Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org (Photo: DY)

In a plaintive commentary posted on Next Avenue earlier this year, Lizzy White writes about professional, middle-aged women who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet as they search for work:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

To be sure, the effects of the economic meltdown that began some seven years ago continue to be felt by men and women in almost every income level and vocational category. But those of my generation (late Boomers in their 50s), and notably unmarried women within that group, have felt its impact especially hard, with livelihoods and careers interrupted or ended at what should be periods of peak earning potential. White continues:

She lives without cable, a gym membership and nail appointments. She’s discovered she can do her own hair.

There are no retirement savings, no nest egg; she exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated her credit. Bill collectors call constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for her plight — before demanding payment arrangements that she can’t possibly meet.

White provides more facts and figures to document the income disparities and disproportionate caregiving responsibilities that often put women in a less advantaged position than their male counterparts. It’s an important piece, and the comments posted below it are worth reading as well, including those who rightly point out that middle-aged men who have experienced job losses are facing these circumstances, too.

The bullying effect

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Five years ago, I suggested that unmarried women may be specially vulnerable to being bullied at work, especially if they have kids:

Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals. Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids? They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Unmarried women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well. Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of busted marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. In any event, they are less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances. For those individuals, “faking normal” may require wearing a mask that feels like a heavy weight, in addition to carrying the burdens of their situations generally.

Sad, disturbing stuff

This makes for pretty unpleasant and unsettling reading, especially if you’re on the north side of 50. These challenges are hitting my generation of late Boomers especially hard.

Decades ago, many of us entered the workforce in the heart of a severe recession. At the same time, employers were cutting back or eliminating pensions and other benefit plans. For those going to school, loans were supplanting need-based grants and scholarships as the primary form of financial aid.

And now this group has experienced an even more severe economic downturn during the heart of what should be its peak earning years.

It distresses me greatly that we have not summoned the collective will to make this a major political and public policy issue. What will it take to make it so?

23 responses

  1. Does this ever hit home for me. Wow. I Am that middle-aged woman. I lost my full-time job in 2009 and bullying and the economy were all in the mix. When I first learned that I’d lose my job I was 41 with a 4 year old and a 7 month old and a husband who lost his full- time job in 2008. I was incredibly vulnerable. A mix of Part-time and temporary jobs helped get groceries and sometimes pay bills. We were threatened with foreclosure several times and lived with no health insurance for periods of time. I finally got a comparable job in fall of 2013. But I had to leave a community I love and move my family from NY to IL to do it. I ache for my previous community on some days. And the move wasn’t a quick fix. My husband has had a hard time finding enough work so we still struggle financially. I could go on and on about the emotional, psychological exhaustion involved for my family. Thanks for sharing this article.

  2. Thank you David. Less than 24 hours ago I had a similar conversation with a friend. Posts like this go a long way to help us feel like we have, indeed, “fought the good fight” – and continue to do so. We are both professionals, we both saved money, and we both (and many friends) got caught between the recession and various life events. We continue to get up one more time than we are knocked down, but each rise is slower than the last and we never quite reach the prior height. This week I attended a retirement seminar and a well-meaning GenX presenter emphasized repeatedly that our last five years of working are when we are at the peak of our career and salary. At one point he said “I mean, we’re all making far more than we did twenty years ago!” to which the entire room of Boomers fell silent. I wondered how many besides me were making LESS than we did twenty years ago.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful work. It is appreciated.


    • Yes! I am an example of this! Fifty-four years old and now facing a workers compensation case that I have been told I can’t win because there is no real law against workplace bullying and no matter how much documentation I bring. And, no matter that the school has no documentation at all that they bulled me for a specific reason.

  3. Many baby boomers in my small community can relate to this. An extremely large group of experienced nurses were fired or bullied severely enough to quit so that the hospital could turn around and save money by hiring inexperienced new grads. Most of the nurses that were fired or quit were in their 50’s and were never able to turn around and get the same amount of pay that they were earning before. Some of the nurses took a 50% cut in their pay when they were rehired. These nurses were slashed from their high paying jobs in their prime and most had intended to work for another 10-15 years at that hospital. Yes many baby boomers were badly hurt during this last recession on so many levels. It’s amazing how ruthless corporations can get away with this kind of behavior and how it’s always the little guy that gets hurt. When this happened, what type of care to you think the patients received? Is there any wonder why patient errors is the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S.? Nurses know why errors happen but most are afraid to speak up for fear of being fired or bullied. In the meantime at high percentage of preventable deaths continue. How crazy is that?

  4. I, too, am living a “new life” after being bullied out of my job back in 2009. That incident sent me reeling and life was bleak. But then, another layer of injury was uncovered. Because of all the stress I was going through, my health started to deteriorate. My blood pressure rose like a thermometer in August. It seemed to be uncontrollable and then, another punch…this caused me to have a stroke behind my eye, thus losing the vision in one eye. My significant other was put on an organ donor list shortly after I lost my job. He became very ill, very quickly. Life was still not done with me. At that same time I had to close my mom’s home and place her in a nursing home. Did I mention I was fighting debtors and foreclosure of my home for over three years. I have not gone into a department store in years, do not visit the hair salon anymore and dining out is a thing of the past. No gifts at Christmas for my children and grandchildren. I don’t go outdoors very much, although I am going out next week to court to explain again to a creditor that I do not have any money to make any kind of payment to them. I used to live comfortably and never would I have imagined my life going in this direction. I am now 64. I guess this is it. I know this all sounds like gloom and doom and I hate even writing it, but it is real and can happen to anyone at any time. Bullying was the catalyst. It must be stopped.

  5. Agreed, and thank you for this post. I was bullied by a powerful academic when I was trying to change careers in my early 50’s. She was a serial bully who severely underpaid me and drastically overworked me until I became ill. When I quit, she badmouthed me to every potential employer until she died 9 years later. No one would believe me and no one would hire me again even though I had been an exemplary employee for over 25 years in my other field. I have been scraping by ever since even though I went back to school to earn a master’s and a PhD. Those credentials have made no difference whatsoever in my position and have made it even harder in some respects because now I am in debt for school loans and people still will not hire me because of my age. Outsiders do not understand that the person who is being bullied did not ask for the conflict and the outside appearance of it being a personal conflict between two individuals is entirely false.

    • Your story is very similar to mine–bullied by powerful serial bully academic, forced to quit to escape the health consequences, badmouthed so that couldn’t get a subsequent job in my field, etc. Also, my serial bully held my dissertation data, so I ended up being an unemployable ABD psychologist (all but dissertation). I’m loaded with debt due to my pursuit of my now non-existent PhD, now 59 years old with a resume reflecting my downward spiral (now hold a low-paying service job, earning 15k a year). Lost my house to foreclosure, went bankrupt, now live in my elderly mother’s home as her caregiver with my husband, who was also bullied out of his career, simultaneous with my experience. Never, ever imagined something like this could happen in my life, given that I’ve always been lauded by others (non-bullies, of course) for my work performance, my easy going personality, my dedication, etc. Meanwhile, the bully was promoted to head of the research department (she is a kiss up-kick down sort)–lives in a lovely home in a wealthy suburb with her architect husband, with her career still going strong, despite unethical tendencies to be willing to twist research facts to get published (my refusal to do so as her research assistant was one thing that instigated the bullying, but her statement to me just prior to the start of the bullying–“I feel dumb next to you”–tells you even more.)

      • Lisa — I am so sorry to hear of your plight, but I want to thank you for your bravery in sharing it with all of us. At least my bully is no longer here to torment me!

  6. This article is validating and relevant, I appreciate all you are doing to fight this silent epidemic that has hurt me and so many others.

  7. This is a pretty accurate depiction of my circumstances, and the most disheartening thing to me is the that there are others who preceded me and still more who came after- some under the same “team” that targeted me, and others by the replacements who fell under the spell of the same destructive workplace culture. The employer has made efforts that appear to be steps toward addressing the phenomena, but it’s not easy to eradicate…especially incrementally when it’s an entrenched culture. The most severely damaged are the ones who stood up and tried to make a difference.

    • You have mirrored my exact situation with the serial bully…there were many before me, but I was a fighter and used the grievance process to uncover her tactics. She was fired and the company then turned on me. My health went out the door and I am still picking up my pieces. So, to those who want to make all right in the world, some things are just out of our reach, especially with large bully entrenched cultures. Take care of yourself, get out and move your career on up before the company does to you what they have seeming done to all of us in this over 50 club. How devastating! Thank you for sharing these truths!

  8. I have been standing up for two years, against a Fortune 500 company. I was extremely dedicated and had perfect everything for almost 24 years. All it took was a new VP with an agenda that didn’t have my name on, and he started to bully, lie, told my private information “I was having infusions done outpatient hospital several times a week” to other associates. The first time I fought back I won and he was made to give back what he had taken away, then hell has no fury like an arrogant man trying to prove himself after just being told he was wrong. He emotionaly tortured me right up until he got me fired. First bad review ever, then written up, then extending the write up, which were all proven lies. To make matters worse he did this with H.R.’s help. I was the breadwinner of my family, the damage created was not only financial, but the worst is the emotional. I’m sick, battling depression, anxiety and panic attacks and I can’t eat on most days I feel like I won’t make it until the next. My self confidence is gone, I’m enbarrassed… I just can’t believe this happened to me. What happened to right and wrong? Why did H.R. Stand by a man who blew words on paper and that was the new me? Never any documentation to show me what a POS he was making me out to be and if it were documented it was proven false. Severely damaged, absolutely! I see now why people don’t want to fight for what’s right it’s almost cost me everything my marriage, family my home and the security for my children, plus including my life. Thank god for family support iOS we would have lost everything by now.

  9. I wish this piece hadn’t struck such a chord, but it’s sadly clear that the experiences described in it are common to way too many. The bullying/mid-career link is especially disturbing.

    • Yes, David…you nailed it here! I feel as though I am with family in this group. You all seem to have the same experiences. I did not realize that this is another piece of the pattern! We are here, all over 50 and looking to put our lives and careers back to normal. I fear this will never happen since the bad treatment we have survived has left scars, many physical and psychological scars. But we try to work hard to rebuild ourselves, it is a big step leaving the house and facing the world after being stripped to the bone by these cold corporations. Thank you, david…for sharing this connection. Hugs to all, better days will come.

    • Thank you David for writing such an important piece. I am that woman and it as at once comforting and disturbing to read the stories of others in the same position. Tomorrow is the 4th anniversary of my forced resignation from a college where I dedicated myself for 19 years. Under new department management, I endured what felt like (but does not qualify under legal terms) as a hostile work environment. I am still reeling. It was only in the second round of the college appealing my successful award of unemployment benefits that I discovered the behind the scenes lengths my supervisor went to to set up the hostile work environment I struggled to survive through. A couple of days ago my sister suggested that I have PTSD. Today I took an online test and scored 48, with 24 being the threshold above which you likely have PTSD. I’ve lost my house, can’t get an interview for a job, and am barely surviving at a time in life when I should be fully sharing my gifts. I know that I have great work skills and experience but I lack confidence, esteem, and opportunity from the hostile, bullying treament I endured. I have medical issues and only by a generous family member am able to live as I have learned to so meagerly. I have great energy and would love to fight for those who suffer the effects of bullying, harrassment, and discrimination and for those young women who will one day find themselves walking in our shoes. But how? For now, my condolences and best wishes for healing go out to those who are suffering as I am, looking for peace of mind and a chance to regain dignity, to prosper, and to find justice in a society that turns a blind eye. Thank you again David for bringing light to a very dark and disturbing place that exists for far too many undeserving souls.

      • Lori, I’m very sorry to hear about your experience. It doesn’t surprise to hear such a story coming from an academic setting.

        I hope that better things are on their way to you.

  10. It’s because middle age women become increasingly invisible in our society. We are ignored, and often seen as irrelevant, and that makes us easy targets for these trolls. Still, David, you have done us a great service by highlighting this aspect of the problem. I, for one, appreciate it.

  11. I was wiped out twice–after 9/11 and then during the ‘economic crisis’. Having no family I moved around wherever I could find a job, but I also found bullying. Lost my home, my savings, my dignity…then had a heart attack. I relocated to the North Bay area of CA and have been told by recruiters in my age range that their clents will only talk to people who graduated university after 2001. The recruiters themselves are shocked, but have told me that they need the money as well.

    My unemployment ends in 2 weeks. Homelessness might be after that. Hard to believe that this is what’s next.

  12. thats me. In one year I lost my husband
    My house and my job. My job kept me sane but after15 years the bulling of women younger and Vp’s who listen to them I was let go I have sent out 598 resumes and had numerous interviews. When I walk in I see the look of disappointment that I am 56. My problem was that bullies were the CFO Ceo and hr manager I am depressed lonely and poor. Age discrimination is real but hard to prove

  13. my story too, in all of yours. 31 years and 30 years of performing at exceeding expectations. Now, we at the largest aerospace company in the US are being bullied, by the less competent, running the program that is failing. why doesn’t hr and the execs see it? I believe one day, these bullies, will be given their due. But in the meantime, it doesn’t help and the craziness and accusations and turnover of loyalty is gone. I am intelligent and competent and attractive, which to insecure women who are not make them bullies. I am glad I am not them. So I shall leave this company I once loved and find a way to help others who are bullied. We will overcome this. Thank you all for sharing.

  14. Wow. The accuracy and insight of this article are stunning and refreshingly real. Although dismal news, it’s somehow also reassuring just to see someone acknowledging this phenomenon, and in such spot-on detail.

    I’m in the UK and can so identify with the demographic descriptions. It’s scarily widespread. I only wish there was a similarly astute piece here on what one does then to regroup, recover and rejoin the work carousel you’ve been ousted from. Before it’s too late. How do you achieve that?

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