August 10, 2012

Long-term unemployment is the new black.

In 2012, the average period of unemployment is 9 months, and you can add one month for each year over age 50: Sobering facts that ring all too true for many 40Plus members. Unfortunately, in this case, I’m way too normal. And once upon a time, I would never have believed it.

This year, I’m a two-time “40Pluser”. And, it truly is like déjà vu all over again.

I’ve been watching the Olympics off and on all week, and have been transported back to other games – 40 years ago.

At 3pm on a certain winter afternoon in 1972, my orthopedist told me that the “growing pains” I’d been experiencing for a few years were actually a very rare form of bone cancer. I grew up overnight. By 6am the next morning, I had a “new normal”, and my parents and I were on an early bird flight to New York and a suddenly uncertain future.

I was forced to pivot on a dime. Fight or flight. I could sink or swim, and I started paddling as fast as I could. Move over, Michael Phelps.

Fast forward to September 30, 2011 at 3pm. I got notice that I’d been downsized. I didn’t skip a beat. I started looking for a new job on October 1. Just like 1972, I didn’t have a support group – so I had to do a lot of improvising.

I’d long since pulled myself up out of the pool onto terra firma, but I felt the scene had shifted to a good old-fashioned Western. The guy in the black hat aimed a six-shooter at my feet and suddenly I was “dancing” as fast as I could.

The months have gone by: the tarantella, the fandango – Salome’s seven veils. And it’s taken its toll. Right now, I’d dance on a pole if somebody would pay me to stop.

When I found out I had cancer, I didn’t cry for seven years. It was probably classic PTSD. These days, I just don’t seem able to stop crying. And I’m not the only one.

Long-term unemployment in middle-age has left many people very fragile. And just as I’ve counseled many cancer patients in the past to accept and embrace “the new normal” – I now find myself advising my fellow unemployed the very same thing.

Some people like to style themselves “Jean 2.0” – but the harsh reality is that some days it’s going to be version -1.0. My soon-to-be 80-year old mother, who’s been on this 40-year Odyssey with me, reminded me the other day, “They don’t know yet that it’s always two steps forward and one step back.” No. But they’ll learn.

Maybe you were the hare, but the new normal is tortoise. I close my eyes, and I can remember what it feels like to run and jump, even though I have not been able to do either for 40 years. That’s muscle memory. I open my eyes, and I see myself walking on my own two legs – imperfectly, yet miraculously so. That’s the new memory I have been making over the many years since.

When I was told that I’d be the 11th person in the world treated with a new and “experimental” technique, I had only one question: What happened to the other 10? I was assured that 9 of them were absolutely fine. That was good enough for me. I made it in the Top 10, and I’m in the medical record books as the youngest “medalist” ever. Larisa Lataynia, I feel you! I think holding on to that record for 40 years is long enough. I have another one in sight.

The other day, I found out that I have exactly 10 competitors for a great job in my industry that I really hope to land in less than “9 months plus one month for every year over age 50.” I may not set a world record, but I know from personal experience that being seeded 11th means you have a fighting chance. I may yet make it onto the podium. And I’ll share a secret with you: whether the game is life and death, or a job, a podium finish ― ANY podium placement ― is a Gold medal.

Celebrate your victories. I know I have, and always will.

Jean Whaley Williams

One Response to “TGIF!”

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