(This article originally appeared on Womenforhire.com.)
Last week my husband’s dear friend and life-long colleague died at age 64.
The coroner said it was a heart attack, but those who loved Jacques le Sourd knew better: it was a pink slip that cut him down.
After serving as the theater reporter and critic at a Westchester, N.Y. newspaper for 35 years, he was abruptly laid off at age 60 from the only job he knew. His identity and paycheck were replaced with disbelief and deep depression.
After reading my book, The Shift, Jacques sent my husband Peter a beautiful note of praise, yet one paragraph stood out big time. He wrote:
I certainly don’t have Tory’s stated appetite for life. “I want to live a long, long time,” she wrote on Page 129. I deeply do not.
Unemployed Without a Plan B
That’s the extreme toll job loss can take on the psyche. Jacques couldn’t conceive of a professional Plan B.
“My next assignment was on the Depression hits Broadway,” Jacques told another colleague when he received his walking papers. Then he added: “I don’t have to do that story now. I’m living it.”
It’s so easy for the rest of us to pipe in as armchair advisors: What’d you expect? The newspaper industry is in trouble! Expand your horizons! Start a business! Go work at a coffee shop or retail store!
In essence, reinvent yourself. But let’s face it: reinvention is more myth than reality for most people.
Most of the Jobless Hate Not Working
While there are plenty of slackers among the unemployed, the vast majority of out-of-work people I know (I’m founder of the career-focused businesses, Women for Hire and Spark & Hustle) are very eager to find a job. In fact, they hate being without a professional purpose and paycheck.
(MORE: Jobseeking Tips From the Experts)
Take Suzan F., who has an MBA from Duke and collects food stamps. After spending 15 years in marketing and finance at several Fortune 500 firms, Colgate eliminated her position in 2010. Despite daily diligence to find permanent work, she hasn’t had a full time staff job since then — just a handful of temporary roles. Now at 43, she has burned through $60,000 in savings and is on Medicaid.
“The reasons — replaced by technology, cost cutting, restructure — are unimportant,” she wrote in an email to me. “This is not the life I imagined for myself as a Straight-A student who thought working hard was enough to succeed. I do not have a husband or rich parents. I would like nothing more than to get back to work. I am willing to take a pay cut, but I’ve been told I’m a ‘flight risk’ — the assumption is I’ll jump when a better paying job comes along.”
She ended her email with chilling words.
The ‘Bag Lady’ Fear
“We all have that fear of being the bag lady on the street, and if I don’t get a job soon, when my retirement money runs out, that could be me,” she said. “I’ve had those thoughts that nobody wants to discuss, but sometimes it seems like there are no other options. It pains me to think that there is no place for someone like me in the working world of 2014.”
For several years, poignant emails fill my inbox every day from highly capable people like Suzan whose jobs have evaporated.
But what floored me most about Suzan’s email is that it had been more than 25 years since I heard from her — ever since she and I graduated together from Miami Beach Senior High School. I thought: We all could be Suzie.
Sad Words From a 10-Year-Old
From Hawley, Pa., Marissa Stopyra says that her part-time job can only do so much to support her kids and husband, Keith, a national sales manager who was downsized twice in recent years.
“Keith would scrub floors if some place would hire him to do so,” she writes. “Our kids seem to do ok most days, but you can tell when the stress is high, their faces show it. My 10-year-old said, after overhearing a conversation, that he wanted me to go to the bank and take all of his money out of his savings account. When I asked why, he said ‘Because Daddy needs it more than I do.’ It broke my heart. ”
And in Buffalo, N.Y., veteran banker Tracie Hill, who was downsized after 20 years, says she feels like she’s gotten the short end of the stick.
“I’ve done everything right. I went to college, worked hard, always had a job since I was 13 and had good opportunities in my career until now,” she says. “Looking for a job these past 15 months has been the hardest and most stressful thing I’ve ever had to do. It has made me question everything about myself — my skills, my career choices. I’m applying for jobs that I don’t even remotely want just to try and get something.”
Career Advice Has Its Limits
My small talk — stay upbeat, follow up on all submissions, get out of the house daily, maximize social media and do face-to-face networking — feels shallow. I know it only goes so far.
There’s no safety net for millions who are invisible as they barely hang on; great people with solid work histories like Jacques, Suzan, Keith and Traci.
Hiring managers routinely tell me, “There’s a reason she’s been out of work for so long” — casting doubt on someone’s worth and totally dismissing the candidate based solely on a gap in employment.
What does it say about a society that kicks people to the curb in the prime of their lives, with solid work histories and proven track records?
They are all around us. Do you see them? Who among us has their backs?
Chime in. Let’s hear your thoughts. Use your voice on how long-term unemployment has impacted you or people you know. Tell us below.
Workplace expert Tory Johnson is author of The Shift, a weekly contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America and founder of the career-focused businesses, Women for Hire and Spark & Hustle.
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