THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME

Posted in Rants on November 17th, 2011 by Ed

The last few years have seen a bull market for Sadness Journalism – stories of foreclosures, medical bankruptcies, layoffs, homelessness, hunger, and a host of other woes that were invisible when they happened to the underclass but are now polite conversation since they're happening to middle class people. The narratives inevitably follow one of a few well established frameworks. The sad story (man loses job, descends into alcoholism, accidentally kills loved ones/ends up in prison). The downshifting story (well paid professional loses job, realizes she is happier living in a small house with a garden and no car). The it's-your-fault story (the lavish wages and benefits of a group or individuals are presented as justification for why Mr. Spacely had to move the Sprocket factory to Uttar Pradesh). And lastly, my own personal version of hell: the It's Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me story, wherein the protagonist gets a pink slip, overcomes the urge to wallow in sadness, and then (with luck, pluck, and diligence straight out of Ragged Dick) starts a new business (or more rarely, finds a new job) far better and more lucrative than the old one.

For the laid off or otherwise unemployed, optimism is a good thing. It can hardly help to feed them a steady diet of WASF stories in the news every day. There's nothing wrong with a Success Story to remind people who may be cast adrift that all is not necessarily lost. But success stories, like lottery winners, are useful examples only when the odds involved in their success are downplayed or ignored altogether. This Forbes piece, while remarkably thoughtful (for a Forbes piece) in recognizing in a very non-confrontational and investor-friendly way the challenges that one might encounter when 55 and suddenly jobless, is a good example of what happens when the narrative drifts from optimism to condescending bromides.

Being the boss gives Bitter the flexibility to spend more time with her husband (a 30-year veteran of IBM), adult children and grandson. “When boomers get over the fear of losing the corporate parent and all the benefits, they may find that what’s on the other side fits them better,” she says…

Williams counsels “desperation entrepreneurs”—laid-off fiftysomethings who have finally realized they aren’t getting back into the corporate world. He advises them: Don’t waste retirement savings on lavish offices or buying an existing business or a franchise. Instead, work from home, selling a skill or a product you already know…Ken Proskie, 59, is a Williams client who was laid off in 2004 from his job as a health and safety manager for a large manufacturer. He spent only $25,000 of nonretirement savings to buy equipment and furnish an office in his Evanston, Ill. home.

Perhaps the tone of this article reflects the expected audience of Forbes-reading professionals with salable skills. Maybe this is a realistic depiction of what one kind of worker can do when laid off, even if it isn't realistic for the great masses. But even with that caveat, I'd love to see some data here. Of fiftysomething corporate types who get laid off, what percentage will end up doing better as bedroom-and-garage entrepreneurs? How many will find equivalent employment elsewhere? And what share of them will end up doing much, much worse, with a low paying job that neither utilizes whatever skills they possess or supports even a downshifted lifestyle?

Some stories have happier endings than others. I doubt, however, that being over fifty and getting fired qualifies as the best thing that ever happened to anyone except corporate propagandists and uncritical journalists.