I went through the first 35 years of my working life having to look up how to spell “laid off.” For real. It was just one of those brain twerks; to this day, I never type the words “meditate” or “environment” right the first time either.
But I sure learned how to spell “laid off.” Five years ago on March 27, I was let go from my job of almost two decades at the Los Angeles Times. I was 59 years old and the sole support of two young children. I owned two homes, two cars and had a non-working spouse with health issues. I was screwed, devastated, saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
For sure, I wasn’t alone on that dark day. And equally for sure, I landed better than most — I had two wildly successful years of freelancing that culminated in a staff job here at the Huffington Post. I have written repeatedly about how what I thought was going to be the worst day of my life five years ago actually wound up being one of the best days: I emerged from the experience of losing my job energized and proud of my resourcefulness in keeping my family afloat. So yay for me, right?
As I sit here five years later, I still see the devastation that rocked my peers during the Great Recession. I see friends in their 50s and 60s still hustling for gigs, others who have lost their homes, watched their marriages cave to the stress of unemployment, and who die a little more with each rejection they get when they venture into the job market. I know many who have just stopped looking for work. They laugh at the government’s “falling” unemployment numbers knowing that the reason the numbers are dropping is because these people who have retreated from the job market aren’t being counted anymore. They’ve gone underground, disappeared from our radar, getting by by stringing together piecemeal work and draining what remains of their savings as they live with in-laws, adult kids.
We can argue ’til the cows come home which generation was hit the hardest by the recession, but there is only one generation that was left with the smallest amount of sand remaining in their work-life hourglass to recover from the loss: That was mine. It’s simple: If you only have so many years left in your working life, you have less time to rebuild the nest egg.
We watched as our homes devalued and our 401k plans and stocks crumbled. And the skills sets that served us so well for so many decades? They became as worthless as the resumes they were written on. Everything, but everything, changed for those who lost their jobs in their 50s and 60s.
I remember in the early weeks of my unemployment going to lunch with two former colleagues. I froze when the check came and one proposed splitting it three ways — the way we always used to. I flushed with gratitude when his partner shot him a look, snatched the bill and just paid it. At that moment, the world for me divided into people who were observing the recession and those of us who were living it.
And I fear that there are some who are still living it. A copy editor friend in June took a job that paid $15 an hour without any health coverage or other benefits; he had been earning more than three times that amount before he lost his job. A graphics designer I know was laid off in 2008; he now works on the same annual reports that he did when he was employed but he does it as a freelancer for a fraction of his former salary. At one point, he applied for a job at Starbucks just to get health coverage.
Looking for work is a younger man’s game, is a refrain I hear often. A woman I know has had just one interview in the past two years and the person charged with hiring her was young enough to be her son. “There was no connection,” she told me. “The interview was over before I sat down.” She had worn her best suit and had her hair styled the day before; her interviewer wore jeans and checked his texts while she answered his questions.
Age discrimination is undeniable — and brazen. The Seattle Star recently ran an ad on Craigslist saying it was seeking someone “young.” The publisher bristled when it was suggested that this was discrimination against older people. “So sue me. Sheesh,” he said. Substitute the word “white” for “young” and maybe then he’ll get it.
Prolonged unemployment is the Black Plague for boomers. Nearly one in two unemployed adults 55 and older have been out of a job for six months or more, a number that hasn’t changed in the five years since I lost my job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you are under 55, you can expect to be unemployed an average of 34 weeks; older than that and it jumps to 50 weeks — a year.
There’s a little hope on the horizon. According to AARP, Google, AT&T and MetLife have joined about 250 other employers in signing a pledge to “recognize the value of experienced workers.” My heart be still. This is something companies have to sign a pledge in order to actually do? Whatever happened to the idea that experience has value? That with age comes some wisdom? Oh right, the money.
Still, if it means that these companies will put systems into place to ensure that older applicants are seriously considered when there are job openings, I’ll take it. Maybe this is the next incarnation of the civil rights movement? An affirmative action program for those in their 60s who were laid off in the recession and written off by society? Let’s start it here. If you’ve read this far, you know what I’m talking about. Please share.
Earlier on Huff/Post50: