By Harvey D. Kart
It seems like a lifetime ago. I was in my early thirties and pursuing a career as a teacher when something inside me said I needed a change.
Predictable reactions flowed from my inner circle. Most questioned the wisdom (or sanity) of leaving a good-paying, relatively secure job for some as-yet to be determined new career. Others understood that sometimes a person needs a change but wondered—supportively, I was assured—if I was capable of doing anything else. The most objective voice I heard, that of a professional headhunter, simply asked, “You can teach but can you sell?”
Three decades later, I have built what is, by all measure, a successful business and career in publishing.
These memories, complete with all the related doubt and anxiety I had to overcome when faced with jettisoning a career with no adequate safety net, coursed through my mind recently while talking to a friend of mine.
His story, unfortunately, is both unique and universal.
My friend is a faith-filled, middle-aged, dedicated family man whose personal and professional reputation is impeccable. If you wanted to list his enemies, I doubt you would need anything bigger than a Post-It Note. If you delete the ones on the list he already has forgiven for past slights, you wouldn’t need to write any names at all.
Maybe Leo Durocher was right, because my friend, a genuine “nice guy,” has seen his job yanked out from under him not once, not twice, but three times in the past decade. None happened for “cause”; in fact my friend has a folder full of stellar reviews, recommendations and letters of promotion collected over the years. Instead, this string of job losses was at best the result of financial decisions (human sacrifice offered at the altar of panic or to impress a board) or at worst petty office politics.
In two of the three cases, many people advised that an attorney be consulted. (In the third case, the universal opinion was, despite the loss of a regular paycheck, my friend was still lucky to be out of that hell hole.)
In all cases, however, my friend chose the high road, opting to leave with dignity intact. But that didn’t make it any less tough each day to face few prospects, a continuous flow of bad economic news and that look of concern and desperation on the faces of his wife and kids. He tells me that the hardest battle was against succumbing to negativity. Some friends who ask if he was worried about ever finding another job. Others shared stories of how other unemployed professionals had exhausted their savings and still couldn’t find work after one, two or three years of searching. The most gut-wrenching tales—the ones that woke him up in the middle of the night—were those of good, honest people losing their homes or even watching their marriages dissolve.
He said the most disheartening aspect was how this situation was changing people. Not for the better. And not just those looking for work. Comparing notes with his colleagues, he noticed common patterns emerging. Any posted job drew an inordinate amount of applicants, many severely overqualified. Most never drew the courtesy of even an acknowledgement that a resume was received. When an interview was granted, often it was conducted over the phone and by someone who seemed disinterested simply going through the motions. Sometimes a live interview would happen but these, too, often lacked passion, feeling more like a “cattle call” than an opportunity for real conversation.
Once in awhile, a perfect job would seem to be found. Everything lined up; even salary did not seem to be an issue. Fifteen years ago, the offer would be a certainty, leaving only a start date to be negotiated.
But in today’s economy, nothing is certain. And so many of these anticipated offers never come and the letdown arrives via a cold, impersonal letter or email. (In one instance, the organization dropped the news on its top candidates with a standard email message but got the names mixed up in the salutation!)
Through it all, my friend—considered one of the “lucky ones” because he found a position after just six months—held onto his faith and his sense of humor. Still, he says he is concerned about what he thinks our current hard times are doing to people.
“Some people with jobs to offer don’t realize how desperate job seekers are and how each day waiting to hear up or down on an opportunity is pure agony,” he said. “And even though it is illegal, baby boomers know there is rampant age discrimination going on. Most of us watch to see who gets the jobs we don’t and too often it is someone half our age with little experience that matches the advertised job description.
“This could bode ill for organizations engaging in this practice when the economy improves and they seek more and better qualified job applicants. When job seekers have more choices, they will avoid those organizations they remember as being callous and unfeeling when they could have been at compassionate and understanding.”
Most important, my friend concluded, is that we should think about what these current challenges are doing to us as human beings. On the negative side, it’s difficult to watch some individuals treat their fellow man with such indifference. But on a positive note, such times also enable and encourage us to appreciate what truly is important: our families, our friends and our faith.