Hope for the Unemployed From an Overlooked '80s Song

Taking solace from Peter Gabriel's 'Don't Give Up'

In 1986, Peter Gabriel released an album called So. 

Featuring such hits as "Big Time," "In Your Eyes" (remember Lloyd Dobler and the boombox?) and the MTV-friendly "special effects" of "Sledgehammer," it's still considered one of the decade's best, most innovative albums.

But my favorite track from So was a relative B-side: "Don't Give Up," a duet with the hauntingly sublime English singer-songwriter Kate Bush.

While its themes could be universal to anyone who doesn't want to give up on anything in life—a relationship, finishing a marathon, being an AICP judge—the song is actually about something specific that most of us, especially in advertising, are all too familiar:

"Don't Give Up" is about losing your job. Getting laid off. Fired. Canned. Terminated. Sacked. Axed. Clipped. Downsized. Rightsized. Or, as most might say, getting f*cked over. It's a ballad of unemployment.

It's happened to some of my most talented friends recently. It's happened to me three times in almost 30 years, twice in the last decade. Once while I was on vacation, driving a Seabring convertible down Florida's sunsplashed Highway A1A, my six-months-pregnant wife by my side in big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and scarf, my former boss Roger—who recently wrote a terrific piece on layoffs himself—had to call and lay me off. He probably felt worse than I did. It's semi-funny now, but I'm still shocked those P&L spreadsheet-wielding succubae made him do it over the phone.

You might find it surprising that a multimillionaire prog-rock-pop star who spent a chunk of the '70's on-stage dressed like a giant flower would write a song about such a mundane thing. But he did, and based it on two real-life inspirations:

1) His family's support during/after his apparent 1985 nervous breakdown.

2) Dorothea Lange's groundbreaking Great Depression-era photographs, which humanized the previously vague effects of Dust Bowl's economic ruin.

The verses (voiced by Gabriel, the layoff victim) describe his feelings of shame, despair, anger and isolation. The choruses (Bush, his friend/wife/both?) offer hope, friendship, encouragement and tough love. They combine for a beautiful if depressive yin-yang tale of loss. Shattered dreams. Getting knocked down.

But most of all, it's about how we get back up. "The basic idea is that handling failure," Gabriel has explained, "is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do."

Amen. And recently, while I was hiking on a freelance "down day," this song came on and reminded me that its 34-year-old message might still resonate with anyone who's been laid off, be it 10 minutes or 10 years ago. 

Let's break it down ...

In this proud land we grew up strong, we were wanted all along; 
I was taught to fight, taught to win, I never thought I could fail

He "grew up strong" because the economy was strong. Aside from a few bleak periods—early '90s Gulf war recession; early 2000s dotcom bubble burst; '08 subprime mortgage debacle; coronavirus 2020?—ad jobs have typically been plentiful. We were "wanted all along" for a hard-earned skill and craft few offered. Advertising was "magic." We could "fight" if clients tried to kill work. Brands all but threw their business at agencies for their creative and strategic secrets. Recruiters chased creatives, not vice versa. Advertising was mostly a "proud land."

But then holding companies consolidate and restructure. Agencies discover "redunancies" or other fat-trimming excuses. Craft becomes commodity. Personal relationships become programmatic. Recruiters become ghosts. Agencies become vendors. The loyal become expendable, like Gabriel.

No fight left or so it seems, I am a man whose dreams have all deserted;
I've changed my name, I've changed my face, But no one wants you when you lose

He's now weak and ashamed, but also pissed, mainly about changing his "name/face," i.e., compromising his character, ethics or dignity just to be appreciated/valued. And he still got clipped. "But I did everything you asked and more!" he's basically protesting. And who hasn't wanted to yell this in an exit interview as some HR mortician explains your COBRA options? 

He also realizes that when you're let go, it's like you've microwaved leftover fish in the agency kitchen: it's a stench no one else wants on them. Hallway eye-contact is averted. Meeting invites vanish. Ditto your more politically savvy work "friends." And when that "no one wants you" aura is floating around you, it also affects pursuing your next gig—i.e., tough to be confident when you think everyone else thinks you smell like hot buttered cod.

But here comes Kate, in the first chorus, quickly reminding Gabriel that even when companies aren't loyal, some people still are...

Don't give up, 'Cause you have friends, 
Don't give up, You're not beaten yet
Don't give up, I know you can make it good.

Chin up. Your real friends know you're not beaten yet. They know you still have plenty of good left to offer—character, work ethic, ideas, leadership, mentorship, etc. Lean on and leverage these friends as you plan your next move. Because you'd be there for them. That said, her initial positivity falls short heading into the second veruse, because Gabriel is overthinking and overanalyzing. Understandable when you're suddenly home alone in your sweats on a Tuesday morning binging Schitt's Creek.

Though I saw it all around, Never thought I could be affected;
Thought that we'd be last to go, It is so strange the way things turn.

I'm so stupid! How did I not see this coming?! No one ever does. To paraphrase another '80s rock icon, the gloriously arrogant Morrissey, on band rhythm sections: "They're as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawn mower." Despite the carnage "all around" us, we always think we're too valuable to be affected. Clients like us too much. We're good mentors. We have good ideas, show up early, leave late, and people like us. Psssst—IT. DOESN'T. MATTER. 99 percent of us are replaceable parts in the agency/holding company lawn mower. So look out for yourself first and foremost. Because the only "strange" thing about a layoff is that you'd ever find it strange.

But despite second-guessing, Gabriel at least does something smart when professionally kneecapped. He gets up, shakes off the cobwebs and starts moving.

Drove the night toward my home, The place that I was born, on the lakeside;
As daylight broke, I saw the earth...

Get outta Dodge (right after filing for unemployment, because the sooner you do that, the sooner the checks come). Ditch the screens—yes, even take a break from networking—and stop obsessing over other people's seemingly perfect careers on social. Go clear your head. If it's somewhere you feel safe/with personal significance—e.g., where he was "born, on the lakeside"—then go. It could help you see "daylight break." A spirit-lifting sunrise after darkness. A brand new day. Wait, ARE THINGS FINALLY LOOKING UP FOR OL' GABRIEL??

 ...The trees had burned down to the ground.

Apparently not. That glow was just burning forest, a good metaphor for how we can view our job prospects in such situations: charred beyond recognition. Unreturned emails. Recruiter ghostings. But that's the ongoing mental roller coaster: daily, even hourly ups and downs. Hopefully moving forward there'll be more "daylight" than darkness, a sentiment that Kate, counterpunching Gabriel's doomsday fire talk, expresses in chorus #2.

Don't give up, You still have us
Don't give up, We don't need much of anything; 
Don't give up, 'Cause somewhere there's a place, Where we belong
Rest your head, You worry too much, It's going to be alright

You feel excommunicated from the Church of Branding now, but you'll belong again. There's a "somwehere" that'll appreciate your perspective, maybe not even in advertising. Try brand side, entertainment/streaming, tech, media, gaming. Relax. Exhale. Your friends don't need your ideas, paycheck, health insurance, presence in status meetings, sleepless pitch nights, or sycophantic platutudes. All they want is your friendship, knowing if circumstances were reversed, you'd have their backs. Cling to these human fire extinguishers as life turns arsonist.

When times get rough, You can fall back on us;
Don't give up, Please don't give up

The summer outing trust fall talk is (pun alert) supportive. But notice for the very first time she also uses one seemingly inocuous but VERY telling word here: "Please." Does this mean even uber-positive Kate now worries he might do something drastic? Yup. Which tees up Gabriel's higher, more desperately pleading octave confirming he's officially reached his breaking point heading into verse #3. Goodbye, cruel world.

Got to walk out of here, I can't take anymore; 
Going to stand on that bridge, Keep my eyes down below;
Whatever may come, And whatever may go;
That river's flowing, That river's flowing

At first I thought he was taking the power back, mic-dropping his agency and walking out tall, proud, on his own terms. But "walk out of here" actually means "exit life, stage left," i.e., he's now standing on a bridge about to George Bailey it. 

But amazingly, he finds clarity up there. Success and failure come and go. That's life. And even if he submits the ultimate job resignation, it makes no difference. Because "that river's flowing" is 1986 talk for "It is what it is", i.e., the world, the industry, those who fired him will all mindlessly, heartlessly flow on with or without him. Which, ironically, doesn't depress him more. It convinces him to hop down from the railing and forge on into verse #4.

Moved on to another town, Tried hard to settle down;

"Settling down," literally finding a new home and figratively relaxing, not worrying or beating himself up, is good. He's starting fresh. Clean slate. But once again, as he inches toward positivity, he's knocked back again when he notices...

For every job, so many men, So many men no one needs

Look at all these other mopes "no one needs"! Every agency waiting room is a clown car of doppelganger candidates. Every LinkedIn job post instantly has 637 applicants (of which you'd allegedly be "IN THE TOP 10 PERCENT"). The planets will have to align to find something new, and even then who knows where, with whom or for how much? Will it just be "same shit, different toilet," as a former partner of mine used to say? Should Gabriel just stand on "that bridge" again and do a half-gainer into the fowing river? 

Nope. With her final chorus, Kate deftly interrupts him after just two lines—the only two-line verse in the whole song, underscoring her last-ditch urgency—with, basically, HAVEN'T YOU HEARD A GODDAMN WORD I'VE SAID??

Don't give up, 'Cause you have friends; 
Don't give up, You're not the only one
Don't give up, No reason to be ashamed; Don't give up, You still have us
Don't give up, You know it's never been easy; Don't give up, I'll be always with you
Don't give up, 'Cause I believe there's a place, There's a place where we belong

Translation: Once and for all, stop the pity party! Think you're the "only one"? There's a whole community taking a beating.

There's no "shame" in experiencing something countless people have.

This isn't an "easy" industry for human basics like respect, decency and job security.

Focus on how your friends and loved ones are "always with you," not on how much you're valued (or not) by strangers.

Oh, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in advertising/marketing are predicted to grow by an above-average 8 percent between 2018 and 2028. And even if COVID-19 halts spending in some sectors (e.g., affects inventory supply chains in CPG, manufacturing), smart brands know a sustained media presence ultimately benefits long term ... so fingers crossed this isn't a full-blown recession and smart agencies/brands will staff up to stay competitive.

(She didn't sing any of that literally; that would've been weird. But she easily could have.)

So to everyone who's currently, or has been, in Gabriel's position, you don't have to listen to me. But you should listen to Kate. 

Don't think you're alone, even though it feels that way.

Don't doubt your talent and experience. Someone will want and appreciate it again.

Don't second-guess what you coulda/shoulda done differently, because the past is done.

Don't forget you've belonged before, and you'll belong again. 

Don't give up.

Profile picture for user Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance executive creative director/creative director/copywriter and author based in Boulder, Colo. All his work and info is conveniently housed at markstamant.com.

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