It would be positive thinking gone wild to say that being out of work is one of the best things that can happen to you.
Having been through it twice now, first in my 40s and now in my 50s, I know the misery it can inflict, both financially and psychologically. I wouldn’t wish unemployment on anybody (with a few possible exceptions).
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But at the risk of coming off like the love child of Norman Vincent Peale and Pollyanna, I’d like to suggest that being unemployed can actually have a couple of upsides.
Upside No. 1: A time to reflect and regroup Disruptive as it is, a break from having a job offers us a rare opportunity to put this busy, noisy world on pause and think hard about what we want to do with the rest of our lives.
Those of us in our 50s, say, still have decades of productive life ahead. Better to think them through now and make any necessary adjustments than wait another 30 years and regret all the things we missed out on.
Given today’s job market, we’re likely to have ample time to contemplate. Finding a new job takes longer than it used to. And, unfortunately, the older we are, the longer the process of getting hired is apt to drag out.
According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics jobless figures, the average duration of unemployment for jobseekers age 55 to 64 is about 47 weeks; it’s 56 weeks for those 65 and older. By comparison, the national average for those age 25 to 34 is roughly 37 weeks.
That’s no excuse to go slow on the job hunt, but it does argue for making the best use of our time when we aren’t looking for work.
For example, this can be an ideal period to reconsider our lives in their entirety – giving serious thought to such things as where we want to live, how we want to spend our day and who we want to spend it with.
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Feeling in need of a reality check, I called up Nella Barkley, a Charleston, S.C.-based career and life coach whose Crystal-Barkley Corp. counsels individuals and organizations.
Barkley is a big believer in self-knowledge – understanding what we truly want in our lives and recognizing the skills we’ve developed over the years. Job-hunting then becomes a matter of looking for places where those two can happily intersect.
She recalls one out-of-work client, a graphic designer in her 50s, who initially hoped to find another job in that field. “I persuaded her to sit still and look at her accumulated experience,” Barkley says. It turned out that the woman also had a knack for organizing people, as shown by her work with school and neighborhood groups over the years. She ultimately found a job with an environmental organization, using her graphic arts and lobbying skills.
Barkley contends that most of us have little concept of all the skills we have to offer until we take the time to do serious introspection.
To my mind, that’s where a couple of months off can sometimes help. Freed from doing our bosses’ bidding, we can get down to our own business, possibly for the first time in decades.
As Barkley says: “It’s about taking command of yourself and your future.”
Upside No. 2: A casual-dress rehearsal for retirement I’ve discovered that being out of work provides another unexpected benefit – it’s like a sneak preview of how easy or difficult our adjustment to retirement is likely to be when that period of our lives finally begins.
(MORE: Positive Steps to Take After Losing a Job)
What We Have in Common with Retirees
Retirees and “unemployees” have four things in common which, incidentally, can present challenges:
Our daily routine Without the structure imposed by a job, we’re free to devise our own schedules. This can be both liberating and a little unnerving, in my experience.
For example, I enjoy being able to run to the post office or hardware store whenever I feel like it now, but I can’t imagine wanting to go there every day. How many stamps or nails does a person need?
I take this as a sign from the retirement gods that it’s crazy for any of us to quit working at the end of a career without a clearly defined idea of how we’ll occupy our time.
Our social lives Unemployment, like retirement, can be isolating. It’s easy to go an entire day without any human contact, except for the occasional telemarketer. And when you begin looking forward to calls from those characters, you know you’re really in trouble.
If I miss anything about my old job, aside from the little matter of a regular paycheck, it’s my former work buddies. Should that also ring true for you, we can both be pretty sure that a solitary retirement – running a lighthouse on some remote island, for example – isn’t for us.
In case we don’t have a healthy supply of friends now, we can use this time to start making some new ones or renewing old acquaintances we once valued.
We can also finally get around to methodical job networking, which just could lead to our next positions. You never know …
Our spending Retirement often means living on a more modest income, just as unemployment usually does.
While cutting back on expenses may not be fun, seeing our cash flow slow to a trickle forces us to think harder about our money and decide what’s really worth spending it on.
In my case, the occasional dinner out with the family is still important, though we’re doing this less often and at less expensive places. And I’ve gotten over any embarrassment about asking for a doggy bag, a practice I expect I’ll now probably carry with me into retirement.
Our sense of self Unemployment doesn’t just take away our jobs, but also our job titles. Same for retirement. I’ve come to realize that if we find ourselves at a loss to explain who we are without that convenient shorthand, it could mean our identity is way too tangled up in our careers.
That’s a problem for me and if it’s one for you, we’d both better work on it before launching into retirement. Otherwise, we could find ourselves facing a rough time, as explained in the Next Avenue article “When Type A Personalities Retire: It Isn’t Pretty.”
No Shortcuts for the Out-of-Work
I won’t pretend to have any easy shortcuts to offer my unemployed peers. Finding yourself can take time and a lot of digging, I’ve learned. And I’m still at it. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure I’m in here somewhere.
One thing I do know is that we are all so much more than our jobs, especially by this stage of our lives. But it sometimes takes a setback like unemployment to help us realize that.
Greg Daugherty is a personal finance writer specializing in retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was formerly editor-in-chief at Reader’s Digest New Choices and senior editor at Money.