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Coping with a Job Loss after 50

Suddenly unemployed, older managers adopt strikingly different story lines about their situation — with dramatically different implications.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Temporary Derailment or the End of the Line? Managers Coping with Unemployment at 50 (Subscription or fee required.)

Authors: Yiannis Gabriel (University of Bath), David E. Gray (University of Surrey), and Harshita Goregaokar (University of Surrey)

Publisher: Organization Studies, vol. 31, no. 12

Date Published: December 2010

The economic crisis has affected many segments of the population, but it has posed a particular challenge for those confronting sudden unemployment in their 50s. This paper asks, How do people whose identities are based on their professional experience or whose sense of value is tied to job-related achievements and the power and status of their position cope with getting laid off in the middle or late stages of their careers? And how does that affect what they do next?

The answers depend on how people try to make sense of their dismissal. The authors call this process “narrative coping.” People deal with a negative event like a job loss or serious illness, the authors say, by incorporating it into their life story, seeking consolation and closure as they construct a new narrative about themselves. The paper identifies three coping strategies that go in very different directions. Although people may eventually move from one strategy to another, the way they initially deal with their dismissal has a huge bearing on the next stage of their career.

The researchers conducted their fieldwork in the latter part of 2008, just as the severity of the recession was becoming clear. They invited managers and professionals from a variety of backgrounds and jobs to reflect on their experience with unemployment. Eleven men and one woman, ranging in age from 49 to 62, were selected for the final part of the study; each was interviewed for about two hours, and some were invited to take part in further focus groups and informal discussions.

The authors noted several similarities among the participants’ stories. Many were tinged with sadness and nostalgia; participants felt that the “modern world” had become brutal and nasty, and saw age discrimination as a feature of their everyday lives, especially when it came to seeking a new job.

Despite those similarities, considerably different narrative coping strategies emerged. One group viewed the job loss as a temporary derailment. Whether in denial or in problem-solving mode, people who employed this strategy feverishly looked for another job, unwilling to concede that their careers were over.

People in the second group saw termination as the end of the line — a traumatic event that had effectively finished their career. Job loss remained an open wound discussed in bitter terms (they continually reevaluated their careers, trying to pinpoint what went wrong), and the search for a new position was erratic or nonexistent.

Those in the third group accepted the fact of their unemployment and attributed it to social factors beyond their control. This led them to view their termination in philosophical terms, as a moratorium on identifying themselves with their jobs and an opportunity for a new chapter in their lives. With their careers no longer serving as their central focus, they pursued temporary jobs, study programs, or volunteer work.

In an interview, one of the authors, Yiannis Gabriel, identified several reasons that an individual would embrace a particular coping mechanism. “The way the sacking took place, the compensation offered (and its financial impact), family support, and other factors rooted in each respondent’s background and childhood [all] have a strong bearing on which coping strategy” a person adopts, he said.

But an individual can switch strategies over time. Gabriel reported that the researchers have just begun examining data on a follow-up study that tracked most of the participants over the next two years. They found that two of the “end of the line” respondents had reentered the workforce, settling for less well-paying jobs, and two remained stuck in a kind of jobless limbo. Of the “temporary derailment” respondents, several had moved back into jobs.

“Effective coaching,” Gabriel said, “may help a person move from an ‘end of the line’ to a ‘moratorium’ or even to a ‘derailment’ position.”

Bottom Line:
When people are laid off late in their careers, they resort to one of several narrative strategies to understand and explain the event in light of their life stories. For some, the job loss is seen as the “end of the line.” For others, it is viewed as a “temporary derailment.” And for a third group, it is a chance to shift their life focus entirely. This process of “narrative coping” has a major impact on how people view their careers and what they do next.

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