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Should you celebrate your layoff?

Forced to embrace a new life, writer invents a personal holiday.

By Teresa Mears Dec 29, 2009 5:58PM

When Thomas McDermott lost his job in publishing at 58 and was forced into early retirement, he joined thousands of 50-plus workers who have been forced to start over. Some have found fulfillment in entrepreneurship and new careers, and others have lost their homes and are struggling to get by.


He foundered for a few years after “being fired, broke and selling the house,” as his teen-age daughter put it bluntly. But eventually he decided to create his own holiday, which he celebrates around Thanksgiving, he wrote in an article on Recession Wire. He calls it Arrival Day.

On this day, the celebrant takes a round-trip on the Staten Island Ferry, across New York Harbor going out, and more importantly, coming back. Coming back past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, you imagine yourself as a new immigrant, with all of your belongings in a bag and your life savings -- maybe $50 or $1,000 -- in your pocket. You have no job, no office, no place to live, no relatives. Only a dream. You alight from the ferry in lower Manhattan. What do you do?
The point is to put yourself in the immigrant’s shoes, not for politically correct, feel-good reasons, but to say: Okay, here I am. Where do I go? What do I do? Where do I stay? How do I build a life from scratch?

For those of us who find ourselves starting over after thinking we had reached the peak of career success and financial stability, the prospect is sobering. Can you be happy on 75% less? Can you downsize from your three-bedroom dream home to a one-bedroom apartment? And how do you start over and earn enough to live on if your profession has shrunk dramatically?


McDermott reminds us that people have started with less. He remembers his grandfather, who dropped out of school after eighth grade and made it into the upper middle class -- a story that’s harder to duplicate today.


I can think of my great-grandparents and their relatives, who arrived from Lebanon in the 1890s, migrated to Appalachia during the coal boom and started out as pack peddlers, selling goods from door to door until they made enough money to open a store. Eventually they had dry goods stores, a grocery store and a chain of movie theaters.


But McDermott’s Arrival Day holiday is not simply to reminisce. As he points out, “That’s someone else’s story. The object of Arrival Day is to ask, what’s your story going to be?”


Many of us are forced to start over at various times in our lives, whether we like it or not. The recession has forced a “do-over” of many people’s life plans. But midlife reinvention is certainly a lot more fun when you decide to pursue change rather than have it thrust upon you.


In an article for BusinessWeek called “How to reinvent yourself post-recession,” Bob Buford, author of "Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance," noted that there could be a silver lining to being forced to change in midlife.


But what I am observing in these months as our economy works to reemerge out of deep recession is that this idea of managing one's self, which was previously reserved for 60-year-old rich people who had sold their company and had nothing else to do, has now been forced on millions of boomers in their mid 40s to 60s who have talent, influence, and newfound flexibility but not necessarily financial independence.
I went through this midlife reinvention myself and have written five books on the subject. I've spent a considerable portion of my last 15 years helping others find their way on this journey. It comes down to the difference between making a living and making a life. And for many, it will be the recession that will launch them on this journey, as they realize what they worked so hard to accumulate in their first half can disappear fast.

He offers three tips for moving on:

  • Get clear. Figure out what it is you want to do.
  • Get free. Free yourself from obligations and drains on your time that don’t contribute to where you want to go.
  • Get going. He says, “The first steps toward your new life are the most difficult, because they are fraught with fear of failure and the risk of letting go of what you already have and know.”

If you want to share your struggles with others in the same boat, Encore, a Web site that focuses on new careers in the second half of life, has a list of some midlife reinvention groups. It also has a guide on finding a new career.


Are you ready to celebrate Arrival Day, the day when you seized the opportunity to change your life, even if it wasn’t your idea? Or are you still trying to figure out what to do? How has the recession changed your life and how are you coping? What's your story going to be?


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