It started out just like any other evening at work. Dwain Schenck was sitting in his cubicle waiting for some feedback on a newsletter he was working on. But as soon as his boss called him into his office, Schenck knew the meeting was about more than his newsletter. A human resources representative shut the door behind them.
Schenck kept his eyes on the HR staffer the whole time he was being laid off; he couldn’t make eye contact with his boss for fear it would make him too angry. As he steered his car through the familiar drive home, Schenck called his wife and gave her the news, but he was upbeat and assured her his connections and experience would land him another gig soon. But when Schenck got home from that last day of work, she followed him down to the basement and started crying.
“The feeling was ‘Here I am, a professional, I’ve got responsibilities, three kids, and all the sudden I’m out of work with a very short severance,’” Schenck said. “OK, oh my God.”
At nearly 50, Schenck had never been out of work before. As he looked for a new job, he faced an uphill battle -- the year was 2012, when the unemployment rate never budged below 7.8 percent. As Schenck described it, “You could say the Great Recession was winding down, but it was still roaring.”
Compounding his job woes, Schenck was middle-aged. Older workers took a huge hit during the Great Recession and tepid recovery. Between August 2007 and August 2013, the share of employed men ages 45-49 and 50-54 dropped by 4 and 5 percent, respectively. As of May of last year, nearly 40 percent of the millions of middle-aged job seekers had been unemployed for a year or more -- a historic level of long-term unemployment, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Schenck described some of the challenges he faced as an older job-seeker. At times, he said, he felt younger hiring managers saw him as too old -- he was the same age as some of their fathers. In addition, Schenck noted, many middle-aged Americans who lost their jobs during the Great Recession hadn’t looked for a job in years.
“A lot of people lost their jobs who had jobs at major corporations for like 15 years,” he said. “They didn’t even have a resume, and all of a sudden they’re thrown to the street, and it’s just such a shock.”
After six months of searching, Schenck said he started to think he was "losing my mind." He and his family were forced to make some sacrifices. They cut back on small things like cable and garbage services, and made bigger financial changes like running their savings almost dry.
After nearly a year, things got even worse. As Schenck sat in his frigid basement one evening, he said, he thought, “I’m just fading into the wallpaper. It really doesn’t matter if I even exist anymore, the family doesn’t need me.” It took a phone call from a friend experiencing a similar struggle to pull Schenck out of his dark spell. “It was kind of like a shock to the system,” he said.
Now, Schenck is hoping to keep other unemployed Americans from feeling as alone as he did when he lost his job. Schenck’s recently-published book, Reset: How to Beat the Job Loss Blues and Get Ready For Your Next Act, chronicles his job loss and job search, and features advice from career coaches and business leaders on how to get back in the game after long periods of unemployment.
His biggest pieces of advice: Immerse yourself in the job search and set realistic expectations for when you’ll get hired. (“Whatever you think it’s going to be, double it,” he says.) Most importantly, remember you're not alone, and connect with other job seekers to help “get out of that darkness.” Schenck’s website resetyourfuture.com aims to do just that by providing the unemployed with an online forum.
Schenck said he was inspired to write the book after describing his loss of confidence and identity to his friend "Morning Joe" host Mika Brazezinski, who encouraged him to write it all down. Brazezinski could relate to Schenck's troubles -- she also struggled with a bout of unemployment, which she describes as "the most frustrating, difficult and debilitating time of my life," in the book's forward.
Schenck's story has a happy ending, but perhaps not the one you’d expect. He never did find a job in the traditional sense. After sending out countless resumes, going for dozens of interviews and receiving a slew of rejections, he decided to go a different route and start his own business. Now, Schenck runs a boutique communications firm that caters to high-level executives.
“I was willing to take jobs using the skills that I had, for less money, but I couldn't get hired because they figured, 'This guy is going to take it, but he won’t stay,'” he said. “I ended up reinventing my career because I couldn’t find a job.”