I've been a journalist my entire working life. I've been a writer, an editor, and a nationally syndicated columnist for a major print daily. I can even claim a share of a Pulitizer prize for my work covering the Northridge, California earthquake. And I was completely stunned when I fell victim to the recession and was laid off in March 2008. But as they say, what doesn't kill you just makes you stronger. I survived; actually I did more than survive, I thrived. Here's what losing my job at age 59.5 years old taught me:
1. Grieving is for widows.
I devoted my final commute home -- an hour stuck in traffic on Los Angeles' 10 Freeway -- to sobbing uncontrollably. I rolled the windows up tight and blasted Springsteen so loud the car vibrated. I banged the steering wheel so hard that my fists hurt. And then I pulled into my driveway, dried my tears, and faced my family. Grieving time was over; from that moment on, I never looked back. I accepted that what I lost was just a job, not a loved one.
2. Don't waste time blaming anyone, including yourself.
I didn't spend a minute wondering why I got the tap on the shoulder instead of the next guy. Didn't we learn on the kindergarten playground that life wasn't always fair? Finger-pointing, repeating the gory details of the injustice that befell you to anyone you can get to listen -- it's just such an energy-zapper. Save your emotional strength for rebuilding your career.
3. Confidence breeds confidence.
If you don't believe you're fabulous, why should anyone else? Take a lesson from Facebook postings here: Life is wonderful, you are amazing, things couldn't be better. And believe it; if nothing else, you'll sleep better if you do.
4. Anger isn't attractive.
Put on a happy face and mean it. Nobody wants to hire a sad sack or someone angry at their old boss, their company, changes in their industry or the economy. Me? I quietly cancelled my subscription to the newspaper that canned me and let it go at that. Nobody wears anger well.
5. You are a professional; behave like one if you want people to treat you like one.
As a writer, I was frequently asked to write for free. I insisted on compensation -- although sometimes that compensation came in peculiar shapes. I would barter services -- I would do some marketing work and get my son tutored, my dog groomed, my closets organized. During the two years I freelanced, I chose to write an unpaid blog for The Huffington Post because of the platform and exposure it provided. Each time I posted, it led to paid writing assignments. Be strategic about your work decisions. People who work for free are volunteers and volunteers belong in the nonprofit world.
6. Giving to others is a good thing.
I think I knew this my whole working life, but answered the need to give with my checkbook instead of my heart. Being unemployed taught me that there were ways to help others that actually felt better. I formed a support group for entrepreneurial women running their own businesses. I brought in advisors, speakers, and we all helped one another. Helping people helped me stay whole. I might not have been able to write big checks to charity, but I could certainly take a break from my own struggles to listen to someone else's.
7. You aren't alone.
There are dark moments to being unemployed. You worry about whether you'll have enough money to pay your bills and you constantly wonder when it will all end. Since unemployment is by definition a state of aloneness -- you don't go to an office of unemployed people every day -- it's easy to feel like you are the only one experiencing the misery. My suggestion: Go to your nearest Starbucks. Plenty of unemployed people have adopted Starbucks as their office away from home. They have free WiFi and you can answer job ads, respond to emails and write your cover letters from there just as easily as you can your garage. I found that Starbucks also had fewer spiders than my basement and the occasional unemployed screenwriter with great stories to tell.
8. You may not be able to replicate what you lost.
The sooner you accept that reality, the better off you'll be. There are entire industries that have essentially been eliminated. The most frustrated among the unemployed are those who continue to look for jobs that don't exist anymore. I get that they loved what they were doing and want to find a job doing it again. But it's a new marketplace out there and in many cases, they need to find something else to do.
9. Willie Sutton was right.
When asked why he robbed banks, Slick Willie said, "Because that's where the money is." If Sutton was interested in finding work in today's economy, he'd explore some re-careering options -- because he'd go where the jobs are. Your skills may be terrific but if they can't get you a paycheck, you need to work on getting some new skills. Learning how to be flexible -- which means learning how to change -- is a tough lesson for a lot of us. Community colleges have really stepped up to the challenge of re-careering people. Their fees are low and in many cases, online classes are offered. Look for programs with in-field internships because internships are today's foot in the hiring door.
10. Less is more.
Trite, I know, but true nevertheless. One of the first things people do when they are laid off from their jobs is try to reduce their spending. We didn't hide our situation from our children. They understood that the family had suffered a financial tsunami and we could be in for a rough ride. We battened down the money hatches: We became coupon-clippers and got pretty creative when it came to taking vacations (house swapping, mooching off friends and relatives, using frequent flyer miles.) Funny part, but I don't recall a single instance where my kids whined or were upset about not getting something. They understood the difference between their needs and their wants and as long as we were a family, we were solid.
11. Saving trumps spending.
Saving never felt as good to me as spending -- until I lost my job. The frugal habits I formed during my two years as a freelancer have stayed with me. While we do now eat out on occasion, I am mindful of the fact that living paycheck-to-paycheck without setting aside something for the rainy day is just plain stupid. I came to the savings party a little late, but won't use that as an excuse for not doing it now.
12. Don't let the bastards get you down.
Looking for a job is a process of continuously dashed hopes and a steady stream of rejections -- until it isn't and then you get a job. The journey to a job is a regular roller coaster, but without much in the way of a thrill. It takes a concerted effort to keep your spirits up. But you have to. Build in some positives to the program. Spend time with people who affirm your value.
AARP was impressed by The Aerospace Corporation's phased retirement program, which allows retirees to continue working a limited number of hours a year while continuing to receive pension benefits. Also impressive: More than half of Aerospace Corporation employees were over 50 in 2011.
Bon Secours Richmond Health System not only targets mature workers and retirees for employment, but provides employees with access to wellness coaches and even rewards participation in wellness education programs with bonuses and paid time off as a part of its "Well for Life" incentive program. (Image courtesy of Bon Secours Richmond Health)
AARP liked this Wisconsin health system's financial planning seminars for its employees, as well as the health and social services it provides workers. (Image courtesy of Mercy Health System)
This "Best Employer" has a 1,000 Hour Club for its post 50 employees, which "allows retirees the opportunity to return to part-time and per-diem work in as early as three months after they have begun receiving retirement benefits."
The YMCA of Greater Rochester offers health benefits to workers putting in over 20 hours a week, which continue into retirement. The AARP was also impressed by the YMCA's relationship with its retired employees, whom they contact for occasional work and social events.
Nearly half of West Virginia University's staff falls into the "mature worker" age demographic, with an average retention of nearly 20 years for tenured employees. WVU also has an employee wellness program, including free professional counseling for faculty and staff.
First Horizon National Corporation has a partnership with Senior Services in Memphis as a part of its employee recruitment. It also offers its part-time employees access to development programs. AARP also liked the firm's responsiveness;the company makes changes based on feedback from its Employee Value and Loyalty surveys.
NIH employees have access to free exercise classes, flexible work options such as telecommuting, and lots of opportunities to keep training and learning.
Cornell University takes care of its retirees through its "Encore Cornell" program, which helps former Cornell employees connect with employment and volunteering opportunities. It also has a few ways for employees to enroll in classes for free and even potentially work toward a degree.
Scripps Health received high marks for its Scripps Alumni Network Program, offering opportunities to participate in wellness and continuing education programs for full- and part-time employees. AARP also liked the "Return to Work Program" for employees returning from illness, and the strong retirement planning program for employees.