Layoff: Catastrophe or Opportunity?

At the age of 50, I was laid off.

It was a Thursday morning in August of 2013 and it came on a conference call along with hundreds of co-workers. I had been working in one way or another since the age of 13 — babysitting, apple picking, camp counselor, journalist. It was the first time I had ever been involuntarily out of work.

Did I mention it happened while I was technically on vacation? Yep. I had to dial in to a conference call to lose my job while at the beach on Cape Cod. Oh, Corporate America.

Illustration about corporate downsizing

I knew it was coming. If my working life back then had been a horror movie, I was the character that gets killed first: I was upper-level management, was paid handsomely, got lots of bonuses and didn't actually produce anything (although of course that part wasn't true). I knew I was a goner.

I was certainly not alone. According to a 2014 study by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, 1 out of 5 Americans lost their job during the Great Recession that began in 2008. Nearly 40% said it took more than seven months to find a new job and about one in five of laid-off workers said all they could find was a temporary position. Almost half — 46% — of the estimated 30 million layoffs who found new jobs said they paid less than their previous position.

Oh, goody! I had a lot to look forward to.

Don't panic — punt!

The most important thing: I did not panic. My husband was employed, I received a decent severance, we had enough in the bank, the state of Connecticut would send me a regular check to help us stay afloat (I made sure to take care of all the bureaucracy right away), so we had a cushion. No one would starve, we wouldn't lose the house, the dog would continue to get treats.

The other important thing I did during my early days of unemployment was to set some rules:

  1. No pajamas after 9 a.m.
  2. No workout gear after 11 a.m.
  3. No alcohol before 4 p.m.*
  4. No TV if you are home alone and it is before 5 p.m.
  5. You must leave the house at least once/day, even if it is just to go to the grocery store.
  6. NO BAKING. It kills time but you end up eating almost all of it yourself. So when you go to the grocery store, do not buy baking supplies, no matter how tempting they are, or how many times you tell yourself the cupcakes are for the kids.
  7. Reading of books, serious scholarly magazines, People, or any tabloid publications is allowed at any time. Do not read Real Simple. It will make you feel bad about yourself.
  8. Set a timer when you sit down in front of the laptop to log onto social media. You are allowed 30 minutes of Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. for every six hours you are awake. Do not log onto Facebook after the kids get on the bus and then look up for the first time when they are walking back in the door. That ex-boyfriend from high school truly does not want to hear from you.
  9. Set specific goals. Don't say, “I'm going to clean the house.” Instead, go room by room and really get it clean (look up! It's horrifying.) Don't say, “I'm going to paint.” Pick a room, buy the supplies, and set a deadline.
  10. Talking to the dog does not mean you're crazy.

*You are allowed to drink rum punches at lunch if your best friend from New Jersey shows up on a Friday at noon.

I took a deep breath. While I was mindlessly trolling LinkedIn and randomly applying for jobs I wasn't interested in that tens of thousands of others were also putting in for, I thought about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Based on my genetics, at the age of 50, I might well be working for another 40 years! I needed to figure this out.

Journalism, my life's calling for 30 years, was not exactly in lifeboat-shape at the time (or still). And my husband is a reporter. There weren't a lot of options locally, and moving was out of the question.

A friend who owned a coffee shop told me if I ran her Facebook page (which she said was killing her), she would give me free coffee and let me use her wi-fi. Deal. I figured if I could find a dry cleaner and a wine shop that wanted to trade social media for services, I'd be set.

And so an idea began to form. My favorite part about my last job had not so much been the journalism, but the conversation. And the conversation on social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. Hmmm.

It's all about connections

And then I got off my butt and I networked my brains out, face to face. I paid $25 to attend a local Chamber of Commerce seminar, and spent the entire time working the crowd … ending up with two part-time jobs, including one with the Chamber itself. I would be making a fraction of my previous salary, but it was a start. I joyously moved from unemployed to underemployed!

The mother of a child my daughter babysits for bumped into me in the grocery store and spent 20 minutes sharing her tale of marketing/PR woe at the nonprofit she runs. Voila. Job number 3. I was now technically employed full-time, by 3 different low-paying entities. It was a slow build and I learned some hard lessons, but more than two years later I have a long client list and make more than I did at my last job. I am happy, fulfilled, and my quality of work-life balance is the best it's ever been.

When we did our taxes this year, our accountant actually hugged me. “I'm proud of you,” he said. “I wasn't sure you'd be able to do this, but you are kicking ass.”

I was not alone in this stepping outside of my comfort zone. Among those hundreds of colleagues who lost their jobs at our old company, some went back to traditional print. Some went back to mainstream digital media. Some, like me, became their own bosses. And some changed everything completely.

Michael Dinan knew he wanted to remain a journalist — a local one — but he also knew that he did not want to get back into the corporate world. The day of his Conference Call From Hell, he bought a domain name, He had already been networking with others who run their own local news sites, and gotten lots of great advice. “I felt driven by the fact that if it didn't work, I would have to go work for a boss again, and I just could not let that happen,” he told me. “I felt that I was fighting for my life with the New Canaanite in the early going, and I also felt that I could figure out how to make hyperlocal work as a one-man show.”

Marvin the dog helps with the transition to entrepreneurship

Networking remains key, and he credits his early joining of the local Chamber of Commerce (there they are again!) with helping him.

“My joining the chamber was the single most important decision I made. The two women who run it are dynamos, and they specialize in making connections between local businesses and the wider community. A piece of advice that they gave me during one of our many conversations on business was to offer a discount for upfront payments, rather than spending lots of time on invoicing and following up with my advertisers — it turned out to be a really great idea, as it not only saved me time, but also helped solidify my baseline revenue and business plan.”

Two years later, he is paying all the bills, clearing a profit, and always looking to expand and improve. Oh, and he's sooooo much happier.

“I know what I love about this field, and it starts with being a reporter. I think what I learned from my two jobs as a manager … is that I am not a strong manager. I'm also a very bad subordinate and a pretty lousy colleague/counterpart.”

Do your research

Eileen McNamara is one of the best investigative journalists I know. She went back to print after our layoff, in a management position. And she was miserable.

Dress display at Boheme, a Connecticut retail store

“I needed a paradigm shift, a new career that would carry me through the second half of my life,” she said.

“I'd been designing and making my own clothing and jewelry for years, selling them at arts and craft shows or sharing them with friends and family.

“I decided maybe it was time to take everyone's advice and try making a career out of that hobby, selling my creations in my own boutique.”

She is now the proud owner of Boheme, a women's boutique in her hometown of East Hampton, CT. It is fabulous, and she is ecstatic. She spent about a year getting ready to launch, and used her journalism skills to help chart her path.

“I studied the retail market in my region, I looked at the overall trends in retail, drafted a business plan early on to figure out if what I was planning to do was even feasible. I used the considerable contacts I'd developed during 30 years in journalism in Connecticut and I got tons of good information back. In the end, I simply crunched the numbers and asked myself an essential question: What was more important to me, living with less money or being happy? The answer isn't all that difficult — if you can afford it. I spent about a year thinking about doing this and when I saw a ‘For Rent' sign in one of the historic buildings in my town's village center, I knew it was time. It was, literally, the sign I'd been waiting for.”

Open for about 8 months, Eileen says, “I'm not really making a profit yet, but friends and family tell me that making enough money to pay the rent and the rest of my overhead every month is a very good sign.” And she's happy.

See the common denominator here? Happy. Life's too short. Don't let a layoff be a catastrophe. Let it be an opportunity. Sock away some of that paycheck that isn't making you happy every week to create that cushion you will need if the bottom drops out. Give yourself the chance not to panic, take a breath, and think about the direction the rest of your work life will take. Sometimes, what you think is the worst thing, turns out to be the best thing.

How about you? Did you reinvent your career after a layoff? Was it a slight change or a drastic one? What's the smartest move you made while making the change?

Photo Credits (top to bottom), Michael Dinan, Eileen McNamara

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