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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There are 18 comments to "Layoff: Catastrophe or Opportunity?".

  1. Tyler @ Oddball Wealth says 11 May 2016 at 14:25

    Nice article. Networking is key! It’s all about who you know and who you talk too. Also thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t cost much to start your own online business these days.

    Thanks for the read,


    • Elissa Bass says 12 May 2016 at 03:28

      Tyler – you are so right! In this day and age we are lulled into thinking we can make those important connections online – wrong! It was face-to-face conversations with contacts in the business community that paid off. A lunch with an executive led to an introduction to the owner of a marketing company, which led to a lot of freelance work. And no one networks better than the nonprofits, and so once I got in there, they all referred me to their friends!

  2. Shawn says 11 May 2016 at 19:01

    I guess whether it is a catastrophe or an opportunity, it greatly depends on how we think and act about it. Some people who believe that it is a catastrophe will act that way and those who believe it is an opportunity will look for another way out.

    Like what Henry Ford said, whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.

    Thanks for sharing.. 🙂

    • Elissa Bass says 12 May 2016 at 03:30

      Shawn – absolutely. And if a layoff drags on, it can be very discouraging. There were days I felt like I would never get it figured out, that I would never make ‘enough’ money, that I would never be ‘successful’ again. You have to give yourself those days to wallow in self-pity, and then move on! Having multiple part-time and contract positions was new to me, but I realized it was the way of the future and I embraced it.

      • Shawn says 12 May 2016 at 07:47

        I believe everyone knows that they need to move on from setbacks. The problem is that it is difficult to go through it or see it from another angle when you are ‘stuck’ in the situation.

        But bad things will just go. They have come to pass, not to stay.. 🙂

  3. Ramona says 12 May 2016 at 05:54

    Got laid off in 2009 after 10 years spent as a radio Dj. The best thing that happened to me, sicne I was able to start freelancing full time and really change my life around.

  4. jestjack says 12 May 2016 at 06:22

    My “epiphany” came years ago. I was in my 20’s, newly married and lost a very good with benefits during an epic downturn in the late ’70’s. I made the decision at that time to never place my destiny in someone else’s hands again. Fast forward almost 40 years later….my old company has went BK… twice…and was then acquired by a large conglomerate. And employees make just a bit more than they did 40 years ago. I on the other hand have learned much, made a couple of bucks and will forever be grateful for my old company turning me loose….

  5. Jen From Boston says 12 May 2016 at 08:08

    I love your rules!!! It’s very important to stay in the game as opposed to withdrawing from life. I had a roommate who was laid off and had trouble finding work. I saw the toll it took on him.

    Thank you for writing a really good, informative article. I will keep this in mind as I age further into the layoff zone 😛

  6. Jen From Boston says 12 May 2016 at 08:08

    Another note – I think your rules would also be very good for retirement!

  7. Sonny says 12 May 2016 at 12:06

    Once I read book “RICH DAD POOR DAD”, it opened my eyes about Job Security. I believe in “Financial Security” over “Job Security”.

    I do not agree with Robert Kiyosaki on everything he says but on being employee and Job Security I agree on what he says.
    Every month I make sure my net worth/cash flow/ emergency fund are increasing, so that one day when the “Pink Slip” day comes, I will be ready. I wont’ panic, get angry, or beg for jobs to anyone. For me, it has not come so far but as I get older I know it will come.

  8. Latoya @ Femme Frugality says 13 May 2016 at 07:12

    I’ve never been laid off, but you can bet your last dollar I’m going to remember these rules! No wonder you made it:) This is incredibly inspiring to the many who are still unemployed or underemployed. Kudos to you for making the best out of what could have been a devastating life event.

    • Elissa Bass says 13 May 2016 at 11:48

      Thank you!

  9. lmoot says 15 May 2016 at 03:30

    For me a layoff would be a welcomed way to leave my job. I have very low expenses, an efund, a part time job (I’ve always had multiple jobs), and rental income. I plan on leaving my job in a few years to go back to school and/or to pursue a different career anyway. As bad as I feel about saying it because I know layoff’s rarely apply to just one person, I wouldn’t feel sad or anxious (for myself) to be laid off with severance.

    I like the rules LOL. I already have a list of things I want/need to do to keep me busy if I ever have time, and am not a lounger (by default because of my schedule, so maybe that would change with a lot of free time). The main rule I would need to keep is number 8. Not so much for social media, but I am definitely an info junkie, and the internet is my dealer. I’m glad #10 is allowed. Am I crazy though if my pets talk back? They’re parrots 🙂

    Layoffs in the health insurance industry are common so it’s not stigmatized and should I need to continue to earn the same salary (which isn’t hard since I never made a lot), getting a job in the same industry, in my area, is simple enough. I’ve worked with people who have been laid off twice…by their current employer, and this is round three for them. I’ve never been laid off and it would have been really scary a few years ago. Now it’s my preferred way to go.

    • Elissa Bass says 17 May 2016 at 04:40

      For some folks who need a shove to leave their comfort zone this is true – it applied in my case! I was never a risk-taker, so the layoff was what I needed to realize I could and should make changes. But it is important to have that cushion in place, so save now while you are employed!

  10. Jonny Pean says 15 May 2016 at 08:16

    I believe it’s a tad difficult when you’re laid off in the age of 50. However, things become easier if you already have a strong network backing your job search

    • Elissa Bass says 17 May 2016 at 04:39

      I agree! It was the face-to-face old0fashioned networking that I did that landed me on my feet again. All the old connections I had made during my journalism career paid off big time, which leads to another good piece of advice: Don’t burn bridges! Keeping good relationships with past bosses, sources, and colleagues was key to finding my new place in the world.

  11. Sam says 18 May 2016 at 08:44

    My husband has been laid off from corporate america twice. On the one hand, he was able to enjoy some down time, he also completed a lot of home projects. On the other hand, he still has not gotten his current salary back up to pre layoff levels (2013).

    He has had some opportunities in the last two years to increase his salary but we decided against those offers for a variety of reasons. We have a baby now so one of us needs a job that is no travel and consistent hours, since that is not me it has to be him at this point. He actually is going on another interview today so we shall see.

  12. Dale says 26 May 2016 at 07:36

    After years of not having a boss, I was offered a multiple six figure salary plus bonus, then two years later laid off. It was painful for sure, but mostly the feeling of rejection.

    Ironically, I had been writing a book titled, “Master Your Money In 7 Days” that I finished shortly after my schedule became amazingly clear. It’s available on Amazon if anyone is interested. There’s free training and tools too.

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