The Art of the Second Act
Laid off at 46, the author was living every boomer's nightmare. Then he met five former un-employees who taught him that job security still exists--if you create your own.
(MONEY Magazine) – It was the kind of news a father never wants to deliver. And actually, I got only halfway through the first sentence before my 11-year-old son shouted the rest: "Daddy got fired! Daddy got fired!" My younger son, meanwhile, deemed the news "boring" and went back to overfeeding his pet fish.
Then the older one asked why my employer hadn't picked somebody else's dad or mom to lay off. I thought it was a reflection of his innate sense of the unfairness of what had befallen me. Actually, he was concerned about whether he would still get the iPod I had promised him. I nodded, and he seemed satisfied that everything was okay.
During the next couple of months, I would at times suffer that same delusion--that everything would be fine. Then certain facts would hit me: I was about to turn 47, I was the father of three and I owned a minivan as big as a parade float. I began to feel like the only kid who didn't get picked for kickball. Everyone seemed to have a job but me.
Far from it. The oldest of the 76 million baby boomers turn 60 this year, and we're becoming an increasingly expensive drag on our employers. I'm living proof that you can walk into the office one morning with your pride intact and walk out later with nothing but a cardboard box. I was just one of 1.86 million American workers laid off in January, and if you ask people in the know to guess how many of the liberated were boomers, the consensus is pretty clear. "When they need to correct the bottom line, companies go right after the older worker," says Mary Ann Finch Vandivier, who counsels midlife career changers in Carmel, Ind. "A person used to be able to say, 'I'm going to retire at such and such a time,' but boomers aren't getting to do that." John Challenger, CEO of Challenger Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm, says of boomers, "Most layoffs are driven by cost cutting, so depending on where the market is, they could see you as overpaid."
But here's why my son is, in a way, correct that it's all going to be okay: Our generation is embracing the idea of a second act. We may be graying at the temples, but we refuse to act as old as everyone says we are. We think the quest for eternal youth by the likes of Mick Jagger and Martina Navratilova are only natural. We remember Woodstock like it was yesterday. Laid off? We start our own business. The job market gets shaky? We figure out how to keep our career on track. Approaching retirement? We come up with another career to keep ourselves busy. "Even if they get laid off at 60, this generation goes out and finds the next thing. They aren't ready to retire. At 50 they are just getting to the point where they feel like they know a whole lot," says Vandivier. According to a 2004 AARP study, 16.4% of workers 50 and older were self-employed--compared with about 10% of the total work force. And roughly a third of those workers made the transition to self-employment after they turned 50. "Boomers have this drive that doesn't go away," says Randall Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers, a job-counseling website in Deland, Fla. "When they get let go, they feel like they have been freed to do something else."
Heartened by all this but still worried, I sought a second opinion from someone I trust more than any career coach: my 82-year-old father. "How many years have you been in publications?" he asked, as if maybe he had forgotten my lucrative stint as a freelance thoracic surgeon. When I reminded him that journalism was my only career to date, he told me he had read somewhere that "we live in an era when everyone is going to have to change careers a few times." What's more, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the average boomer can expect to change jobs at least 10 times during his career. In other words, most of us shouldn't get too comfortable.
Like any mid-career un-employee, I needed ideas. Lucky for me--and for any boomer with layoff worries or second-act dreams--I got the assignment to write this story. (The irony: My former employer is Fortune Small Business, a magazine owned by Time Inc., which also counts MONEY among its titles.) I'm actually getting paid to find out what I'm supposed to do with my life at this point. And all the questions you might have, I had too.
I was ready for advice. My emotional scars were healing. Also, I got a prescription for sleeping pills. My first call was to Harvey Mackay, the 73-year-old business guru and paper-envelope magnate I first interviewed in 1989. He offered me enough advice to fill a book--like, maybe, his latest, We Got Fired! Mackay's well-rehearsed nostrums ranged from "Your attitude determines your altitude" to "Getting a job is a job, but losing a job isn't a job." Frankly, I had no idea what he was talking about, which suggested to me that when you're actually unemployed, the bromides doled out by professional advice givers aren't what you need.
So I sought out some regular people, folks who had come up with ingenious solutions to the very muddle I was in. Too many people who get laid off do nothing but feel sorry for themselves, eat ice cream in the morning and wait for The Tyra Banks Show to come on (weekdays at four in my area). I wanted to learn something deeper: how you start a new career mid-life or how you keep the one you already have. To find this, I knew I'd have to talk to people who had done it--and in the process had found the only true job security left these days: the kind you make yourself.
Use Your Skills Where They're Needed Don't convince yourself that you know how to do only one thing.
Following a couple of years of "running into wall after wall after wall" in the telecom industry, Ram Iyer understood that he needed to change his approach. After leaving Lucent in 2000 and getting laid off by the venture-capital firm of which he was vice president a year later, Iyer was running out of options--and hope. "My wife actually suggested that I get a job at Home Depot to bring in some income," says Iyer, 45. Iyer attended a networking group, where he asked everyone he met about what was new in the business world. "They were all panicked about outsourcing," he recalls. Originally from Bangalore and armed with an M.B.A. from MIT, Iyer had a revelation: Not only was outsourcing "the next big wave," but he had "the credentials to be part of it." He scoured the Web and found a conference being held that very week where he could learn more. Unable to scrounge up the $3,000 registration fee, he went disguised as a member of the press with credentials he got through a friend. (It wasn't me; I didn't even know him.) "As a journalist, I could get answers to any questions I had," he says. "So I asked, 'Where is the one place where you see an unmet need?'" The answer--an outsourcing advisory firm--hatched the idea for Argea, which Iyer co-founded in Princeton, N.J. in 2004. "Outsourcing is eventually going to wane, I know that," says Iyer, the company's president and CEO. "But while it's growing, I want to get a piece of the action. And I'm watching for the next wave."
TIP When you see a business trend in the headlines--even one that seems unrelated to what you do--take an afternoon to figure out if you have an angle. What are people going to need? Could you offer it?
Follow the Work If your business is going elsewhere, ask one question: Where?
Diana Icon-Sipos noticed last year that her job as director of financial services at a global consulting firm was requiring her to travel more and more to serve fewer and fewer clients--around 85% of the time, she figured, up from half. "All the travel was eroding my quality of life," says Icon-Sipos, 53, who specialized in providing internal financial audits. She began asking former customers why they no longer solicited her services. "They were very honest with me," she says. "They said they were all developing their own internal-audit functions" in response to the new requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In other words, corporations were bringing in-house the kind of work she did as a consultant, so...she left her consultancy and went in-house. Icon-Sipos searched online classifieds and used her connections within her own industry, eventually landing a new position as internal audit director at Avid Technology, a Tewksbury, Mass. manufacturer of software and hardware used in digital media.
TIP Examine how you spend your workday now vs. a year ago. Are you traveling more? Staying late to finish the budget planning that has suddenly become your responsibility? "Put on your to-do list to look at what you're doing," says Jeff Redmond, 58, president of New Directions, a career consulting firm in Boston. "A few times a year, do a personal audit. Where are you going? Where have you been?" Big changes could be a signal that you need to adapt to a changing landscape.
Take the Rolodex and Run Sometimes the best way to keep your job is to go do it somewhere else--as your own boss. Joy Nicholas wasn't surprised when her job disappeared in a wave of cost cutting. After all, she made the call. As vice president of research and emerging technologies at the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group in Washington D.C., she was told in late 2003 to let go of one staffer; she chose herself. "I was ready to look for something different," says Nicholas, whose 2½-hour round-trip commute "was physically killing me." With no plan, she consulted a handful of trusted mentors.
"I let them talk me into starting my own consulting company out of my home," says Nicholas, 50, who launched Cascades Retail Technologies in February 2004. "Even though I don't make as much money, this isn't something I am going to retire from." And no one can give her a surprise heave-ho either.
TIPS It's a lot easier to line up clients when you carry a business card from a big firm, says Redmond of New Directions. "Finding new business on your own is not for the faint of heart," he says. "Before you start up, ask yourself, 'If a year from now this fails, what will have been the reasons?'" The most common answer--not enough clients--should make you assess your personality, focusing on your ability to pound the pavement. If that's not your thing, consider hiring a fearless sales pro.
Networking: Hey, You Never Know You can't find out about your friend's friend who's hiring unless you call your friend.
Think about the last person who was hired at your company. How did he or she get there? Probably somebody knew somebody who knew somebody, and boom, the person was a good fit. Real-life example: Gaye van den Hombergh. Burned by a dotcom that flamed out in New York City, she decided to change more than her job. She moved to Chicago, had a baby and switched industries, joining a financial consulting firm.
"It's a cliché, but it's true: You just call people, tell them what you want to do and ask who else you should talk to. Some people are scared to death to do that," says Van den Hombergh, 46, now president and managing director of the Johnsson Group, a $15 million financial consulting firm. She relied on fellow alums from Kraft, where she had worked for 11 years. "People can help you think about your skill set differently," she says.
Then there's Doug Ehrenkranz, a kind of extreme networker. What did he do with his contacts? Became a recruiter. "I've been accumulating what I need to do this for 27 years. I just didn't know it," says Ehrenkranz, 48. During that time he worked in marketing, mostly at big companies, moving his family approximately every three years. "But you hit 45, and you start saying, 'I am not in the first part of my business career anymore; I am in the second half," he says.
For more than two years, Ehrenkranz lived in Houston and worked in Hershey, Pa., seeing his wife and three kids only on weekends. "I knew something had to give," he says. As he was considering his options, his wife pointed out that he had always been good at matching people with jobs. So, armed with the 923 contacts that were in his computer, he called Allen Austin Executive Search Consultants, a recruiter that had approached him three years earlier. He's now a partner. "I've stayed in touch with a lot of people over the years," he says. "I'm a matchmaker. I can see myself doing this for the next 20 years."
TIP Think outside your address book. Shuffle through old business cards in your drawer. The famous experiment done in the late 1960s in which Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram introduced the notion of six degrees of separation ought to give real hope to anyone who dismisses the idea that simply asking around can lead to a job.
So I tried some of this advice. About a week into my unemployment, I met with Jeffrey Davis, 50, founder of Mage LLC, a small management consulting firm in Needham, Mass., not far from where I live. He thought perhaps I'd be a good fit to help in a marketing capacity at his 23-year-old firm. But I pointed out that I knew nothing about marketing--forgetting the rule about using my skills where they're needed. We bickered a little, and he even called me "myopic" and "naive" and said I was "possessed of a narrow vision" that is preventing me from being successful. After an awkward silence, I think he took a little pity on my situation. Then he gave me the piece of advice I really needed, the one that would allow me to follow the other instruction I would receive. It was about my own pride. He looked at me and said, "You've got to let yourself move on, and you've got to let other people help you do that." And with those few words, he did help me. More than he knew.
Things are looking up. My new laptop arrived the other day, and my nine-year-old son set it up for me. I sat at the dining room table and started working on my next story. You know what? This layoff just might work out okay after all.
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN HIRING JOSH HYATT, CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Comeback Kid
Ram Iyer, 45
LEFT JOBS AT
LUCENT (HIS CHOICE) AND A TECH FIRM (THEIRS)
CEO OF AN OUTSOURCING ADVISORY FIRM
He snuck into an outsourcing conference and asked one question: "Where's the one place you see an unmet need?"
TALK ABOUT MAKING LEMONADE. FOR MANY, A FORCED CAREER CHANGE IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REINVENTION.
LAYOFFS HAVE HIT BOOMERS HARD ...
Average number of unemployed in 2005
617,000 Number over age 45
...BUT THEY BOUNCE BACK
16.4% of workers 50 and older are self-employed
33% of those made the transition after turning 50
SOURCES: Bureau of Labor Statistics, AARP.
Gaye van den Hombergh, 46
AT A DYING DOTCOM, 2000
PRESIDENT OF A FINANCIAL CONSULTING FIRM
"It's a cliché, but it's true: You just call people and tell them what you want to do. Some people are scared to death to do that."
Doug Ehrenkranz, 48
AND 1,500-MILE COMMUTE, 2004
PARTNER AT AN EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRM
"You hit 45 and you realize you've spent your first career accumulating skills for your second."