James Kunen: From 60s Activist To Laid-Off Executive

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What's it like to go from a company man or woman to the unemployment line? Especially if you've defined yourself by your job?

James Kunen takes that up in his new book, "Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life."

Kunen had started out as a student activist in the 60s, writing the famous book, "Strawbery Statement." He then worked as an advocate lawyer, a journalist and most recently Time Warner's corporate communications guy, until at age 60, he was laid off. He writes:

"Today is the day that we in Human Resources and Corporate Communications have been planning for: Bad News Day. All across the company, 2,400 people are being asked to step into their superiors' offices, where they are told that they're being 'let go.' Let go—the phrase intrigues me. It suggests that people have been wanting to go, have been prevented from doing so, and are now being permitted to depart. Either that or they've been held aloft—like trapeze artists, by the wrists—and now they're not going to be held onto anymore."

James Kunen. (© Peter Serling, 2011)
James Kunen. (© Peter Serling, 2011)

Before Kunen's layoff, he had a feeling his career wasn't heading in the right direction for him, but being jobless forced him on a quest for more meaningful work.

"This is your chance to stand up, stretch out... and become fully you," he told Here & Now's Robin Young.

His search for the right career led him back to something he had done on a volunteer basis over the years-- teaching immigrants to speak English.

"I looked at what I had done over my life that had given me satisfaction," he said. "I saw [that] numerous times I had tutored refugees and immigrants English on a volunteer basis, so maybe this is something I could try to do as a full-time job... Over time I worked my way into that position."

In "Diary of a Company Man," he writes about the moment he realized he'd made the right decision.

"In speech lab tonight we played 'All You Need is Love.' The students listened and then sang along. I thought it would give them good practice pronouncing the 'uh' sound high in their throat (as in 'up') in 'nothing,' 'done,' 'sung,' and—over and over again—'love.' (They tend to pronounce every 'uh' from a lower place, like the 'oo' in 'good' or the 'u' in 'rude.')

As I stood at the side of the room listening to my class sing, 'There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be,' I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was in exactly the right place doing precisely the right thing."

If Kunen's name sounds familiar, it could be because in 1968, when he was just 19, he wrote a book called "The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary," about the student uprising at Columbia University against the Vietnam War.

The title comes from a comment a Columbia administrator made. He said that students' opinions about the university's administration had no more importance than if the students had said they liked how strawberries tasted.

In "The Strawberry Statement," Kunen wrote about the student movement and his ideas for a revolution:

"There are those who want an armed Revolution and I am not one of them. Not just now. But I do have a statement to make at this time, gentlemen. Since the First Republic of the United States is one hundred ninety-two years old and I am nineteen, I will give it one more chance... I should like to point out immediately that just because I happened to be born in 1948, it doesn't mean that what I have to say as a nineteen-year-old is worth any more than what nineteen-year-olds had to say in, to pick a year at random, 1920. To say that youth is what's happening is absurd. It's always been happening. Everyone is nineteen, only at different times."


  • James Kunen, author and former 60s activist

This segment aired on March 21, 2012.


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