Surviving (and Thriving) After a Layoff
8 things to know and prepare for — emotionally and professionally
Debby Englander was a successful editorial director at a major publishing house in New York City, producing best-selling titles about business, personal finance and investing. Although the publishing industry was smarting and she knew her employer was consolidating, Englander felt her job was safe. So when the axe fell in 2013, she found herself reeling.
Financially, Englander was in decent shape. Between her severance, her husband’s income and their savings, they were relatively secure. Their daughter had graduated from college, so no huge expenses loomed on the horizon.
The Difficulty of Post-Layoff Job Hunting
Nevertheless, forced transitions are tough on us all and Englander, a 59-year-old who had followed a traditional career path to success, was no different.
“The thought of job hunting was awful,” she admitted. “Some days I loathed getting up, knowing I had nothing to do other than find a job.”
But she soon realized that something was changing for her. I could feel it, too — she was my friend and had been my editor, and the difference in her was palpable.
“In my 40s, I would have done an aggressive job search and taken a lateral or even lower-level job,” Englander told me. But after a number of weeks of being unemployed and a couple of small projects came through, she began to relish the flexibility she'd gained. This was especially important to her because she had taken on a greater role caring for her 89-year-old father.
The Path to Validation
Even as Englander's self-confidence took a hit and her emotions went on a rollercoaster ride, she began to feel validated. She said “yes” to an opportunity that was not in her wheelhouse but sounded attractive. And when she tried an editing job and ended up hating it, she decided she'd pass on those kinds of projects in the future.
Now, many months after her last day of work as an employee and as she rapidly approaches the end of her severance package, Englander doesn’t have dreaded mornings. In fact, she has become, she says, “more sensitive to my time. If an opportunity doesn’t feel right, I’ve learned to say no.”
Englander’s emotional journey through job loss is not an isolated one. I’ve been in the same boat and have experienced many of the same things Englander has. When we are forcefully cut from jobs that, for many of us, are wrapped up with our identities, there’s a huge loss. And as with any loss, we have to go through a mourning period. During that time we’ll feel hurt, anger, isolation, despair and — when something good happens — exhilaration. All of these emotions can be fleeting, or we can dwell upon them.
8 Things to Know and Prepare For
Here, culling from Englander’s experience, coupled with my own plus helpful ideas from Kerry Hannon, career transition expert, Next Avenue columnist and award winning author of What’s Next: Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond, are eight important things you should know and be prepared to experience when you’re laid off or downsized in midlife.
Hopefully you’ll find solace in knowing that you’re not alone and that there is a light at the end of this seemingly endless dark tunnel.
1. It is personal. Despite what others may tell you, it really is about you. If you were so essential to the survival of your organization, you wouldn’t have been let go. Accept this as fact and move on.
2. It probably had to do with income. It’s possible that some part of the reason you lost your job is your age, but more than likely it’s because you made more money than your junior colleagues. Employers often figure: Why let go of two lower-paid employees when we can get rid of just a single, senior one? That doesn’t make the loss any sweeter, but it does allow us to keep more of our sense of dignity.
3. Work friendship is fleeting. After you leave the workplace, you’ll miss not only the place and the work (not to mention the steady income and benefits), but also the people. It's likely that you and your co-workers formed close relationships, especially if you were there for a long time. Be forewarned: often those close relationships are close only through the workplace. You’ll feel ditched by these former friends when they don’t call, write or keep in touch. It happens more often than we like. Two years after my layoff, I still felt hurt when my former friends didn’t reach out or even respond to my calls.
4. Be strategic in looking for new work. Don’t send out dozens of identical resumés — for the most part that’s a futile effort. Instead, write a pitch letter specific to the opportunity and the employer you're pursuing. Work on the letter with friends and colleagues. As Hannon says: “If you don’t establish a personal connection to the company, it’s probably a waste of time to even fill out the job application.”
5. Get a coach if you can. If you have access to an outplacement service, take advantage of it and especially go for the one-on-one coaching if offered. This coaching not only helps you with the tactics of finding new opportunities, but can also give you the underlying support you crave. Most important, it gives you something to do other than stew in your own home.
6. Seek out little successes. Grab onto some small opportunity and make it as successful as you can. When it works out well, relish in the validation you’ll feel. If you’re really lucky, the project will be one where you get to use your experience and knowledge, possibly even helping someone who’s your junior. If so, what a huge reward you’ll feel. Use that to build on and to keep you going day-to-day.
7. Hit the gym. “If you aren’t physically fit, get with it. People will judge you by how you look, regardless of how politically incorrect that may be," says Hannon. "When you’re physically fit, it sends the message subliminally that you’re up for the job.”
8. Don’t let unemployment get to you. Looking for a job is all about selling yourself. That’s not fun for most of us; after I lost my job, I often said I’d much prefer to sell a product than to sell myself. At least then I wouldn’t feel the personal rejection when I got no response or an outright “No.” So don’t let this period get to you. Easy to say, hard to put into practice. Mostly you’ll get rejections. But you only need one acceptance to get back on track and to lift your spirits.