A friend who recently turned 50 just lost her job. She works -- make that worked -- for a big company with thousands of employees and a CEO who is fond of periodically throwing the pickup sticks up in the air just to watch them land in different places; he calls it "innovation." Sometimes he pretends he's a big fish who gobbles up a smaller fish company. Other times he abruptly closes down existing teams to pay for his expensive fishing habit. Whatever. This story is about my friend, not him.
She has worked for this company for a lot of years and seen many people come and go. Her own job has morphed through the years and her sterling evaluations attest to her flexibility in morphing along with it. She was about as blindsided as blindsided can get when the call from HR came. "We hate making these calls, especially right before the holidays," the HR woman told her. I would suspect it's even less fun to receive one than to make one.
My friend hung up and went into the bathroom. In a stall alone, she processed what had just happened. And then she decided to pretend it hadn't.
Call it a strategy of suspended disbelief. She told her husband, who has been self-employed for the past few years. He doesn't make much money but the flexible hours of being your own boss has allowed him to be a full-time dad. Yes, they have kids, two boys and a girl. The kids don't know that their mother, the main family breadwinner, has stopped winning the bread. They may suspect something is up because she's been taking extra-long showers. Showers are great places to cry.
She also isn't sleeping well. She falls asleep OK most nights but wakes up at ungodly hours and stares at the ceiling. She runs the math in her head, over and over. How many months will her severance carry them? She makes a mental note to schedule her annual mammogram before her insurance runs out. Should they consider dumping one car? Why did she let her boys hit In and Out Burger after sports practice when they could have eaten at home 10 minutes later? She wonders how she'll afford to keep her hair colored and her wardrobe up-to-date for interviews. Looking younger matters, she knows, when it comes to the job hunt.
She also has not told her relatives, not her parents and not the other family members who are coming to spend Christmas with her. She said she doesn't feel up to answering their questions: What will you do? Did you get a good severance package? Can you get health insurance?
She doesn't want Christmas to be any less fun or festive and she fears that the news of her job loss would cast a pallor over the holidays. I am reminded of a sappy TV episode years ago about a hospital ER on Christmas Eve. A mom with a bunch of kids was brought in after she collapsed decorating the tree with her family. With the kids and her husband out of earshot, she told the doctor that there was no need to run tests or admit her; she knew she had advanced cancer and wanted to have one last happy Christmas with her family before she told them. The doctor stared at her in disbelief, nodding in the direction of her husband and asked "He doesn't know?" The woman smiled and said "He's not all that strong. Let us have this Christmas together. Please." I always wondered if I could be selfless enough to do that, to shield my family from bad news and delay upsetting their worlds as mine had just been upset. That, in a nutshell, is what my friend is doing.
My friend knows that, at her age, the numbers are stacked against her. Older workers, once unemployed, remain jobless for longer than people of other age groups. Then there is the ageism she will face head on. Despite working in the tech industry, she was one of the oldest people in her office. How will she be viewed by other companies in the same field?
And then of course there is the timing, which couldn't be worse. Few companies do any actual hiring at the end of the year. Decision-makers are on vacation and are focused on time with their families, travel, spending holidays away from the office. No one will give her or her resume the time of day until after Jan. 1.
As for companies, end-of-year layoffs seem to have become woven into the fabric of business as usual. Is it that CEOs want to close the books on a high note? Reduce operating expenses for the flip of the calendar year?
Or are they simply the real Grinches of Christmas?
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