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Fired After 40: How to Recover

In the last year, I’ve met far too many people who have lost their jobs in their forties. In fact, it feels like an epidemic. Technology is transforming today’s workplace, and far too many people are caught by surprise when changes happen. On the job, we need to always keep our eyes open, look ahead, and see changes coming as much as possible. Certainly recovery can take a long time, but if you’ve been ambushed and find yourself on the street, here’s the first steps I’d take:

1) Get up to speed on the world – and fast.  Most full time employees lose touch with how the employment world is changing – even within their own field. I’ve been told that the two most addictive things on earth are heroin and a full time paycheck. Full time employees tend to get lax, and stop staying up on changes in the industry. Well now is the time to shift gears. This may also mean you’re due for a personal make-over – clothes, style, makeup, hair – everything.  It’s time to start fresh.

2) Get on the phone.  Not to panic, but to renew relationships. Go through your contacts and pull the names of people who could help. Let them know your situation, but instead of asking for a job, ask them for suggestions, ideas, and recommendations. Get them on your team and chances are, they can connect you with new opportunities.

3) Make sure your resume, portfolio, or demo reel is updated and evergreen.  Sure you worked on that award-winning TV commercial, but it was in 1985! Don’t date yourself or your work. Refresh everything so it has a newer more recent feeling. Pull the old-style videos off the reel, yank the dated graphic designs from your portfolio, and if you have to – create updated spec work to take their place. Nobody wants to hire yesterday’s genius.

4) Leave the job with a good attitude and positive relationships.  No matter how awkward the layoff or firing may have been, be gracious. You may need their recommendation later. And while you’re at it, offer to do your job on a part-time or freelance basis – at least until they find someone new. A friend of mine was fired from his job at an advertising agency, but worked out a freelance deal that gave him the freedom to launch his own company. Now he hires his old ad agency!

5) Get used to it.  The “uberization” of the workplace has begun. Like it or not, more and more jobs will be tasked out, freelanced, or done part time. Learn to become comfortable without a full time safety net. To do that, you need to up your interview skills, become a better leader, learn to cold call, and hustle.  You can always tell the freelancers on a film shoot in Hollywood.  After every scene, as soon as the director yells “Cut!” they’re the ones that pull out their phones and start booking their next job.  I’ve worked for myself for more than two decades, and although I wake up every morning unemployed, I’m able to depend on my skills, not somebody else’s for my paycheck. Once you get past the fear of living on the street, the possibilities start opening up.

They key is not to panic. Keep in mind that you’ve built relationships and connections over the years, but probably haven’t activated them in a long time. If you can stay flexible, and look at new possibilities for your future, you can not only weather this storm, but come out stronger.  Most important?  Stay alert, and never be surprised again.

Any other good suggestions for our job hunters?

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  1. Phil, all very good points. Curious about your thoughts on an issue you did not
    mention: freelance work is becoming a race to the bottom. A race where
    experience and connection are inferior to the low price an inexperienced
    newbie can offer.

    It seems that all that’s left is work harder, not
    smarter – but a day has only 24 hours and all work, no play is not a
    fulfilling way of life. How would you tackle this? Not panicking, but seeing limits to the sustainability of this lifestyle.

    1. Great question Roland. Yes – the “uberization” direction the economy is doing does seem like a race to the bottom. However, it’s happening, so how should we deal with it? My perspective (as I discuss in my book “One Big Thing”) is to become the master of the niche. Particularly here in Hollywood, freelancing is still doing very well for many people. But I’ve noticed the best are very niche oriented. They stay away from the generalized areas and focus on being the best in the world at a very small niche. It seems like that would cut down your potential clients and customers, but the truth is, it builds your reputation as being the best when people need that one thing. It really separates you from the pack and helps you get noticed.

      1. Phil. Check out: We need to find our one out of 360 degrees. When it happened to me I was able to connect with a person I had met 30 years prior. We hadn’t talked since that time but when we did, he asked me to fly in for an interview and I have been working with him for nine years. Every contact counts. GeoFish

  2. All are good–especially number 2! These conversations are critical. They 1) give you opportunity to hone your message, 2) help you prioritize contacts and opportunities, and 3) illuminate what you hunger for (you wrote about this already here: The more conversations you have, the more likely someone will give you a suggestion or connection you need but didn’t have, and the repetition will naturally reveal what you get excited about and what you are drawn too.

    I would add to your list:

    6. Work at it like a job. You get one day (tops) to mourn the loss of your previous job. After that day, you create a work day pursuing your next thing. Every day thereafter is dedicated to the discovery of what you should do next and in what context.

    7. Be open to being your own boss. This possibility has universal application to the 40 and over crowd. Before you open the next cupcake shop, you may want to consider being a consultant. One thing is certain, if you have excelled at something closely tied to your “1 Big Thing,” others will want you to show them the way.

    I have a friend who had insisted he could never be a consultant. He recently found himself leading a consulting call for a church looking to improve communications. He loved the experience! He was also pleasantly surprised to discover that his knowledge and 20 years of experience made him the clear expert on the call. The same could be true of you. You may be able to leverage the path and experiences of the past 20 years to be the expert in the room, on the phone or in the Google Hangout.

    8. Filter everything through Matthew 6:33. This is the perfect opportunity to figure out what the two conditions precedent mean for you: 1) seeking the Kingdom first, and 2) seeking His righteousness. You can’t cling to the last half of the verse (i.e. all these things shall be added unto you) without appropriating the first half.

    1. Fantastic suggestions David. Your #7 teaches us that we often end up doing the very thing we said we would never do! I said I would never teach, and now I have a Ph.D. “just in case.” Reminds me of the saying, “When God sees our plans, he laughs.”
      Thanks for posting!

  3. Phil, good post…and relevant. A few years back I somehow slipped into my 40’s, not sure how that happened so quickly. 🙂

    Some feedback, and my own learnings around this topic – since it’s very, very relevant to me leading 6 high tech, innovative teams.

    1) Embrace Change
    > This to me is the MOST important concept and understanding for all of us. As the great Ferris Bueller “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

    Embracing change means we must lean into change and become more flexible and open minded on all fronts. It’s way to easy to grow in our way of thinking and get stuck…and wake up and be disconnected from reality. Embrace Change…value it!

    2) Listen and Learn More
    > Again, as we get older I “think” our natural tendency is become more close minded…not listening and learning like we did when we had to. Early in our carriers we had to listen and learn, we didnt know what the crap we were doing. But, when we mature, grow and become established in our roles we can tend to think we are the experts and stop learning and listening. Listen and Learn! I like to surround myself with younger, smarter, and different types of thinkers than me so I can grow and develop and stay relevant.

    3) Be Bold
    > Embrace change…listen and learn…and then DO SOMETHING with it. Be bold with new ideas and concepts you are learning about as a leader. DO IT! As we get older we can find ourself more protective of what we have and that is not a great way to think in this rapidly moving landscape around us. We must be bold, and not be scared to try new things – we must understand failing is learning. As most of us understand, but few do, we have to “Fail Forward” as Maxwell said.

    Phil, your list is great. Few thoughts.
    1) Get up to speed is good. I encourage us all to stay there: so many easy ways to stay up to speed today. Blogs, emails lists, and great Twitter streams.
    2) Phone? Maybe…but again in our current state – we must be connected online as well. Be engaged in social spaces of all kinds. Sure, if we are behind the 8ball we might need to dial the emergency number – but stay engaged with like minded leaders and thinkers online.

    Great stuff Phil, thanks for starting the conversation for all us old guys!

    1. Outstanding comments Terry, which is probably why you’re doing such innovative things at YouVersion. I love #2 on your list – “Listen and Learn More.” So true. As we get older and on the job longer we easily fall into the trap of thinking we know it all. Then one day, we’re shocked to find out we don’t.
      Thanks so much for posting! Great stuff…

  4. At 49 years old, I was just told on Wednesday that I would lose my job I have been working at with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have produced video and managed teams for IMB for nearly 22 years. I have been in war zones, detained by foreign police, talked my way out of very risky situations, interviewed countless numbers of people who have been through some of the most horrific tragedies you can imagine, captured extreme poverty and sacrificed countless weeks, days and hours of time away from family and friends. It has been a privilege and honor to do this work to communicate God’s work around the world. Now I have to deal with all the emotions, grief of leaving. Thanks Phil Cooke for starting this conversation. I have always highly valued your advice and counsel through the years. For those who are dealing with this, including me, this will be a great resource. And, thanks David Baker for the additional tips.

    1. In your case Craig – your attitude will win out. Your ability to stay positive in this will open more doors than you can imagine. And while I’m on the subject – Craig’s the best. If you need a top media producer out there, I couldn’t recommend him more…

  5. Somehow, I don’t feel so alone in my unemployment after reading this post… thanks for writing it and sharing your great points Phil. Never did I EVER see me in this position, and for this long. It’s unnerving to be 50-something and find yourself unemployed and uncertain of the future… and then realize you have neglected to learn some skills you should have learned while you were working FT. While everyone who views my resume says they’re impressed by who and where I have worked and my many accomplishments in media and communications, they’re not so impressed (I’m certain) with my lack of technology skills, and now I’m kicking myself for it. I started my own business last year when someone asked me to represent them for their talent, now I have several more authors/speakers. I don’t see this as my purpose in life, but it’s all I’ve got to go on right now. I keep thinking perhaps this will lead to something else. In the meantime, I keep searching and learning. Here are some other ideas in addition to your list:

    1. Offer to volunteer in the area you want to work in and learn some new skills. I’ve been hired before because I was able to demonstrate my abilities.
    2. Get online and download free software that’s relevant to your field, even if it’s only free for two weeks, then watch tutorials and learn to navigate it.
    3. Read books- the first one I read was, “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”, and others that helped me “catch up” with what has unknowingly gone by me. This would be a good time to re-read One Big Thing =)
    4. Run or walk every day, or workout at the gym to save your mental health and burn energy off.
    5. Find networking meetings in your city. Tech After 5 is a great one.
    6. Pray, often.
    7. Be diligent in your search, hold on to hope, and don’t complain no matter how hard it may be. God has a plan!

    1. Great list MaryJo. I know it works because I know your story. People would do well to copy your suggestions and follow them to the letter.
      Thanks for adding to the list!

  6. These are great even for someone under forty. One thing that has helped me was being flexible to work in a completely different sector. I did the whole get a degree and get a Tech job, but completely ignored what I felt God had told me to do. Working in Corp America was a great learning experience but deep down I was miserable. After office closures and work being sent overseas, I ended up taking a much lower paying job but was able work in nursing, providing health care. Even though I made less, I’ve paid off much more debt and even bought a house. Getting to learn and grow in a people oriented job has been very eye opening. Seeing people as people rather than computer transactions feels really good.

    1. Love that example. I heard an interview with a writer recently who doubted her ability to sell many books, so she got a law degree – just in case. She eventually discovered that she was a terrible lawyer, but the experience and discipline of law school completely transformed her writing. It wasn’t long after graduating that she started selling her stories. So your point is well taken. Sometimes switching gears completely gives you a better perspective.
      Thanks for sharing that story!

  7. I’d also add – target small business. As CEO of a small business I have employees who are over 50′ and even over 60 (we also have very young employees at 15 and 25 yrs). Older employees are highly attractive to us because:
    1. They have decades more experience than Gen Y’s and with that experience comes much knowledge.
    2. They are more likely to stay long term. Twenty year olds seem to come and go every few years (or every few months) at many organisations, but people over 40 tend to be more content to stay in their position, meaning that the cost of retraining people occurs less often.
    3. They have more buy in with a small enterprise as (because of their experience) they can relate to all the long hours and sweat a small business owner puts in.

    (So PHIL let me know if you need a job…)

  8. I’m encouraged to see some much interest in this topic. I would like to add that it is never too late to learn more and reinvent yourself if necessary. One thing you will discover at this age is you have a much greater ability to concentrate and learn than you did when you were in college. I think the fact that you have bills to pay adds to the learning curve. I was dropped from a major ministry after 15 years of service. The thing that sustained me were my relationships that had been built over the years. Thankfully the bridges were still intact. After relearning my craft and making myself more valuable, God and the many friends I had around me pulled me through and life has never been better.
    For anyone younger who is reading this – never discount those around you. Some of the seemingly insignificant people who you are working with now just may be the people you most need 10 years from now. Treat everyone with respect and you will never regret it.

    1. That’s a great comment Truett. In my case, I’ve received access to major organizations and leaders simply because I’ve been nice to secretaries and assistants. Plus, I know of many cases where someone low on the ladder eventually became the boss, and then fired everyone who treated him badly on the way up. Good rule: Be nice to everyone, because you never know who you’ll need on your side later.

  9. I have worked my entire career to acquire the skills for my dream job and finally landed it. It was a blast for the first year but things started changing really fast and I couldn’t keep up. I was under review for 8 months. 2 things happened. When I arrived on the team, I was a total outsider and was very confident and used to doing tasks that were reserved for superiors. Some people had waited a very long time to climb on the inside and resented my abilities. In other aspects, I needed to learn new things that were very challenging and did my best. At one point I had received a project that was mismanaged and doomed from the start. I lost a good team partner with 13 years seniority!! It crushed me. I knew something was up. I asked for an official review twice and never got it. The following project went very smoothly so I figured everything was ok. But I knew I had to watch my back. One tiny mistake that usually would have gone overlooked in any other shop or circumstance got me the morning chat with big management and I got laid off. I had just rebuilt my home and took all my savings to do it as well as another mortgage.

    Luckily I do have friends and contacts but nothing is garanteed. I know my age group is either too qualified or too expensive, or not flexible enough to endure corporate bullshit that kids do.

    My kids arent even in junior high school and I recently buried my father. I can’t see myself starting over as a junior on another software after having been once considered among the best in my field a measly 10 years ago.

    Pehaps ready for management but I am not able to reduce my salary unless I lose the house and the social standing I would need to entertain the brownoser gang.

    Ugh. And I hate golf.

    1. Tough story indeed, and thanks for sharing that. This is more prevalent in larger companies where politics can be brutal. I’ve seen different versions of this 3 times this year with friends, so it’s real. I think the great challenge is awareness of the potential so we can start looking at other options early enough not to be caught off guard. That’s easy now in retrospect, but much more difficult in the moment! Again, thanks for you honesty.

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