Trade a paycheck for passion
But what if you don't want a new job just like the old one? Getting laid off in your fifties can trigger endless soul searching, and Jim Emerman, vice president of Civic Ventures, a think tank that studies baby boomer work issues, says go with it.
Imagine yourself at the end of your life looking back: What have you accomplished? How will you be remembered? "People in their fifties still have substantial working life ahead of them - maybe another 10, 15 or 20 years - so it's an opportunity to really focus on what your passion is," he says.
While you're asking those questions, a temporary job can help pay the bills. According to a Boston College study, 60% of people in a full-time career at age 50 eventually land what workplace scholars call "bridge jobs" - part-time or full-time positions that fill the gap until retirement.
Wendy Rothstein, the laid-off development director, is now studying legal proofreading and getting certified to teach English as a second language. Being single, she wants to travel and may get a degree in public health. "I don't have to buy Armani suits," she says.
Losing your job in your fifties may also be the perfect chance to strike out on your own - as a consultant or an entrepreneur. In fact, Americans age 55 to 64 form small businesses at a higher rate than any other age group, according to the Kauffman Foundation. But if you plan to launch a start-up, experts say you should be prepared to spend at least two years getting it off the ground.
Vernon Foye knows how challenging and rewarding it can be to take that route. When he was laid off at age 56 from his $46,000-a-year job as a data analyst with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. in 2002, it was a horrible time.
His wife was gravely ill with cancer, and he cared for her during the day while trying without success to find a night job. Struggling to pay his bills - including $600 a month for health insurance - he found that he could not even afford to buy medical supplies for his wife.
That's when the lightbulb went off: Foye got a job delivering medical supplies for a local dealer and pestered him with questions about the business. He went to a medical-supplies trade show in Atlanta and passed fliers around at local senior citizens centers. Within a few weeks he had more orders than he could handle.
His wife passed away the following summer. Today he's 61, and he sells more than $200,000 worth of medical supplies a year, sets his own schedule and is saving more for retirement. "If I saw my old boss, I would give him a hug and thank him," says Foye. "If I hadn't been laid off, this never would have happened."
How you respond to the challenge of being an older worker is ultimately up to you. And a challenge it surely is. Only 17% of employers make "a conscious effort to attract workers 50 and over," according to a survey by RetirementJobs.com.
However, demographic trends may cause employers to change their tune. As baby boomers retire, there may not be enough younger workers to take their place. That would force more companies to consider workers over 55, whose numbers are expected to swell by 47% over the next eight years (compared with growth of merely 2.4% for those 25 to 54). In just three years, one out of three workers will be over 50.
There are several big ifs before that can happen, including a recovery from this economic nosedive. Skeptics like Munnell warn that growth may not be robust in coming years and that foreign workers can more than make up for labor shortages.
But others contend that age discrimination will eventually wither as employers realize that their own interests are best served by judging each individual by his or her skills and character rather than stereotypes. Sure, older employees cost more, but the right one can boost the bottom line.Send feedback to Money Magazine