You know how some people get a case of the blues around the winter holidays? Well, I feel that way around Labor Day.
I jokingly tell people that I suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when it comes to my job. I have one now, but for two years during the recession, I didn't. I was laid off in 2009 from the newspaper where I worked for almost two decades and then spent two years freelancing until I was hired by The Huffington Post in 2011. By most standards, I did pretty well for myself for those two years freelancing -- no one in my family went hungry, was without health insurance, or became homeless. But don't kid yourself: The experience left scars.
Here's what being laid off taught me and why I think many mid-lifers may still not be celebrating this Labor Day:
Job security is just a myth.
When I entered the work force, you had a job for life. Sure, you made moves to advance your career but that was generally accomplished by staying within the same company. When people retired at 65, the company threw big parties for them and gave them gold watches to thank them for their 40+ years of service. Loyalty to your company was a given and the company rewarded that loyalty with annual raises, end-of-year-bonuses and even turkeys at Thanksgiving. One of the tasks of the personnel office was to send flowers to your wife in the hospital after she gave birth.
That all ended in the years leading up to the recession. As companies focused more on the bottom line, they began to refer to workers as "assets" and when times got tough, they looked at which "assets" to cut. "Do more with less," "Get rid of the fat," and "leaner and meaner" were the propaganda slogans that sent chills down workers' spines.
Older workers quickly read the writing on the wall: Those with higher salaries were led into the gas chambers first while corporate lawyers dangled "don't sue us if you hope to get a dime in severance" agreements in front of our stunned faces.
We signed. All of us did. I still question how this coerced agreement signed under duress was legal and not protested. Why didn't the ACLU jump in to protect workers from the slaughter? But everyone who could have done something about it instead turned deaf, dumb, and blind.
And the result is that what we are now left with is a workplace culture riddled with insecurity and restlessness. When people are afraid of losing their jobs, they strive to be compliant, not creative. Toeing the line has replaced pushing the envelope. And company loyalty went the way of the Thanksgiving turkey -- killed, roasted, and gobbled up while CEOs belched all the way to the bank.
Older workers stay out-of-work the longest.
This has been long-documented, but we can regurgitate it here for the millennial disbelievers.
According to AARP's analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, workers age 55 and up remain unemployed for 45.6 weeks, compared with 34.7 weeks for workers younger than 55.
While we can safely claim that all generations were hurt by the recession, only one group has the least amount of time to mitigate the recession's financial impact -- and that group is older workers. If you lost your job in the mid-2000's, you likely also lost your nest egg. And you can't actually rebuild it unless you find a job, which isn't happening for many. Time is running out.
Age discrimination is real.
Certain stereotypes exist about older workers -- we can't keep up technologically, we will spend all day reminiscing about the good old days, we don't fit in to the current office culture.
These stereotypes are at the root of the discrimination. I'd also throw in the fact that employers want to hire the cheapest workers possible, and that's less experienced folks.
But even the Washington Post is guilty of age discrimination. In an ad seeking a social media manager, the paper said it was looking for someone with the "ability to explain to those twice your age what Reddit or Snapchat or Whisper or Fark is." I can explain those things to you and I'm 64. And then there was the Seattle Star, which ran an ad saying it was seeking someone "young." The publisher was unapologetic when it was suggested that this was discrimination against older people. "So sue me. Sheesh," he said. Can you imagine the outrage if he had written "white" for "young?"
Older unemployed workers have gone underground, and in doing so, have become invisible.
Older workers are the infrastructure of the so-called gig economy. They jump from one freelance and/or part-time job to the next. They work under contracts that don't pay them when they get sick or offer them health insurance. Vacations? They are on their own.
Having been part of this group for two years, I salute these people. They are a creative lot who have figured out how to stay afloat, if only barely. They get their teeth fixed using Groupon coupons, they shop at thrift stores for their kids' back-to-school clothes, and they make quilts to sell on Etsy to keep the lights turned on. Some have taken in rent-paying roommates to help cover the mortgage. They barter and exchange services; some times in a pinch, they ask for money. But somehow, each month, they find a way.
What's truly unfortunate is that we've stopped counting them as unemployed. If they don't collect unemployment benefits, they don't exist -- even though we all know dozens of people in this situation. This is why "unemployment" stats for older workers are lower than the national numbers.
Just don't kid yourself: There will come a day when each and every one of these workers will no longer be able to exist on this tightrope. They are already calling it the silver tsunami and it's headed toward taxpayers.
"Get retrained" is easier said than done.
No one is arguing that today's jobs don't require a different skills set than jobs of old. But have you seen a lot of retraining programs underway in your city? Me neither. Community colleges have borne the brunt of older workers trying to learn new tricks.
My standard advice to every out-of-work mid-lifer is this: Go into healthcare. With the population aging and the need for health services growing, it would seem like a natural place to be.
The question no one has a good answer for is: What do you live on while you are busy getting retrained? It's not like we can push the pause button on our living expenses while we figure things out. And forget government help. The government has offered very little in the way of retraining programs, let alone figured out how to help people stay afloat while they are being retrained.
Which leaves the old turning our hobbies into businesses. While many midlifers try their hand at entrepreneurial ventures, the wash-out rate is high. Entrepreneur magazine reports that first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18 percent chance of succeeding in taking their companies public. Bottom line: Just because you like to cook, it doesn't mean you should open a restaurant.
Experience is worth less, if not altogether worthless.
I remember when I was looking for my first job and every place I applied wanted someone with experience. We've come a full 180 on this. Experience -- probably because it comes with a higher price tag -- is less desirable a qualification. Experience won't get you far in today's jobs market.
The big news this year is that Google, AT&T, and MetLife and about 250 other employers signed a pledge to "recognize the value of experienced workers." I'm still left stammering that these major employers needed a pledge to actually do this.
Older workers tend to bomb interviews.
This, of course, assumes you even get an interview. But ask anyone over 50 who has had one what it's like and the stories all start to sound the same. "The guy asked me a question and then just kept texting away while I was answering." "I wore a great 'interview' outfit and he wore jeans; it was awkward." "It was like we were speaking different languages."
Times have changed in the personnel office. Not only aren't they sending anyone flowers in the hospital, they are also checking out your digital footprint -- googling you, reading your LinkedIn profile, checking what you posted on social media sites. The guy may be texting while you are speaking, but just remember that older workers aren't the only ones who have taken a beating in the past decade: Manners may have too.
You don't have to get the new you in place tomorrow. A good first thing to do: practice some personal archeology. That means digging out the interests you used to have. Did you always want to raise orchids, sing in a choir, be an artist, take photos like Ansel, help abused animals?
Actually, that's the title of a book by Barbara Sher: It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now: How To Create Your Second Life At Any Age. Sher is a genius at getting people off the dime, out of their fear freezes and into new lives that fit. Certainly her books helped me go back to school in my sixties and get an MA in Gerontology, the study of older people. So any Sher book on Amazon would be number two on my get-going list.
Find someone who struggles with the same issues. This could be your mate, a former co-worker or a neighbor. It helps to know you are not alone. Exchanging ideas may result in a new perspective on retirement issues. Sometimes others can see you better than you can and might share what things they think you could do and enjoy.
Take classes in your interests at community colleges or adult ed classes in your area. Also look online. I got my degree from USC online. Warning: Degrees from established and reputable schools earned online require work and should be approached seriously. These are not degree mills. Your professors can be tough. Standards are high, exams taxing, papers arduous. Such credentials also can be expensive. Think $20,000 for a two-year curriculum to earn an MA. That's a high price, but such courses can be an investment in a new retirement career.
If you don't care about credit -- you just want the fun and challenge of the subject matter -- take free online university courses. Free online courses from major schools are a treasure chest of ideas and information and a good way to get your feet wet in any subject. For a list of high-quality courses, go to Education-Portal.com. MIT excels at this, and not just in science, but in the humanities with a wide offering of music courses. Carnegie Mellon is a leader online with many science courses. Tufts has wide offerings and excels in nutrition and medicine, both human and veterinary. UC Berkeley is not to be outdone. I had to stop writing this column just to listen to a computer class. All the links to these universities are at the website above.
It won't magically come your way. It takes effort and bravery to go down unknown paths. To his credit, my mate, Cranky Pants, ventured forth to fall in a river after a fish, to suffer through golf lessons in the heat of an Los Angeles summer and to spin out on a race track going over 100 mph. He decided who he was not: a fisherman, Tiger Woods or Sterling Moss. He found civil grand jury work instead -- interesting and done on cool dry land at zero mph. So, again, we salute him and others who get out there in retirement as test pilots of their own lives. Fly on!
Follow Ann Brenoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnnBrenoff