It’s been five years and a month since I got laid off, and I am almost completely resigned to the fact that I will never have a full-time job again.
I am fifty-two years old, and I have aged out of the full-time workforce.
Now, mine is far from the most, or even, like, top twenty most, pressing problems in the United States, and I know that I am very lucky that due to accidents of whiteness I have mostly been able to make this new, reduced-income life work.
But I do think it’s important to tell my story because I used to think age discrimination wasn’t a real thing. “If you can’t find a job for five years,” I would have said when I was 35, “then maybe you should examine the possibility that there’s something wrong with you.”
This is pretty much the societal message, so those of us who can’t find full time work tend not to speak up because it’s tantamount in this society to saying, “I’m a loser.”
Age discrimination is a real thing, though, and if you’re not senior director or senior vice president or senior something by the time you’re 45 and your workplace isn’t unionized, it’s coming for you.
Here’s my story. After 7 years at my job, I got my first unsatisfactory performance review. By a strange coincidence, the same thing happened to several other people over 40 during this review cycle. Weird how we all had a dip in our performance at the same time!
I requested a meeting with my supervisor’s supervisor to go over the stuff they said I needed to improve on because it was all very vague. I kept pressing for examples, and ultimately my supervisor’s supervisor said to me, “Brendan, it’s not about what’s on the paper.” In other words, your performance review hinges on things we’re not willing to put in writing.
I understood that this meant the bad review was in fact a 12-month warning of my impending firing, and I kicked my job search into high gear. I landed another job at a startup that was quickly driven into a ditch by the people running the place, and I, along with many of my colleagues, was laid off four months after I started. I had to sign a waiver saying I wouldn’t sue for age discrimination to get any severance at all.
I filed for unemployment and, like all forms of assistance in the United States of America, it came with a side order of humiliation, which in this case was attending a seminar given by a bored, surly woman who gave us rudimentary job-hunting tips, such as, “you should have a resume.”
One interesting piece of information she did reveal, though, was that you shouldn’t put more than ten years’ worth of experience on a resume. “You simply won’t get hired,” she said.
So I cut down my experience, and, for seven or eight months, I applied to jobs relentlessly. Some of these, admittedly, were stretches — jobs I knew I could do but maybe employers didn’t — but most of them were jobs I was pretty obviously qualified for and some were jobs I would have been perfect for.
After 140 applications and 1 interview that led nowhere, I stopped applying relentlessly and only applied for jobs I really wanted or that I thought I’d be a perfect fit for. I’m currently at about 200 applications sent out. Still haven’t gotten more than the one interview.
I have gotten some part-time jobs, though. This started with driving for Lyft, which wasn’t actually a job at all, but more of a loan I took out against the value of my car. I drove close to 30 hours a week for seven months and wound up having to replace my brakes, tires, and transmission. Once I subtracted the repair costs and the cost of gas from my earnings, it became clear that I would have cleared more money at a minimum wage job.
I did some adjunct professoring at some local colleges teaching the classes that are so important that every student is required to take them but not important enough to merit the work of a full-time faculty member. I liked the students, but ultimately it was a lot of work for not very much money. I did the math and figured that the students collectively were paying $70k to take my class and I was making 5% of that, which really put a dent in the old motivation. Well, that, and not even getting a phone call when I applied for a full-time job teaching 4 classes a semester at the same institution where I was already teaching 3 classes a semester.
I know I am very lucky. I now have three part-time jobs that I like a lot, and while there are downsides, such as a lack of paid sick time, there are also upsides, such as not having to attend meetings. My skills as a teacher are worth enough that I can make the same amount of money working about 25 hours a week as a part-time teacher that I’d make as a full-time retail or fast food employee.
And it’s very nice to have those extra fifteen hours a week. I have time to exercise, walk the dog, drive my wife to work, and basically have a more balanced life than I would if I were running out the door first thing in the morning.
And it’s been good for me spiritually to let go of concerns about status and to think about how to define success in a way that matters to me.
But I do miss the money and security that comes with full-time employment. And I’m not so spiritually advanced that I’m not a little embarrassed to be 52 years old, cobbling together a living out of part-time, hourly jobs semester to semester.
Sometimes I remind myself that the reason a lot of employers have no interest in hiring older employees isn’t just because they think we’re feeble; it’s also because we tend to know our value and have enough confidence to stand up for ourselves. And, of course, having been around the block, we’ve heard all the bullshit before and are somewhat inured to it. None of these are desirable traits from an employer’s perspective, but you’d think that expertise and efficiency would outweigh them. But you’d be wrong about that.
So I get it. And I’m working on not caring. But I’m still not quite there yet.