How to Help When Someone You Love Is Fifty and Out of Work
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.
The Stages of Grief and Their Common Expression
Recognizing the stages of grief can be helpful to those who need to stay patient and supportive. When you hear statements like those listed here, you know that, as painful as the situation may be, your friend or family member is working it through. Rarely do people move through the stages in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Usually they bounce among them until they settle into acceptance.
- Denial: “It isn’t really happening.” “They’ll see that the merger makes no sense.” “They’ll call me back as soon as they realize the importance of what I was doing.”
- Anger: “After all I’ve done for them over the years . . .” “Who do they think they are?” “I want to kill them.” “IT’S NOT FAIR!!!”
- Bargaining: “I’d do anything to get my job back.” “Do you think they’ll listen if I make them an offer?” “I’ll give them even more if they’ll only let me show them what I can do.”
- Sadness: “I can’t imagine not seeing my team every day.” “I worked so hard for so long and now this.” “I feel like a piece of me has been cut off.”
- Acceptance: “Hard times often lead to something better.” “It’s not something I would have signed on for, but it’s making me rethink my priorities and my career.”
During the process of grieving his job, it’s not at all unusual for a man to develop symptoms of depression. It becomes difficult for him to get to sleep or he sleeps far too much. Sometimes he wakes early in the morning and can’t get back to sleep no matter how hard he tries. His appetite is off. He feels worthless and hopeless. Even if he knows that the situation isn’t his fault, he may suffer acute shame. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to face his friends and co-workers again. He has difficulty concentrating. Making decisions seems overwhelming.
Well-meaning friends and relatives often get impatient with the process. Whether it is the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job, American culture seems to put a quota on how much grief is allowed. After a few weeks, the sympathy and support often stop and the criticism and advice begin. It’s not at all unusual for a person to be told to “snap out of it.” Friends and family want him to get over it and get on with the business of finding a new job. He will do that — eventually. But it is only when a person has gotten in touch with all of the stages of grief and expressed them in all of their complexity that he can even begin to move on to accepting the situation and making new choices.
How You Can Help if Someone You Love Is in Mid-Life and Unemployed
Recognize that it’s uncomfortable for most of us to sit with someone else’s sadness and anger. Ask yourself if your efforts to cheer him up are geared toward helping your friend or relative, or aimed at making your own worry and fear go away. A man who has suffered such a loss of personal identity and self-esteem needs to feel heard, accepted in his pain, and loved before he’ll be able to move on.
Allow room for all of the stages of grieving. This man has not only lost his sense of his present, he has also lost his idea of his future as he imagined it would unfold. This is no small thing.
If symptoms of depression develop or worsen, encourage him to see a psychiatrist and to consider an antidepressant medication (at least temporarily) to help manage his feelings so that he can begin to function again.
Help him find a job coach or career counselor. It’s been a long time since he’s been on the job hunt. Things have probably changed a great deal. He may need help with everything from writing an effective resume, to knowing where to look for new work, to rehearsing for an interview. There are lots of books on the subject. And there are professionals who specialize in helping people get their careers back on track.
Every day, help him do something (almost anything) that gets him re-engaged with life. Go with him for a walk or a run. Get him a haircut. Put together an interview outfit. Pick up some books on career moves and talk about them. Encourage him to start taking some action to retool or improve skills. People who stay engaged with their problem and who begin to take even small steps to improve the situation are the people who bounce back.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1997). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families, Reprint Edition. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). How to Help When Someone You Love Is Fifty and Out of Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-help-when-someone-you-love-is-fifty-and-out-of-work/