THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME

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.

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17 Responses to “THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME”

  1. Sarah Says:

    There's a difference between using a Success Story as a reason for optimism, and using a Success Story as proof that we don't need public financial aid in its various forms, or to treat the unemployed and underemployed as if they're some sort of human garbage.

  2. sep Says:

    And he only spent $25k of his substantial savings account. Gee. Now that's applicable to the rest of us.

  3. Tim H. Says:

    Mr. Spacely had to move the sprocket factory because his wife and mistress were both suing for support and he needed to juice the stock price quickly.

  4. sluggo Says:

    I was just thinking of Spacely Spockets this morning! My mornings tend to look just like George Jetson's!

  5. Del Says:

    @sep – of his nonretirement savings. I would also be interested to know whether he had to sell the boat.

  6. Misterben Says:

    There's one thing that wasn't really addressed by that Forbes article. The Economist's "jobs issue", back in September, curiously failed to mention it, as well. This missing subject is a little something we used to call "job security".

    It's easy to tell people to go freelance, start their own business, be their own boss. But most people don't do this because starting your own business is incredibly difficult, working freelance is incredibly stressful, and being your own boss requires a skillset (and mindset) that most people just don't have. Everything about our society is set up to train employees, not entrepreneurs; that's because most people, trained or not, aren't suited to be, or will never want to be, entrepreneurs. What most people want is to get a job, settle in, and gradually climb the ladder until they retire, enjoying a steady increase in pay and benefits as the years pass. That's not laziness; it's human nature.

    Stability allows us to plan for the future; it helps us make smarter choices about where to live, when to marry, and how many kids to have. Stable people reinforce society, shoring up neighborhoods and whole cities, giving their less-stable neighbors someone to turn to in times of need.

    We all dream about getting rich; many fantasize about being completely "free". But most of us don't want to be freelance entrepreneurs. Most of us just want stability. And that comes from job security.

  7. Ellie Says:

    I've known quite a few previously well-to-do types who got "let go" and started trying to "sell a skill they already know". In every case, it worked – technically. They were able to find a little work here, a little work there, selling "what they knew", part-time and temporary, for a fraction of the pay they used to get. In other words, they became the very definition of "underemployed". (My source of anectdotal evidence: employment in the nonprofit sector, which is a frequent target of these types. You can usually look at their resumes and see where the "real" jobs ended, and the part-time/contract/freelance stuff started This phenomenon has been around for a while, trust me – and I'll spare you the stories about their utter shock at finding out what we nonprofit types manage to live on our entire careers.)

    While people with $25,000 in non-retirement savings are no where near the top of my pity list, they are yet one more thing to add to the list of "Reasons Why The Official Unemployment Rate Doesn't Really Capture What's Going On." Hell, even Forbes admits it.

  8. ladiesbane Says:

    Jobless right-wingers are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, aren't they? Spending their severance pay on a big vacation as a show of confidence, then silently cashing unemployment checks as the desperation mounts…then having the burst of desperation: I'll go into business for myself! Hooray!

    While many white collar workers know their jobs, there is zero demand for freelance TPS reports. Even if there were, even the most efficient cogs in the ConGlomCo machine know nothing about how to scare up customers, do their jobs, AND run the business end of the business. Encouraging them to go into business for themselves is as pointless as telling a factory-line box folder to go into business for herself. They'd be better spending their closing paychecks on lottery tickets, for the Powerball Retirement Plan.

    But the article itself is Pollyanna-sad, like the inspirational speakers at high school assemblies who proclaim that their overdose / traumatic amputation / six-year coma was the Best Thing That Ever Happened. It's a cautionary tale, not a tale of inspiration, no matter what they call it.

  9. don Says:

    It might be a "realistic depiction of what one kind of worker can do when laid off", but I assume it's Forbes-subscriber kind of worker, and probably a select few of them. Not many people get laid off and are invited to also take their revenue stream from their former employer in the form of a client list the company is also severing relations with – Bitter's experience reads to me as unique to the point of irrelevance except as a rather low hedge against despair for less likely success stories about to be kicked to the curb. There's a whole lot of severance packages, nonretirement savings, and spouses with healthcare in this article. There's also a subtext of blame (those coddled boomers, for whom "music and culture changed" – WTF?) that kind of turns this whole article into a marketing campaign justifying continued and escalated gutting of social services and entitlements (which has now come to mean its opposite in what's left of the public mind)

    Most people working most corporate-world jobs are doing work that simply cannot be turned into a work-for-yourself independent business, with or without severance, and if it can be, chances are very high that the worker can't make the transition after 20 or 30 years of learning to be what corporations want in an employee. Bitter and 3 of her (presumably also executive-level) colleagues took their severance pay and client list and did OK enough to make it into a Forbes article 2 years later, but her company eliminated an entire unit – how did the accountants, receptionists, low-level work supervisors and mailroom guys work out?

  10. acer Says:

    I like to at least pretend that I'm the captain of my fate, that I should focus on the factors I can influence and work as if my goals are around the corner. But I think our culture of can-do optimism seeds more misery than we realize. It makes us reluctant to hold high-powered assholes accountable for screwing us, and makes us hate ourselves when things spin out of our control. Only in America would Success Stories be used as cudgels for the Undeserving.

  11. Major Kong Says:

    Okay, so when I get downsized I'm supposed to take my life savings and start a business?

    Since small business' have a 50% failure rate in the first 5 years, I could probably get about the same odds by going to Las Vegas and putting it all on "Red" at the roulette wheel.

  12. acer Says:

    @Major Kong:
    Your odds may improve slightly if you retain a well-trained, high-priced Roulette Coach.

  13. Rosalux Says:

    Forbes is for wankers.

    But this reminds me that I always hate it when people say: "It was the best thing that ever happened to me" – in any context. That's just something people say. "Yea, I got hit by a bus and fractured every bone in my legs – but looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me." No it wasn't! 99% of the time, if people could go back in time and choose to not have the thing happen to them, they would!

  14. RT Butte Says:

    I got laid off from my highly-paid consulting firm (from which I was highly-paid) and spent a scant 15% of my non-yachting budget on setting up my own LLC and now I subcontract myself to myself, while myself sub-subcontracts myself to myself (PROTIP: it's turtles all the way down). Doing this, and through various tax maneuvers, I am able to realize a 150% boost in net profitability.

    Fuck, why doesn't everyone just do this? Lazy, selfish poor people.

  15. Xynzee Says:

    @Kong: of course we know how easy it is to go freelance as a cargo pilot. It's just that that damn FAA gets in the way w all those silly job killing rules about requiring planes to be "air worthy". Pshaw! We don't need any of those regs, because of course you'll only ever use the latest aircraft, and maintain it impeccably 'cause that's what the market requires.

    As someone who "has Mac, will travel". It's not easy. I hate doing the spade work, and worse yet is collecting the money. Most of these rooftilers who advocate this stuff have most likely never had to deal w cash flow issues. Ever had to wait 3+ months to get paid because your invoice gets "lost"? Because I did their gig, I lost opportunity costs to take other work… Landlords tend to not really give two hoots that rent is late because you've only got "theoretical money".

    MrBen summed it up pretty well.

  16. Barry Says:

    Major Kong Says:

    "Okay, so when I get downsized I'm supposed to take my life savings and start a business?"

    Remember the client list of people with whom your firm is severing relations with (meaning that they'll likely need a replacement now). The firm basically set them up. Having to spend a year drumming up work in a down economy would have eaten their savings, and resulting only in a firm which was in existance for a year, with 0 recommendations.