Help Wanted, Help Needed

There are few circles of hell more painful than being unemployed in your fifties

Photograph by Getty Images

For the first time in my life, people have been telling me that I’ve got a pretty big package.

But truth be told, I’d much rather have no package at all. Because for the first time in my 51 years, 11 months and 11 days on earth, I am unemployed, and while a nice package softens the blow, I’m more than a little freaked out.

When I say that this is the first time that I’ve been unemployed, I really do mean ever. Including high school and college, where I always had summer jobs. I went right to work the summer I graduated. It wasn't much of a job, but I was gainfully employed. I parlayed that experience into a legitimate but shitty job, doing menial work in an industry that was of vague interest to me. From there, I hopped up a notch to a modest gig that gave me some more practical experience, and where I spent part of my time doing stuff that I liked and aspired to be doing.

That job, the first where I actually had a little bit of fun, helped me land my first really good job, after answering a classified ad placed in "The New York Times." I stayed there for ten years, and my responsibilities grew and grew. I turned my hobbies and outside interests into directly applicable skills, put them to good use on the job and, like magic, my full-time work became full-time play. Work had become awesome, and it led to an even better gig at an even better company. A dream job. I spent ten consecutive years there, again turning work into play, and having a blast.

After that, I got recruited, almost like clockwork, every two and a half years, into bigger and better paying gigs for the next 8 years. Layoffs frequently occurred all around me, but I was always saved. My employers never went out of business. And I never left a job without being asked if there was anything that could be done to make me stay. It felt good to be wanted.

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Then, last year just before Christmas, a tectonic corporate reorganization lopped off the head and shoulders of my entire division (I was somewhere around the neck, so in a particularly messy and gruesome spot). And there I sat, staring at my package, for the first time.

“Welcome to reality!” I hear you say, and that's fair enough. I guess that’s why they call it the law of averages, and don’t stick a little “some exceptions apply” asterisk on it. There are no exceptions.

But up until now, I had thought that my “great attitude” and “exceptional work ethic” and “exemplary” leadership skills would keep me floating ever higher, until my son finished college, my wife could collect her pension, and we’d happily ride off into our sunset years together.

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I was convinced that I’d have something substantive to add to any business, and would find a way to keep growing my responsibilities and skill set, until I’m well into my nineties. Like I said before, it always feels good to be wanted. But as it turns out, what I think matters a whole lot less than what the kid who is interviewing me thinks.

It's always a kid, usually in his mid-thirties — my prospective new boss. Every time I walk out of one of these interviews, I think to myself, “I killed it!” It turns out that I literally do. Feedback from recruiters hasn’t been particularly actionable. “They said they liked you, and there were no negatives,” or “They’ve gone with someone with less experience, but they see as a real ‘up and comer,’” or just boilerplate emails which begin, “While your skill set is extremely impressive, there were other candidates who better matched the skills that we were looking for.”

What skills are those, exactly?, I’ve inquired, in those few instances when a recruiter is still taking my calls even after the commission opportunity has gone cold. “They couldn’t say," the recruiters say. "But let's keep in touch!”

A friend of mine, who's been in similar shoes, always listens patiently as I unload one of these sob stories on him. “Dude, it’s all code,” he finally says. “You’re old. That kid is never going to hire you. Never, ever. But someone will. It's just gonna take more time than you think it will."

My dad, who carries a fake ID that knocks more than a decade off of his age (I swear), had more actionable feedback for me. “Dye your beard!” he barked. “You’ve got a lot of gray in it. I’m serious!” He scrunched up his face distastefully and added, “And lose some weight.”

Thanks, Dad. It feels good to be wanted.