I’ve lost count of the number of times when, after hearing about a teenage driving tragedy, I’ve said piously, “That’s the thing about young people — they think they are immortal; they never believe it will happen to them.”
There needs to be a new category of people who are just as idealistic, naive, blissfully ignorant — “who think it will never happen to them” — employees over 50.
Harry Truman once wrote, “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.” Hell, yeah. And depression is a key side-effect of losing your job. Along with a total loss of self-esteem and an increase in self-doubt and sudden crying jags.
Baby boomers were raised with the ethic that if we worked hard, offered an employer loyalty, didn’t make waves and always stayed busy and made positive contributions to a company, we would have jobs. Our parents worked for 30 or 40 years at companies: IBM, P&G, GM, police and fire departments, banks, insurance companies. They retired with these now near-mythical things called “pensions.”
But in the last couple of decades, the situation has changed. There are very few lifers in lifetime jobs. That’s not a bad thing, really. But what has become frightening is what downsizing, RIFs, recessions, redundancies, etc., have done to those of us over the age of 50 who simply want to work hard and do something related to the field in which we earned college degrees. (Seriously, who in the 1970s-80s foresaw that a journalism/communications degree might be a dead end?)
Like my teenage children, I honestly believed it would not happen to me, even though it happened all around me and often to good and talented people. In a previous job I was ordered to lay off four people in my last week there, losing several weeks’ sleep over it. Two-and-a-half years later, the bitch that is karma left me standing at the elevator toting a cardboard box containing my Yankees coffee mug, family photos and editing style manuals.
“It’s a reduction in force across the board,” the HR staffer reassured me. “It’s nothing you did or could have done differently.” As the newest kid in the department, my number was simply up as the company moves toward sale or consolidation.
In the past two months I’ve found myself wondering just how I got here. Damn it, I think to myself, I used to BE somebody! I traveled the world, won awards, served as vp of a national association, met presidents and popes, and interviewed politicians and celebrities. Job offers came out of the blue. But that was then, and this is simply not then.
Printed publications went the way of the Edsel. I turned 50. I took a big paycut and made a lane change to try to keep my career afloat. And today I’m known as a case number to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
At one job interview a few weeks ago, in a very hipster-oriented ad agency where employees actually rode skateboards throughout the office, I could tell the managers were surprised when I introduced myself. I don’t necessarily look my age, but I’m clearly over 45. My skateboarding days are not only behind me, they never existed….I am of the era of roller skates with clamps over shoes.
I don’t have a problem with working with skateboarders. I can even name some popular skateboarders, as well as most of the cool musicians, TV shows, movies, reality celebs. I own t-shirts with clever sayings on them. No, I’ve never worn them to work, but there’s always a first time, right?
The reality is, however, that first impressions based on looks/demeanor/style/age are important. I’ve left the interview suits in the closet, since no one really seems to wear them anymore. I am incredibly adaptable and stay current. But I doubt some of the hiring managers have the time or willingness to find that out. There are other, younger candidates; I’ve seen them leaving the interviews. It’s probably easier to take a chance on them.
I’ve spent most of this “down” time trying to update my software skills, to read all of the marketing/social media/management trends/project management books and articles I didn’t have time to read when I was working. I find all of the “use this time to reinvent yourself” advice difficult to heed. I don’t want to reinvent myself. I liked what I did. I can do it somewhere else, if someone will hire me.
“I was happy being a journalist; I didn’t realize losing my job, my identity went with it,” Maria Shriver once said in an interview. Like Maria, I had no idea how much of my identity was tied into my work. If you asked me, I would always have said — and still would — that being a mom was my most fulfilling role. It’s a role that thankfully has not gone away. But when my job went away suddenly, a big part of my identity got very confused. I was no longer a former journalist-turned-digital-media-maven. I was just out of work.
So the past few months have not been the wonderful journey of self-discovery about which some authors wax rhapsodic. There’s been wallowing. There has been self-pity. Anger, lots of doubt. Fear. Fear is a big one.
But having written that, I am a little excited to be back in the job market, although I wish it weren’t under duress. The thought of working in a place where I can make a contribution again excites me.
And if it means I have to learn to skateboard, I’m game. Just give me the chance.