Asian American creatives say disclosing their layoffs to their families can be complicated

When Joy Woo first started in the entertainment business as an executive assistant, her family didn’t understand how the industry worked, and “it wasn’t something they were proud of, or could brag to their friends about.”

But when Woo, a 27-year-old living in Los Angeles, was laid off in December from her studio, she started debating whether she should leave the industry entirely. “It was my second time getting laid off in entertainment,” she said. “I wondered — what am I doing wrong? Is this a reflection of me?” But along with the self-critique came the worries about how her family would respond. “My family members might question why I’m pursuing this career path,” Woo added. 

Woo was most concerned about telling her grandfather, who was one of her main caretakers growing up. “My mother told me not to tell my grandfather, so I kept my layoff news from him,” she said. As she had predicted, when her grandfather found out, he was shocked and asked: “Why are you in this industry?”  

Disclosing news about layoffs and the career changes that follow can present a set of obstacles for Asian Americans in creative fields if their jobs aren’t considered traditionally stable by family members’ standards, many workers and experts say.  

Diem M. Nguyen, a clinical psychologist who practices in both New York and California and who focuses on intergenerational issues in her therapy sessions, said she notices Asian Americans often deal with the tension between following their creative passions and meeting familial expectations. “Clients really struggle with taking risks due to pressures in their family systems,” she said.  

Mental health practitioners like her describe the unique stressors that Asian American creatives may face from family members during periods of job instability. She said that these stressors mostly stem from a misalignment in lived experiences. She explained: “It’s not ill-intentioned. Older Asian American family members often move through the world with a survivalist approach. They place a strong emphasis in taking the secure, rational route, and want assurance that their children’s careers will provide tangible security.”  

Allison Ly, a licensed clinical social worker based in Los Angeles who specializes in working with first- and second-generation clients, says that guilt is a common emotion that her clients feel when laid off; they may feel like they aren’t repaying enough to their older generations who have made sacrifices to create better opportunities for their children. She warns individuals against the tendency to look inward and blame themselves. “Children of immigrants can have difficulty in looking at the larger picture events of what contributed to the layoff,” she said. “They sometimes turn to critical self-thoughts and question their self-worth.”  

In past months, a wave of high-profile layoffs across the media and tech industries have raised warning flags about a cooling economy. While the hardest-hit jobs during the pandemic were in the service, retail and manufacturing sectors, the latest rounds of layoffs have been centered around media and tech employees. They represent a small segment of the labor market at about 4% of the total U.S. workforce.  

One such employee, Kent Shin, was laid off in December from his marketing agency based in San Francisco, where he worked as a film and TV colorist. Before he landed the role, his parents had wanted him to pursue a career path that they considered to be more stable. “My parents had the perception that the creative field was full of struggling artists,” he said. “Once I started at the agency, they still weren’t entirely pleased, but they recognized it provided a consistent paycheck.”  

Now that the 25-year-old is back to freelancing, his parents view his layoff as an opportunity to push him toward a new career path. “They’re suggesting that this would be a good chance to actually use my college degree,” he said.  

Shin knows that at some point, he might have to financially support his family. “It’s not a current expectation, but I expect that to change one day,” he said.  

To cope with the anxiety that such familial pressures bring, Ly emphasizes the importance of practicing compassion to validate the worries that family members may voice. “We should go a layer deeper to question the intentions behind their reactions. Where are they coming from? Are their comments coming from a place of care?” she suggests.

Even so, she acknowledges, it’s about the individual’s mental health first and foremost. “Before letting them know about the layoff, you can lay out potential scenarios of how the family is going to respond, and decide what to share or withhold.”  

Nguyen also advises that disclosing information to families about future creative pursuits can look like a negotiation process that varies for each person. She says everyone should be free to choose to share the information that they see fit, depending on the support that they need.

“Some people feel guilt and shame about keeping secrets from their families, but it’s about protecting yourself. It’s important to figure out what is productive for your own adult development as a mature, healthy individual,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to instill so much fear in your family members that you hold their fear while you’re navigating new, unknown spaces for yourself.”