58 and fired
It’s taken me a year to write about being sacked by corporate America. Not out of sadness or shame or writer’s block. No, it was hope. Hope that I would be hired by another company and then fear they might Google me, find this column and see me as damaged goods.
On November 15, 2012 (exactly a week before Thanksgiving) and after a successful, 16-year career with a Fortune 500 company, I was literally walked out the door. Fired for “performance issues.” Not a dime of severance pay.
Six weeks earlier, I was told by my 40-year-old boss and the 28-year-old HR manager that I was not cutting the mustard. They gave me 42 days to find another job within the company or I was toast. I didn’t like where this sandwich was headed.
I thought, as a senior manager with an impeccable work ethic and stellar track record, I could find something else. In the past, I’d seen the company help those in “job jeopardy.” Surely they would not let me go. But they sure as hell did.
I didn’t, and don’t, think of myself as old. I didn’t, and don’t, want to play the “age card.” But I have no other explanation.
In the five or six years since the Great Recession, corporations have tightened their belts and fired or laid off workers. Even after seeing their profits on the rise, they have decided to keep the cash and continue squeezing their beleaguered, remaining employees. These companies have gained a new sense of confidence; cocksure their workers will stay no matter what. They watch the news and see former marketing executives serving coffee at Starbucks. It’s an employer’s market. Dime a dozen, bitches!
Older workers are seen as liabilities. Their salaries are generally higher and their health care costs, for the most part, are more expensive. Younger workers have more recent training and better, more organic technical skills. After all, they grew up with computers. I was in my early 30s before I touched my first keyboard.
After a year in the trenches, applying for well over a hundred jobs, I finally get it. I’m not getting another job.
Currently there are 31.6 million unemployed workers aged 55 and over – up from 25.9 million in 2007. According to a New York Times article, a worker between 50 and 61, who has been unemployed for 17 months, has only about a nine percent chance of ever finding a new job.
And although age discrimination is against the law, it’s nearly impossible to prove, in part, due to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling making it more difficult to show bias. Thanks again, Supremes, for climbing into bed with corporate America and screwing the little guy – just as the economy was at its lowest. About 23,000 age discrimination complaints were filed with the EEOC in 2012, up 20 percent from 2007. But most lawyers won’t go near an age discrimination case.
So after a year of unemployment, I look back with much more clarity. This wasn’t personal. My years of service, the quality of my service, the number of my successes – none of it mattered.
I don’t feel the need to call the company out by name. They’re pretty much all the same. But in order to tell my story, I will need to call them something. Okay, I’ll just make up a random name.
Two years ago, in October of 2011, Squirrelpool reorganized due to the recession. We manufactured home products and took a direct hit when the new home construction industry tanked. My group marketed to builders and developers, so we were much more vulnerable than the retail side of the business.
My department was blown up. My four direct reports were either let go or placed in other divisions. My boss, in his 50s, was let go after 30 years. My boss’s boss, our group vice president, was offered a lesser position within the company. He had a 35-year mega career and had actually built our group from nothing to a $2+ billion business. Jesus Christ, the criminals at Freddie and Fannie were treated with more respect! My VP told Squirrelpool to go fuck themselves and left.
So I was merged into a newly formed mishmash of builder and retail business. My new boss was 40 years old – 18 years younger than me. I’ll call her J.Lo. Oh she’s no Jenny from the block. More like Jay Leno with a blonde pageboy. I didn’t know her. I heard she was intelligent but not very nice. I got along with most people and figured I could make it work.
In the summer of 2012, six months into her leadership, she dropped the first turd in the punchbowl and told me I didn’t have the “energy level” she and her 30-someting boss (picture a blonde Eddie Munster) were looking for. I was stunned and told J.Lo I felt we had very different styles. She disagreed with my assessment.
Over the next four months J.Lo would do little things like:
- Grab my mouse out of my hand if she didn’t think I was moving quickly enough to show her something on my computer
- Disagree with me publicly in meetings over trivia
- Correct me privately about anything and everything
- Roll her eyes when I chose the elevator over the stairs
- Complain I forgot things she told me to do (yet when asked, she couldn’t come up with any examples)
I was miserable working for this bully and went to HR for help to find a job in another group. I met with a 30ish senior manager and the aforementioned 20ish twit. Young and Younger didn’t know me and were noticeably careful with their words. It was apparent J.Lo got to them first. But I still believed Squirrelpool would want me somewhere within the company. On my own I found a few positions using the internal career portal. I had two interviews, but nothing panned out.
Squirrelpool had directed me not to say anything to my colleagues about my impending doom. I hung onto the hope that on my way out the door they’d throw me a Hail Mary of a job. But they just wanted this under the radar. I learned there were others like me. Our exit dates were staggered to keep things on the down low. I had nothing in writing, just a verbal edict that November 15th would be my last day.
One of my properly outraged friends suggested I bring in cupcakes on the 15th. “Later, when they realize you gave yourself your own going away party, you will be LEGEND,” said my always funny and often dramatic pal.
So I baked cupcakes with “pink slip sprinkles” and explained to the gang I wasn’t going to make it for the Thanksgiving potluck the next day. I had quietly cleaned out my files and took my personal stuff home over previous weekends. Mid-morning I received a call from the receptionist. My former group VP sent me an enormous bouquet of flowers. Earlier in the day he had emailed a soul-nourishing note outlining my contributions over the 12 years I worked for him. And just like they tell abused wives, he told me this wasn’t my fault.
J.Lo was out of town that day, so I didn’t have to deal with her.
The HR kid met me in a conference room at 1 p.m. to turn over my laptop, ID, corporate VISA and Blackberry. I dumped it all on the table and as I turned to leave I noticed she was standing next to me. I thought, “What, you want to hug it out?” I had no clue she was planning to further humiliate me by escorting me to the door. I passed Eddie Munster and a few others I knew. I couldn’t stop the tears.
Then I drove to the unemployment office. Two firsts in one day!
I had no idea how long it would take to get my first unemployment check, but started to get a little antsy around Christmas. On December 30th I received a letter stating I was denied benefits. Squirrelpool said I “voluntarily quit.” Apparently this is SOP, maybe for many companies, in hopes the unemployed would go down without a fight. It dawned on me perhaps this was why I received nothing in writing. I filed a protest. Squirrelpool protested my protest. A week later I finally got through to a live person at the Michigan Unemployment Office and explained what happened. It seems, she had been down this road with Squirrelpool before and reversed the decision on the spot. I was paid retroactively in late January, and have received bi-weekly checks ever since.
My unemployment benefits will end in two weeks. The sequester put an end to that 99-week federal extension thing.
But here’s some good news. Because I was over 55, after I was fired, I retired. I was very lucky to have been fully vested in Squirrelpool’s pension program before they pulled the plug, as many corporations have. Earlier this year, I received the first of a lifetime of modest monthly pension checks. And as a retiree, I have health insurance for a mere $150 a month. In a little over two years I will get Social Security, 36 percent less than if I’d been allowed to work until age 66, but I will welcome the income just the same.
I put myself through college. I worked hard all my life. And once I divorced my workallergic, spendaholic husband in 1991, I started saving. I planned to work longer, but honestly how many of our plans get blindsided? I can’t live like I used to, but I can make it. I worry about those unemployed millions who played by the rules their entire lives and have lost their homes and are struggling. I realize how fortunate I am.
Unlike “16 and Pregnant,” I don’t see anybody making a reality series about being fired in your 50s.
But the reality is the only thing I don’t have is a job. My life going forward is on my terms. I didn’t choose this path. But neither did my mother who died at the age I am now. I wouldn’t have voluntarily walked away from that life and that income. But my life now is so much more meaningful than pointless PowerPoints and corporate profits.
I am 59 and free.