' she says. ''I set up my own structure around it. I knew there would be days I wouldn't get out of bed without something specific to do. Time has certainly weighed heavy on my hands.''

At the same time, she reflects, ''It has been an important time for me to figure things out personally. It has been regenerative in a lot of ways. But if I had a choice, I would have preferred this time to be six weeks instead of three months.''

One woman, whose position as business manager for a small medical group practice was terminated last September, says that although her friends and husband have been supportive during her job search, ''One of the hard things about being unemployed is to keep yourself going - to keep the momentum going. If you reach out to friends and acquaintances, it can help energize you.''

During her time off, she has reevaluated her career goals and is now interviewing for jobs in hospital administration and medical computer areas. She is also considering further schooling.

According to Ms. Leff, ''I came away with a very strong impression people should experience periods of not working in their lives. For so many of the people we interviewed, not working was a watershed in their lives. Even if they underwent hardships or soul-searching, the experience allowed them to tap resources and talents they didn't know they had or only suspected they had. It enabled them to find more gratifying and productive work in the future.''

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