When he was fired from Time-Warner four years ago after two decades of service, James S. Kunen was abruptly thrown into a job market that was less than welcoming for workers in his age group–baby boomers brushing up against 60.
He has written an appealing book, Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life, that with a touch of humor and a load of humanity takes you down the elevator from his lofty and well-paid post as Time-Warner director of communications to his job today teaching English as a second language to immigrants.
“Now I find myself at this place called Too Young to Retire and Too Old to Hire, and there’s a huge crowd here, a regular Woodstock, with more arriving all the time,” Kunen writes.
But this isn’t Wavy Gravy’s world. He confronts the core questions many laid-off baby boomers do: What is it he can do now? Where can his skills translate to a job, one that makes him feel some sense of purpose? And who will hire him?
These are heart-felt and sometimes wrenching questions that anyone 50 + planning a successful career transition today faces, particularly after a lay off that you’re unprepared for. (See my story here on planning a second career.)
Sure he feels sorry for himself at first, angry and a little bewildered, but not for long. And I like that. His emotions are bound to happen. It’s what you do next that matters. His story is one that many workers seeking a new beginning can learn from. To get some deeper insight I asked him to share his sage advice–from one who has been there and made it to the other side.
Jim Kunen: After getting laid-off at age 59, the biggest challenge was figuring out what I wanted to do. I felt that this was my last call to find my calling. Some people have a clear calling. For example, I once met a fellow who worked at Mapquest drawing maps. When he was five years old, he stumbled into a box of National Geographics, opened one up, saw a map, and never looked back. He knew this was what he was put on earth to do. But many of us aren’t so lucky. We spend our lives groping, trying this and that, and we often end up in a particular job more as a result of chance and circumstance than by choice or planning.
I’d been a defense attorney and a journalist and somehow ended up working in corporate communications. I knew I wanted to do something I’d find truly meaningful now. But what does “meaningful” mean? I talked to a number of people – including an auto worker, a nurse and a theologian — and concluded that what I wanted was personal, hands-on connection with people whom I could help in some way.
Looking back over my life, I realized that I had repeatedly volunteered to teach English to immigrants, and concluded that here was something I would like to do as a full time job. I took a six-week certificate course, landed part-time work teaching foreign students, and eventually found a job teaching immigrants at a community college. I love it. I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
KH: What three tips would you give other older workers facing a similar situation, to turn their next act into a winning one?
JK: 1. If you need to acquire new skills or brush up on your old ones, don’t be self-conscious about going to school with people your kids’ age. If you just act natural and avoid mirrors as much as possible, you’ll soon see your classmates as peers, and they’ll treat you just like anybody else, as will the teachers.
2. Don’t be afraid to embark on a course of study that may take some time. If you find yourself thinking, “By the time I finish this full-year course, I’ll be 60,” ask yourself, “How old will I be in a year if I don’t take this course?”
KH: What is the greatest reward of your new work?
JK: Teaching English to immigrants at a community college, I’ve become part of a genuine, larger “we.” That’s the greatest reward. There’s no falseness, no artifice; no one is using anyone else as a means to an end. We are all in the classroom to learn together, to succeed together, to empower and support one another. I love the students, and I love loving them, and I love their loving me. A lot of us are poor people; some of us are more educated than others; but we all respect one another as equals – just as the Framers of the Constitution intended.
By contrast, as a corporate communications guy and editor of a magazine aimed at employees, my job was to make employees feel that “we” were all part of the company, all part of a team. That turned out not to be true. After laying off 500 people one day, the CEO told the financial press, “We’ve eliminated the bloat.” That tells you all you need to know. Who’s “we”? Who’s “the bloat”?
KH: How big a role did the support of your wife and family play?
JK: Very big. Hopefully, you and your spouse share common values when it comes to where the true worth of a person lies. If your spouse fell in love with a job title or married a paycheck, you’ve been in trouble all along, and that’s going to become more apparent now. If you’re there to support one another, to believe in one another, to be patient with one another, to vouch for the importance of what each of you thinks is important and for the desirability of what each of you desires, you’ll be all right.
KH: How were you able to lose the ego and sense of entitlement that years in the corporate world can create?
JK: I admit that every second week when direct deposit replenished my bank account – I called it The Miracle of the Loaves – I got a bounce in my step. No matter what I thought of the intrinsic value (or lack thereof) of what I did at the office, money is a measure of value, and I was getting paid well, so I felt valued.
When I was told that I was bloat to be eliminated, when in a heartbeat I went from trusted colleague to presumed-dangerous enemy (ID card and computer access taken away, entry to the building denied), that sense of value was gone. Without the title and office and pay and perks, I felt diminished, smaller.
But then I realized, I haven’t been downsized, the company’s been downsized. I’ve been given the opportunity to get out of that corporate cubby hole, stand up and stretch and grow, to find something to do that lets me be fully me.
KH: Anything you would do differently?
JK: I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that I was unqualified for jobs I’d like to have. I read somewhere that to teach English to immigrants at a community college, you had to have a masters degree, so I didn’t even apply. I restricted my job search to for-profit language schools – a narrow and poorly paid slice of the market. Only by chance, after six months, did I happen to hear that you can teach without a masters in all kinds of adult continuing education courses based at community colleges. I applied and pretty quickly got one of those jobs – in a great program at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY. So my advice is, look beyond what you think you know.
James S. Kunen is the author of Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life
Learn more at http://jameskunen.com/