Mid-Life Redundancy


Author Rod Myer

Globalisation and a changing workplace are having big effects on the lives of men. Journalist and writer, Rod Myer takes a look at mid-life redundancy and what some men have done to recover from can be the biggest blow of your life.
Wayne Foster-Johnson hit his 40s with four children, a mortgage and an all-consuming job that meant he was working so hard to support the children he hardly knew them. Pressure built up in his marriage to the point where his wife was on the verge of leaving. Then, like a bolt from the blue, he was told to take two week's holiday, his first break in four-and-a-half years.

The holiday turned out to be longer than expected. While he was away the company made his position redundant. The shock was enormous. "I was bleeding,'' Wayne said. 

Such experiences, traumatic as they may be, are now commonplace as the structure of organisations has been radically altered over the 1990s. As companies have sought to compete in leaner and more uncertain environments created by globalisation and technological change, tens of thousands of middle management and blue collar workers, mostly men, have been laid off.  

"Many organisations have cut numbers by 50 per cent or more,'' Wayne Foster-Johnson said. These cuts are for keeps and for many of those laid off it's not simply a matter of waiting for economic times to pick up and moving to a similar job in a similar company. 

Corporate restructuring has been felt far and wide throughout the economy. Research done by Dr Tom Bramble from the University of Queensland and Professor Craig Littler from the University of South Queensland shows that between 1993 and 1995 57 per cent of Australian public and private sector companies downsized. Had the survey taken in the whole of the 1990s the figure would be even higher, Dr Bramble said.

The survey showed 33 per cent of companies cut staff by between one and 10 per cent, 12 per cent cut staff by 20 per cent or more and four per cent cut staff by 30 per cent or more. 

The new corporate model is an "inverted doughnut " according to Foster-Johnson, with a core of employees who are highly paid in return for working extremely hard and an outer "hole'' made up of casuals, contractors and consultants brought in when necessary to perform a lot of the functions previously the preserve of company employees. The trend is apparent in the public sector as well with contracting and outsourcing increasingly used in place of permanent public servants.

For the whole of the 20th century the majority of men have believed the path to prosperity and happiness lay in working your way up through corporate or government bureaucracies. "Until recently men assumed that career stages and life stages would be linked,'' Wayne Foster-Johnson said.

Men entering organisations would begin at a trainee phase that would lead on to a middle or upper management phase during mid-life, then a wind-down phase as they moved toward retirement. Now the security has gone and "the only thing you own is the ability to get your next job, your employability,'' Foster-Johnson said. 

Wayne Foster-Johnson eventually found new employment with KPMG in outplacement, or helping retrenched people find new niches in the work world. Then, late last year, KPMG dispensed with its outplacement arm, offering Foster-Johnson and his workmates the option of going into the business themselves and consulting to KPMG. They took up the challenge and are now entrepreneurs in their own right consulting to their old employer and other companies. 

While life is, in some senses, more precarious as principal of Career Crossroads, Foster -Johnson says the positives outweigh this. "I have the time to coach my daughter's basketball team,'' he said.  

Men, through their socialisation, have not been prepared for the shock of what Foster -Johnson calls "…being evicted from the core. Work has defined so much of the male identity that this eviction leads to feeling like you are a non- person,'' he said. 

The sort of unemployment faced by men in mid-life today leads to a powerful sense of loss because it is more than a job that has gone. Life plans, sense of security, sense of self, all are lost as many men see their career paths evaporate. David Forster, an outplacement specialist with Drake, says it is vital to understand and be aware of these feelings to get through the trauma of job loss. "[outplacement specialists and counselors] help define those emotions and let men know that they have that right to feel them.''


Another survey carried out by Dr Bramble and Professor Littler found that men had been particularly hard hit by job cuts over the 1990's. Between 1990 and 1995 the number of male full time jobs in the sample of 1228 private sector firms fell from 725,000 to 675,000, a fall of 14 per cent.

Meanwhile female full time employment grew nine per cent from 430,000 to 469,000. Overall employment (including part time and casual) fell 2.5 per cent to 1.1126 million. This survey included both firms that had gone through downsizing and those that hadn't.

The next step in moving on is to evaluate your skills, your values, who you are as a person and what sort of lifestyle you want, Forster said, rather than rushing out to look for another job. "We encourage people not to take the first thing that comes along,'' he said.

Noel Waite, principal of employment group Waite Consulting, believes the new world of flatter management structures means those faced with mid life career change, either through choice or through circumstance, must be increasingly flexible in their approach to finding a new job or source of income. The skills learned in your previous job may enable you to work as a contractor or consultant in that industry, she said, or retraining may be necessary. 

Another option is to branch out in another field and start your own business. "I know one bank manager who became a landscape gardener and another man who started a newsagency with his son and daughter,'' Waite said.  

Alan Endicott spent 25 years in the textile industry but left his employer in 1989 when the business faced bankruptcy. He was 45 at the time.  

"It was a big shock. I had just come back from a trade fair in Frankfurt and the receivers were called in,'' he said. "I applied for other jobs in the textile industry but the response was I was overqualified and too old. They seemed to be looking for a 21-year-old with 22 years' experience,'' Endicott said. 

Then a chance meeting turned Endicott's lifelong hobby of making model boats into a business. "I was sailing one of my boats at Albert Park Lake when a man came up and asked how much it would cost to make him something like that.'' 

Seven years later Endicott, his partner Geoff, and an apprentice are making 10 to 12 model boats a year for collectors around the country in a workshop in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. Currently they are working on a 3-metre model of the Titanic.

 "Business is tremendous, I'm booked up 18 months ahead,'' he said. 

Noel Waite says that it is vital for men to look at their lifestyle and career options before getting retrenched to ensure they have the flexibility necessary to cope with all eventualities and to take up new opportunities. This includes the development of all consuming hobbies. "I believe in lifetime careers. You never retire, you just take up new occupations,'' she said.

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