It’s a familiar story in my practice these days. In the past year, I’ve seen perhaps a dozen couples in which the husband has been laid off after 15 to 20 years with the same company. As companies merge, move, downsize, and reconfigure, it seems that older employees often are eased out or let go. Rather than being honored for their age, experience, and know-how, they find themselves 50 years old and out of a job.
For a man who has spent his entire adult life developing a career with one company, the loss of his job can be equated with the loss of definition in his life. The job has given him structure, relationships, goals, and a trajectory into the future. Even if not entirely content, he has known where he is supposed to be, who he is supposed to be with, what he is supposed to be doing, and where he is supposed to be going. Without that structure, he becomes disoriented and anxious.
Although many women today also are suffering job losses, I’m focusing this article on the men. For men over 50, the situation often packs even more of a wallop. In general, women develop their friendships and family relationships as well as their career paths. If the job ends, they have other successes on which to base their self-esteem. Men of this age, however, have often grounded their sense of self in their success as a provider. When their job and the relationships within it go, they don’t know who they are or where to turn.
I’ve learned to treat the situation very much like a death. The stages of death and dying, so eloquently described by Kubler-Ross (1997), apply. The individual is likely to cycle among denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness many, many times before finally moving to a position of acceptance. Aborting the process leads to trouble down the line. It’s important to provide the time and space for the person to move through these stages. Only then will he be able to take on the task of finding new work.