We’re all human. And because we’re all human, we share the habit of marking the moments that change our lives forever. The majority of those moments are cause for celebration (or at least track predictably along what we consider to be nature’s plan): births, birthdays, graduations, weddings, babies, grandbabies, even the gentle, timely passing of dearly loved ones, are all cause for noticing and remembering.
But we also mark the times when everything we took for granted goes to chaos and yet another illusion is shattered. Those can be private tragedies or national catastrophes that rock our world and in a twinkling send us hurtling into the next phase of our lives. From the Baby Boom generation and moving forward into the Y generation, we have more in common than we might think we do. And that is this: We’re constantly being reminded that nothing is certain. And, come to find out, promises are made to be broken. Huh, what do you know?
The biggest promise that has been repeatedly broken in the past 30 years has been that the “system” (whatever that is) is airtight, foolproof, and self-perpetuating. A net of stability we can depend on if we simply walk the straight and narrow. Follow all the rules, make a plan and stick to it, go to college, pour heart and soul into your job, go above and beyond the call to make yourself indispensable, and you’ll be fine. That path leads to security. No? Oh. There goes another illusion.
Of course, every generation has had its share of troubles, and we’d be major babies to whine that we’ve gotten the raw end of the historic deal. I would choose these times over any prior era right this very moment. No question. However, for me, “these times” began in 1977—six months before I was due to graduate from college—when my father came home unexpectedly from an assignment abroad. After more than 25 years with the Central Intelligence Agency as an undercover case officer, he was in the middle of teaching a class in Mexico City when a rap on the glass door delivered a pink slip into his astonished hands. Adios, muchacho. Or as his students cooperatively called him, Señor Feingold.
From my perspective—self-absorbed and involved with schoolwork—he had merely come home ahead of schedule. But he left for work the very next morning, so nothing otherwise was out of ordinary. I would learn later that he had a meeting with an outplacement counselor his first day back. Incredibly, the counselor observed, “You seem angry, Mr. Finney.” (As if that were going to pry open a “cleansing” outpouring of emotions from a guy who kept secrets for a living.) If my dad were a member of a younger generation, he would have said, “Damn straight, I’m pissed.” But instead, he rose to his feet, walked out the door, turning his back on his life’s passion, mission, and calling. Why not? His life’s passion, mission, and calling had turned its back on him.
That happened right after a period when my father was anxiously and responsibly giving me the advice to choose a “recession-proof” career, and that meant—to his loyal way of thinking—a job with the federal government. But, as I was to read later, he was a member of the first of many waves of federal layoffs, called Reduction in Force. Thousands upon thousands of federal employees were to be tossed out of work during the Carter and Reagan administrations. So much for working for the feds. There goes another promise broken.
He spent the next year or so unsuccessfully trying to land another job. (I mean, how transferrable are the skills you learn in more than 25 years as a spy? Especially when you can’t actually say what you were doing all those years? Talk about a resumé gap.) After some ridiculous misfires in industrial security, one of which was as a security guard for a movie about New York thugs, which caused him to become an actual victim of a garden-variety mugging on the deserted Coney Island subway platform (there’s little more pitiful than an aging ex-spy with broken glasses and a bloodied nose), he eventually settled down to become an international political consultant with his former boss—who had also been shown the door.
But the moment I will always remember is the moment just weeks after my college graduation when he finally admitted to me that he had actually been laid off. Wait a minute! What? I had heard of layoffs before, of course, but they happened to other people—especially people who couldn’t keep up with the times, who couldn’t nimbly retool themselves fast enough to stay ahead of the axe, people who hadn’t taken care of themselves by getting a lot of education, making a plan and sticking to it, going above and beyond the call to make themselves indispensable so that they would be fine. Now this was happening to a dedicated, college-educated, multilingual genius (he was my father, after all) who over decades had more than demonstrated his immediate value to his company’s mission-critical objectives.
Being my father’s daughter, I took the news evenly, with no overt reaction of shock, or any sign of the seismic shift that extended from my brain and down through my body and deep into my own future. But that very moment, I came to the instant understanding that no matter who I worked for, I would always and only be working for myself (a conclusion that 20 years later would be echoed in the title of a book by Cliff Hakim, We Are All Self-Employed—or as my father’s Mexican students might one day be destined to read in their own round of dismissals, Todos Somos Autoempleados).
That was the moment that changed my life forever.
I laid myself off right then and there. Oh, I tried off and on throughout the ensuing years to go legit and get and actually keep a full-time job. But I kept returning to a truth that I understood at a most cellular level: The system is whack. Every time I depended on one source for my livelihood, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my own personal employment crisis was one decision away.
That was also the moment that handed me my own life’s assignment—to write about the world of employment. My father’s pain became my calling. I have since spent my career, the past 20 years especially, focusing on how people can marry their talents, passion, and sense of personal mission with truly sensible career management. Which puts me in an exquisitely perfect position to be the one to write this book.
At this point, for most of us, the actual concept of layoffs isn’t quite the sucker punch it was to my father’s generation. My generation and all of you who are younger have been exposed to layoffs, downsizing, rightsizing, and so on, in some way or another. Either your parents faced it, your friends’ parents, or your parents’ friends. Or your friends. Or you.
Unless you have been completely in denial, you know that there is no such thing as the job-for-life contract. Hasn’t been for decades. We come to this new world with the ironic advantage of knowing full well that the axe could fall, completely out of the blue, for no reason whatsoever.
Still, that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens to you or the ones you love, does it?
And this time, the lack of control and chaos seem to have ratcheted up several notches. As I write this Preface, the economy is in freefall, and the headline crawl at the bottom of my TV screen has just announced another loss of 240,000 jobs. Layoffs are everywhere, saturating communities or picking off individual households here and there while skipping over entire blocks.
And it’s impossible to track the craziness behind rounds of dismissals. Highly educated, high performers, even high producers are being shown the door. You know who you are. You’re the one who is educated; you tooled your skillset according to your passions and according to what all the magazines predicted would be the hot careers of the new century. You’ve been smart, you’ve been strategic, in every single step and decision you made in the construction of your career, your profession.
You knew your job, you loved your job. And you did it well. The system wasn’t supposed to play out like this, was it? But it did. And now here you are, holding this book in your hands. This book! Damn!
So what can you hope to get from these pages? A plan of action and understanding into how to build your entire life from here on out.
Getting laid off is more than just a career crisis. It touches every aspect of your life—your finances, certainly, your health, your emotional health, your relationships, your legal considerations, your future, your identity and self-esteem, even the future of your children and their ability to aspire to a happy life.
No one person can cover all this territory. Fortunately, over the past 20 years or so of writing about this stuff, I’ve made some very smart friends whose collective wisdom will give you the insights you need to take the next steps wisely. This book represents a gathering of some of the best minds in their respective fields. I have reached out to my network, and all my wonderful friends and expert contacts have in turn reached out to their networks. And...