It's Personal: Our job, even in these troubled times, is not all we are

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Filling out job applications. For a writer on the daily business beat, the job losses hit close to home. TONY DEJAK / Associated Press

It's not often that I write about my late father in these pages. I am a business writer, after all, and an immigrant sandwich-shop owner is hardly the quintessential lead character on a stage where studies of success and failure often feature sleek suits and Forbes shout-outs.

But this is just one of those weeks. A rough one. The kind that makes you think, "Maybe it's time to strip it all down to the core, toss the business-school jargon, and see what's left."

It's one of those weeks, in other words, when I look back at my father's life to answer questions I'd rather take for granted: What do we do at work, how much does it matter, and what happens when it's gone?

Broadly, economists dished out their usual servings of debatable prognostications this week about the housing market, jobs, and the nation's prospects for prosperity.

At best, things look brighter than during the darkest hours of the economic crash of 2008. And yet, unemployment is an abysmally high 8.3 percent and countless more workers are compelled to clock part-time hours for low wages and no benefits.

But like the adage that says all real estate is local, so, too, is any view of success or failure in the working world. It's best understood up close.

As this column's name suggests, the mobster-assassin line, "It's not personal - just business," is all backwards. Everything about business starts and ends with what's happening in your life. And here at Philadelphia's largest newspaper, where writers remind ordinary people every day that they matter, we are losing nearly 30 colleagues this week to cost-cutting.

Some have cried. Others have been stoic. Still others are leaving with smiles on their faces, old enough to have luxuriated in decades of illustrious work before the business-model implosion thrust the industry into distress and worse.

Oddly, we writers have been at a loss for words as compadres were pink-slipped or took buyouts. But whenever we spotted one walking out of the newsroom for the last time, we stood to applaud.

I stepped away from this keyboard a few seconds ago to do just that for a man named Pete, who for years assembled pages just like the one you may be reading now.

When the applause ends, a dreadful silence sets in.

Such dread has been familiar to my friends and loved ones, Generation Xers in their 30s and 40s, for several years now. Many have lost jobs before turning 40.

One friend was a former pharmaceutical-sales rep who was laid off at 39 and almost canned afterward at another job. He is going to college again to become a medical professional. His wife works full time so the father of three can hit the books. It's been brutal.

A relative with a college degree, laid off twice before age 35 as the architectural industry consolidated, works today at sharply reduced wages.

A few days ago, I saw a look of defeat in the eyes of a jobless young man in his mid-20s who was here in the newsroom to be interviewed.

 "Stay on it," I told him. "Keep hustling.

"And consider this," I added, deploying the ultimate in inspiration. "At least we are not a nation under military occupation."

He and my coworker threw me puzzled looks.

"I'm not exaggerating," I snapped as I preached to a workforce elder and an unripened neophyte. "My dad's parents died during the German occupation of Greece. He was 16. But you know what? He came here with no English and found a way to put three girls through college."

My dad worked to feed us. If he lost one job, he found another. Even my college-educated Gen X friends have done the same.

Painfully aware of my father's sacrifice, I aspired for work that would feed my soul, my brain, and my community. Missionary and monetary work. But the economics of my once-titanic industry have chastened me. And during somber weeks like this one, I no longer see my father as a martyr.

What I see is a man who treated us to Ponzio's on Sundays; who mowed the lawn before it got too long; who was home in time for dinner. I see a man who once gave a sandwich to a sweet-faced homeless man. He was a rock, in spite of life's tough breaks.

In my profession of soulful storytellers, the value of work can take on mythical proportions. But at the end of the day, it is not all we are. Repeat after me.

And godspeed, good colleagues, to you, and to us all.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.