The last thing I expected in life was to become suddenly unemployed. Not that unemployment is extraordinary, it just didn’t occur to me that it might happen to me, a (and I hate to use this term) “middle aged” baby boomer. We have all followed those news stories about men in their fifties who worked for corporations and found themselves out on the street with few prospects for the future; it’s just that I never envisioned myself joining them at age 47.
After sixteen years working for a Fortune 200 electronics manufacturer in positions ranging from technical writer to marketing, I went to work one morning, a Thursday as a matter of fact (can you imagine letting someone go on a Thursday?), and the woman for whom I worked said, “Can I talk to you for a few minutes?” This, in itself may seem pretty innocuous to the average reader. But, when you consider that the longest conversation I think I had with this person in the three months I reported to her consisted of brief greetings in the hallway, a sentence of nine words was unnervingly unprecedented.
Then came a quick trip to a conference room and some truly heartfelt phrases like “industry downturn” and “Asian crisis,” followed by a walk downstairs to see the human resources representative (who informed me that she was probably going to be laid off after she finished processing everyone on her list). This left me standing outside the building with no card key and no job. The echoes of my manager’s final comment (“If there’s anything that I can do, please don’t hesitate to call.”) followed me and my cardboard box of desk items across the parking lot to my car.
I was suddenly unemployed. Completely.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The first day of unemployment is one of wonder and anticipation, kind of like taking the first day of a vacation from reality. After walking my son to the school bus and kissing my wife goodbye on her way to work (thank God for all those years of feeling slightly inadequate because she always had a better job than I did), I wandered around the house trying to think what I wanted to do first. I threw a load of laundry in the washing machine, cleaned up the kitchen and started to watch the “Today Show” marveling at how very free I felt. This sense of elation lasted until lunchtime when I realized how damn much work there was to do around the house and who was going to have to do it with a household income that was suddenly cut in half (well, actually not in half – maybe three-fifths).
At this point signing up for unemployment compensation becomes a compelling factor in your life and you make that fateful trip to the state unemployment office for your initial interview.
If you have never spent time at an unemployment office, you have missed one of life’s truly bleak moments. I had heard tales of long lines and forms to be filled out and rejection at the window for filling out the shaded area incorrectly but I wasn’t prepared for the real experience. There were no lines (I took a number and sat in a reasonably comfortable plastic chair), the forms aren’t that hard to figure out, and the woman at the counter waited patiently while I filled out the rest of the form. After doing the requisite paperwork, with number in hand, you take a seat and wait. And wait. And wait.
I’ve always considered patience one of my several virtues but waiting for a claim interview at the unemployment office really challenged it. I looked around the waiting area and found no one who seemed even remotely interested in returning even a flash of whimsy in such a depressing place. Everyone stared at anything but the other human beings in the room, except for a group of three women who had an animated chat about a mutual supervisor at the manufacturing plant where they had worked prior to being laid off.
Finally, my number was called and I went forward to meet with my claims representative. I approached him with trepidation, fully expecting to receive a thorough grilling regarding my career and personal aspirations. He glanced at my paperwork, asked me what my last full day of work was, initialed the form, handed it back to me and told me what telephone number to call every two weeks to file my claim. He never made eye contact.
I was now officially a member of the tribe.