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307

Interrupted Dreams

Rolling with the (gut) punches of a 50+ layoff

By Anna Keegan

Late one morning last May, I idly perused “Dining in Bermuda” websites in anticipation of the brief vacation my husband and I had planned where we would enjoy crystal clears waters on pink sand beaches. Just two weeks earlier, Steve and I had completed our move from our beloved nearly 300-year-old farmhouse an hour outside of Boston to a modern two-bedroom apartment five miles from the city.

The move from our family home of 20 years coupled with the death of Steve’s father occurred over an emotional, hectic eight-week period, so we figured we deserved a break and planned to reward ourselves with a three-day trip to Bermuda. I succumbed to the siren call of the travel websites – a significant weakness of mine – and booked a sweet Airbnb and the best airfare deal I could find for this special reprieve. We were on our way into living the dream – filling out our bucket years – all 24 of them, although we are sure we will surpass that number.

When I saw my phone light up with my husband’s caller ID, I was surprised. Although a loving and devoted husband, he rarely called mid-day. He quickly said, “I’ve got news.” Okay, I thought. That’s never good. “I just got laid off.”

Next, I checked my pulse. My heart was pounding. I was speechless. While I felt crushed for my smart, 60-year-old software engineer husband, I really felt overwhelmingly vulnerable.

I looked at my computer to see if I had really pushed submit on those non-cancellable plane tickets — and had I really rejected that travel insurance? Why throw $11.95 out the window– who needs that?! Next, I checked my pulse. My heart was pounding. I was speechless. While I felt crushed for my smart, 60-year-old software engineer husband, I really felt overwhelmingly vulnerable.

A year earlier, I retired from teaching in our town high school. This decision wasn’t an easy one for professional or financial reasons. I loved my work and the environment but was excited for a change. I had yet to figure out what this professional reinvention phase of my life would look like yet despite assurances to myself and others. I actually had no idea what it would include other than a continued focus on education and doing good works. Well, maybe not even that.

During our marriage, my income was an important part of our financial equation. Prior to my retirement, we spent time consulting with our financial advisor as we had regularly for many years. He pulled up this nifty graph that showed us how much we could live on annually with expectations for return on investment to ensure that we wouldn’t die penniless — while navigating the uncertainty of our retirement years. To determine this approximation, he gave us a few more bucket years – giving us a total of 32 – a calculation that included lifestyle habits, education and various factors that some insurance and financial industries use. We analyzed the numbers and figured out what to budget to allow us to comfortably enjoy all 32 years.

In our analysis, the parameters included my husband working until 66 or 65. Then came the phone call. Time for some adjustments.

Downsizing had not come with cost savings on our housing expenses. The Boston housing market is among the most expensive in the country. But in our analysis, the parameters included my husband working until 66 or 65. Not a problem we said at the time. Steve had no intention of retiring before then or maybe even after.

Then came the phone call. Time for some adjustments.

The following morning, as I was puttering around our new open-plan kitchen/living/dining room fixing coffee, paying bills, feeding the dog, emptying the dishwasher, my husband emerged from the bedroom, grabbed his coffee, a bowl, cereal, milk, a spoon and juggled all of it over to my seat at the counter. Hmmm. Day one.

He then headed into the second bedroom/office to set up his command center to begin his arduous tasks: registering for unemployment, figuring out why the printer didn’t work, finding his dormant LinkedIn account and beginning to rebuild a 40-year-long resume.

This process was interrupted briefly by a Skype chat with our financial advisor who allayed our fears for the moment – Bermuda was a go – but we would reassess in six months. In the meantime, stay within our established budget.

The following weekend, we traveled to Bermuda. We also looked forward to a previously planned and paid for trip to Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley that we would take in late September. We enjoyed fun summer months with friends and family and spent many summer nights on our new balcony overlooking a walking path along the Charles River, watching couples leisurely strolling by, intrepid commuters cycling home and young families riding bikes while listening to summer baseball leagues play in the park across the river. Nothing like hearing the crack of the bat on a hot summer night while enjoying a glass of wine and challenging your spouse to a game of backgammon.

While the media reports on a hot job market, it is difficult for this 61-year-old software engineer to find a job.

Eight months later. It’s a crisp cold January morning. 2020. Coffee made, dog napping comfortably, my husband emerges from the bedroom, grabs his coffee and goes to his office as I sit in my seat at the counter reading emails and paying bills. Breakfast feels like time wasted as he enters month eight in a dogged search for another work opportunity. His phone pings as he heads in talking to recruiters and prospective employers.

While the media reports on a hot job market, it is difficult for this 61-year-old software engineer to find a job – on several occasions, the company decision on the “right fit” eliminated my husband when it came down to the last two candidates. This is apparently not uncommon.

In a weird moment of coincidence, in a break from writing this article, I wandered down to our lobby to pick up the mail and there in our box was the January/February 2020’s AARP Bulletin and on the cover “Ageism in the Workplace- It’s Time to End the Last Acceptable Bias.” How fitting.

Joe Kita’s report cites significant numbers: three in five older workers experienced discrimination on the job and 76% feel their age is hurting their chances at getting a job. One job searcher in his late ‘50s echoed my husband’s experiences of losing the in-person interview to a better fit after many successful phone interviews. None of this was particularly surprising to us but seeing it in print was jarring. As my husband has stated, the old joke in engineering is that obsolescence comes after the age of forty! It’s not feeling very funny now.

At a small gathering of close college friends in October, it was surprising — if not a little comforting — to hear that of the five male classmates present, three had been laid off in their ‘50s or early ‘60s. While misery loves company, those numbers are numbing. And they statistically line up with the AARP findings. There are baby boomers out there who wish to work well into their ‘60s, if not ‘70s. Several presidential candidates are well into their ‘70s and our life expectancies continue to increase. How will out-of-work baby boomers fulfill their bucket dreams?

How do we adjust when our financial picture clouds and threatens storms on our dreams?

As the days of unemployment continued, we asked ourselves many questions – sometimes in solo worrisome moments or, in a more ideal scenario, together sharing meaningful conversations. How do we adjust when our financial picture clouds and threatens storms on our dreams? How do we adjust to this work-life change after cutting our living space in half? How do we adjust after 40 years of challenging work to not working at all? Will we need to? And in this first uncertain year, how do we adjust in a new location with friends somewhat nearby but our neighborhood homies far away? How do we do it all at once?

In thinking this through, one particular truth became apparent. A significant element of embracing our ages, living fully and enjoying the ride is the determination to live in the moment. Being present is all the rage — taught in schools even as an element of social-emotional learning – and the ideal framework for one to enjoy each day, live your best life and worry not about impending doom – to embrace whatever comes your way.

We also consulted our financial advisor frequently. It became clear that presentism takes a back seat to looking “well down the road” when analyzing our financial and work future. We considered various scenarios such as when to take social security, access pensions, cash in annuities, modify our risk factors. Our ultimate goal is to delay accessing any of these resources until later: Social security at age 70; other pensions and annuities upon or even after Steve’s targeted retirement age of 66. And we must frequently adjust — after changes like a new car purchase last week — and reevaluate looking at the nifty graph that hopefully leaves us with some green in our ‘90s, far down the road. There is no denying the anxiety that is present in these sessions, in conflict with the spirit of presentism.

We reserved the last possible spot at a no-frills campground, avoided restaurants and bars for a long weekend as we picnicked, hiked and kayaked along rocky beaches and pine tree-covered hiking paths.

Since living our new normal, we have made many adjustments. In August, we took a weekend camping trip to Acadia National Park where we traded in the dining and accommodation luxuries we enjoyed in Bermuda. After a minor investment in an inflatable double mattress and using tents we received as wedding presents 28 years ago (now those needed some airing out!), We reserved the last possible spot at a no-frills campground, avoided restaurants and bars for a long weekend as we picnicked, hiked and kayaked along rocky beaches and pine tree-covered hiking paths. These challenged us physically and reminded us that exotic vacations can be reasonably priced!

Admittedly, I had my princess and the pea moments as I lay in the tent next to my contentedly snoring husband on the semi-deflated mattress listening to the rain overhead but the six-hour drive was alleviated by being able to head off early Friday morning and taking time to visit old friends on the way home. With no job commitments looming overhead, time doesn’t have the urgency it once did.

At home, we’ve made adjustments as well. We’ve replaced fancy dinners out with our son with meeting up at a very old “dive” bar in Cambridge — cheap eats and cheaper beer. And a trip down to Manhattan to visit the other son includes the dog – no pet-sitting fees for us and our son gets a special visitor to sleep on his bed. The reckless abandon of our brief post-downsizing dining out days is mostly replaced by eating in and inviting friends frequently to enjoy shared meals. Many who work in full-time jobs find entertaining too work-intensive. For us, it’s easy and inexpensive fun that allows us to visit with old friends who we missed in our hectic work-a-day lives.

Maybe that is the upside of this disruption to the norm. The reality is that we could survive a major change like that.

The adjustment around the apartment has been the easiest. We have grown into our routines and continue to try to be flexible. Some days more than others. And while my admiration for my husband grows as his determination continues, we both occasionally fantasize about packing it in and taking off to run a beach bar somewhere. Maybe that is the upside of this disruption to the norm. The reality is that we could survive a major change like that. We just haven’t had to make it yet.

Three weeks ago, Steve landed a “contract” position which guarantees him work for three months. He is hoping that it parlays into a full-time position but in the interim, while our angst is lessened somewhat, he is still in close contact with the many recruiters with whom he developed relationships over the past 9 months. In truth, with economic volatility and no guarantees with either a “permanent” hire or a contract position, we are realistic that this journey may not be over. Balancing the reality of financial uncertainty with the determination to enjoy the pleasures of the moment is becoming easier. We are content to spend more summer nights on our balcony and are already searching for new camping areas for a low-cost vacation option. On the other hand, each new phone call gives us a charge of adrenaline and reaffirms my husband’s belief that he can still be a vital member of an engineering team with talents to share.


About the Writer

Anna Keegan’s (Bucket Age 24) previous vocations included advertising/sales and 20 years teaching high school history and economics. She resides outside of Boston with her husband Steve and two elderly pets, where she is currently reinventing herself as a freelance writer, historical researcher, caterer, balcony farmer and world traveler which, happily, will no longer coincide with school vacation periods. 


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