It’s Time!

Unemployment rate in Europe (UE) and United St...
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If you’ve been fired and you’re over 50, you’re screwed.

So says the front page of The New York Times:

Since the economic collapse, there are not enough jobs being created for the population as a whole, much less for those in the twilight of their careers.

Of the 14.9 million unemployed, more than 2.2 million are 55 or older. Nearly half of them have been unemployed six months or longer, according to the Labor Department. The unemployment rate in the group — 7.3 percent — is at a record, more than double what it was at the beginning of the latest recession.

After other recent downturns, older people who lost jobs fretted about how long it would take to return to the work force and worried that they might never recover their former incomes. But today, because it will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed at the economy’s recent pace, many of these older people may simply age out of the labor force before their luck changes.

In my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, I include the depressing, terrifying stories of two women, both in their 50s and single, who have plunged from middle-class incomes, hopes and expectations, to frustration and poverty. One, formerly earning $35,000 working for (wait for it) Habitat for Humanity, now makes $7.25 an hour as a retail clerk at a southern department store.

She is furious, and ashamed that she must rely on her 81-year-old mother for financial help every month.

What I don’t get is this — age discrimination is, technically, illegal. Yet, as usual, anyone who’s played that shave-the-resume/dye-their-hair game knows it’s happening every single day in every single state in the nation.

The U.S. is a country predicated on the mythology of the individual who does it all by themselves. Bootstrap city!

As if.

Many forces are shoving 50-somethings to the economic margins, in the very years they are hardest-hit by the trifecta of their own need to save for retirement, the increasing needs of their aging/ill/distant parents and their own college-age or young adult children — the ones saddled with educational debt who are returning to the family nest, wanted or not.

It is an unmitigated disaster.

And interest rates are now so absurdly low that retirees can’t live on their savings — and many are now seeking jobs to supplement their paltry incomes from hard-won, carefully-saved investments. More competition for fewer jobs!

If the Tea Partiers can get it together, why not these millions of fired 50-somethings?

Is there no collective political will that might conjoin them into concerted action?

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Wary Workers Now Prefer Self-Employment, Stats Say

Interior of an Office
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Interesting story in The New York Times about people who have been so burned by the recession, the vicious not-so-merry-go-round of hiring and firing they prefer not to have a full-time job:

What is known as “contingent work,” or “flexible” and “alternative” staffing arrangements, has proliferated, although exact figures are hard to come by because of difficulties in tracking such workers. Many people are apparently looking at multiple temporary jobs as the equivalent of a diversified investment portfolio.

The notion that the nature of work is changing — becoming more temporary and project-based, with workers increasingly functioning as free agents and no longer being governed by traditional long-term employer-employee relationships — first gained momentum in the 1990s. But it has acquired new currency in this recession, especially among white-collar job seekers, as they cast about for work of any kind and companies remain cautious about permanent hiring.

In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists who study flexible work arrangements believe that the increase has been driven in large part by independent contractors like Mr. Sinclair and other contingent workers, struggling to cobble together whatever work they can find.

As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers’ confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.

I recently spoke to a class of journalism students at Emerson College in Boston. The night’s final question, technically off the topic of my visit (ethics) was striking: “Aren’t you freaked out by not having a job? Being freelance all the time?”


Like these people in the Times piece, I’ve been laid off from a few jobs, instantly and, a few times without clear warning, severed from well-paid work I enjoyed in my field. For me to sign up again, willingly and with a real sense of excitement, I’m not sure which employer would be The One. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Seniority, nope. Multiple graduate degrees? Not those either. The only protection against being canned, and falling deep into poverty, is saving the biggest amount of cash you possibly can and keeping your overhead as low as you and your loved ones can tolerate.

I was lucky in growing up in a household where no one ever had a “real” job — i.e. a steady, solid paycheck, a pension, paid sick days or vacation. Everyone worked as a creative freelancer: film, journalism, television. You live check to check. You get to know a really good accountant and try very hard not to get behind on your tax payments since it’s pay as you go. We drove (good) used cars, bought art and cashmere and plane tickets overseas in better years and enjoyed them in lean ones.

I learned young that even the best ideas you try to sell freelance can be ignored or stolen or shot down by people collecting paychecks because…they feel like it. They owed us no allegiance and we all knew the deal. It’s a painful and expensive lesson to learn instead mid-life and mid-career, as millions now have in the recession. Like a wave of bitter divorce(e)s, some of us aren’t eager to trot back up to the altar of full-time work. It’s too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.

Are you still in a full-time job? How secure — if at all — do you feel?

If you work for yourself, how’s that going? Do you feel more secure knowing it’s all up to you?

33,000 Lost Their Jobs Last Month — Read This Book If You're One (Or Have Already Been Canned)

Circuit City
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I finished this book, The Disposable American, by Louis Uchitelle, a former, long-time New York Times economics reporter, yesterday and did something I’ve never done before — called the writer to ask him to meet me. While writing my own book on work, I’m finding very few writers who truly dig beneath the surface of our “business as usual” perspectives.

If you’re unemployed, today or for the past few years, get it from the library and read it.

It’s not a new book, published in 2006, therefore likely researched in 2004 and 2005. It pre-dates this terrible moment of 10 percent+ unemployment.

Reading it won’t get you an interview, a sexy resume, a part-time or temp job. It will, smartly, compassionately and compellingly, speak to the toxic mix of emotion, greed, commerce, lax regulation, union weakness and profit-making pressure that have separated you — and millions of us — from jobs we loved, needed, relied on, may have held for decades — or a few months.

From Bookslut:

Louis Uchitelle’s book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, is another one of those great books that none of the right people will read.

It will of course be read; it’s published by Knopf and Uchitelle is an award-winning journalist with the New York Times. He’s been writing business and economics news for more than three decades, and he clearly knows his stuff. But a book in which the author demands that both the easy “myths” of layoffs and the true achievability of the American dream be carefully considered may not be particularly appealing to your typical “buy low, sell high” business readers.

Uchitelle wastes no time enumerating what he feels are the three primary myths that have lead to layoffs becoming accepted as a normal consequence of doing business: that they offer a payoff in the form of a “revitalized corporate America;” that those employees in danger of being laid off can and should save themselves through education and training; and that layoffs are a purely financial proposition, rather than personally traumatic experiences that damage both employees and companies by “undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.”

For every bouncy best-selling business book filled with peppy little bromides — Uchitelle singles out “Who Moved My Cheese” as one egregious blame-the-victim example — there are precious few that honestly and compassionately recognize the trauma, short and long-term, that job loss inflicts and is currently inflicting. When he went looking for those who study this, and are willing to talk about it on the record, this persistent, talented veteran found almost no one.

Dr. Alexandra K. Rolde, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Boston and  clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told him:

“It is a trauma to the entire family. You have a parent working at a prestigious full-time job. All of a sudden, the parent sits at home and can’t find a job and is depressed. And suddenly the child’s role model sort of crumbles. Instead of feeling admiration for the parent, the child eventually begins to feel disrespect. Because the children identify with the parents, they begin to doubt that they can accomplish anything. They feel they won’t be successful in life and their self-esteem plummets. This of course is a long-term thing. We call it transgenerational trauma; it is similar to what we used to see with Holocaust survivors and their children. The children feel as damaged as their parents, even though they did not experience the trauma directly themselves.”

But, in this recession, there is a trans-generational piece we’re not talking about. I know many younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who have already lost several good jobs, been unemployed for many long months, have, perhaps found a new job. At a time in their lives once filled with excitement, hope and anticipation — pay off those student loans! get a car! get married! buy a home! — they face anxiety.

I’ve recently been advising a  new young friend, a woman of 23 about to graduate journalism school. I wish I had truly helpful, practical things to tell her about what will be her wisest career choices right now. She is not someone who wants to slack off or hang out, whose family is willing or able to pay her bills for years. I lost my own staff newspaper job in June 2006. I was well-paid and enjoyed the work tremendously.

Like millions of others, certainly those considered (illegally) too old and expensive, I eventually gave up looking for another one. Will I look again? I’m not sure.

Am I someone she can trust? I don’t want my pessimism to infect or burden her, but neither no do I wish to blow smoke and lies at someone who’s entering the world of work.

Get a job, cool. How long will it last? How about the next one?

The damage has been done.

It is a deeply held American myth that we are solely and individually responsible for our successes and failures, that when you’re canned/axed/terminated/off-shored/out-sourced, it’s your fault. You, loser, screwed up. Not your handsomely compensated CEOs or the multiple layers of management they have chosen to hire and keep.

The language of job loss, used unthinkingly and carelessly, remains insultingly infantile and euphemistic.

Every day, in many news reports, we’re blandly informed: “XY,000 jobs were shed.”

Shed? Like a snake’s skin? Like a bird’s feathers?

More like a vicious virus, deeply, persistently painful.

Read Uchitelle. His passion and intellience won’t help you in any practical way. But he  — luckily, safely retired — gets it.

After the Axe Falls, She Steps In

Axe for splitting logs; ash handle
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Hey, only about a quarter of a million people got fired last month. That’s the good news. We’re at 9.4 percent unemployment, officially.

Of course, in a recession, there are growth industries — like people whose paycheck derives from helping those who’ve just lost one. However ironic, they make their living catching the newly terminated as they curse, cry and stumble into their new lives as the freshly unemployed.

I’ve been fired a few times, never kindly and never with the option of a helping hand hired to ease that process, so I was intrigued by this Washington Post feature about a woman from the Five O’Clock Club, a job-search organization, who spends her workday helping others adjust to the fact they no longer have one. And, yes, she chews Tylenol to cope with the stress of facing others’ pain. As anyone who’s been canned knows, just because it’s hitting thousand of others in this recession, losing your job, income and professional identity can still feel deeply and miserably personal.

This website, written by a freelancer who specializes in business, has some good tips as well.

Have you been fired recently? Was the process handled with any humanity? How are you doing?