“I’ve been terminated.”
Dan was calling from his home. It was February 2016, and it wasn’t exactly a shock, but my stomach dropped a few feet nevertheless.
We’d seen it coming. Dan had just turned 56, and he’d been the subject of harassment for at least six months. His workload was increased. He was given new tasks, and when he asked how to do these new tasks, he was simply told, “At your pay grade, you should already know how to do them.”
I’d seen it all before. At Company L in 1993 the same thing happened. One manager told his underlings to “get rid of everyone over 50.” An age discrimination suit followed—and went nowhere. As readers of my 1995 book, Beating the System, will recall, I was not yet 50 when this layoff happened, so, even though I asked to be laid off, I wasn’t.
I never understood the logic of laying off people just because they are over age 50. Do the younger people laying these people off think they will not live to be 50? Before I wrote this article, I Googled the manager who wanted everyone over 50 gone. He’s still with Company L, and he’s now in his 60s.
While Company L could hardly be considered a class act or employee-friendly, Dan’s employer, Three Initial Company (TIC) was even worse. TIC had been making Dan work extra night shifts to debug programs. Dan, as an exempt employee, didn’t get any extra pay for these overnighters, and he was expected to be in the office in time to work his regular shift. It’s interesting that a company can decide an employee is “exempt” and has to work extra hours and then turn around and say, “You have to work your shift.” The night before his termination he’d done one of these overnighters. The debugging didn’t go well because a customer was doing some unscheduled maintenance at the same time. In retrospect, it’s possible Dan was set up. The next morning TIC had Dan’s termination papers and a box for him to use for his personal items. In a final act of tackiness, his last paycheck and unused vacation time were given to him on a debit card. The only thing I can say in TIC’s favor is they at least waited until after the holidays. Company L did not.
Dan had worked at TIC fifteen years. He got unemployment insurance for a few weeks.
Dan had a house with a mortgage and a 401(k). Clearly, we had to do something, and I really didn’t want him to cash in his 401(k). I told him I could probably support two people until he could find something, but I couldn’t support two houses. We’d have to merge into my house. He thought about it and put his house on the market. He could not have picked a better time. He had two full-price offers in two days. And thankfully he had enough equity to let him take his time to find something he will enjoy.
When Dan’s house was under contract, the fun began. Both of us had more stuff than we needed. My house is 1600 square feet; his was 2500. We had a few weeks to decide what to do with our excess stuff. We had a couple of garage sales. Craigslist came in handy. Some things we put on the curb for anyone who wanted them. We donated a lot of stuff. We gave some family memorabilia to—our families. In the end, it turned out that what I had left of my grandparents’ furniture was less important than making room for Dan. I got rid of stuff I never thought I’d part with. But I did.
It was an adjustment for both of us. Dan has never lived with pets. I’ve never been a fan of indoor plants. Now he lives with my dog, Knut, who has always been under the impression Dan is his real owner, anyway, and, well, I’m getting used to plants. I’m a bit oh, what’s the word?—cavalier, maybe?—about housework. Dan’s a neat freak. He has the house cleaner than it’s been since I bought it, and probably cleaner than it was when it was completed in 1927. He’s adapting to a warm house in the summer and a cool one in the winter.
As far as his old job goes, I don’t think he misses it. I miss one perk he used to get—TIC paid half the price of theater tickets, but I’m happy not to have to go to his group’s Christmas parties. We drove forty miles to the last one only to be seated in a basement watching a football game on a huge TV eating food with our fingers. I guess the host was afraid we’d steal the silverware.
Dan’s experience should be a lesson to everyone. You may plan to work until you qualify for Social Security, but your employer may have other plans. When you get older and earn more, you become a target for cost cutting. People in general are living longer, but employers seem to view those over 50 as liabilities who can be replaced by younger, cheaper employees. If you are one of those younger, cheaper employees, here’s a message for you: Start saving as if you will not be able to work past age 50. You have nothing to lose by doing so. If you wind up with an employer who’ll keep you on until normal retirement age, you’ll be that much further ahead. If you wind up losing your job at 50, you’ll be prepared.
Earlier this year I read Disrupted by Dan Lyons. I’d recommend it. It’s about a Newsweek writer who gets laid off at age 52 and winds up in a high-tech start-up and the age discrimination (as well as the amazing stupidity) he encounters in his new environment. I found the Orwellian euphemisms used at the startup interesting. Employees weren’t fired, for example; they simply “graduated” and were no longer there. As another dystopian author would say, it’s a brave new world out there.
And in that world it seems 50 is the new 65. Plan for this new reality.
Coming next: a look at what happened in the election of 2016.
© 2016 Larry Roth