Life After Downsizing

We all make our compromises, strike our deals with life. Mr. McGuire made his and was proud of it. When Mr. McGuire, a character in the 1967 film The Graduate, clutched Benjamin Braddock around the shoulder, looked him fiercely in the eye and uttered that famous one word -- Plastics! -- a whole generation understood what he was offering. He was a company man, a "suit"; he had endured the regimentation, the knavery, the petty snubs and rivalries of the corporate abatoir and he had been rewarded with the keys to the American cornucopia. He had made it. He was a success. And now, standing poolside in this garden of consumer delights, slightly intoxicated with Scotch and self-importance, he wanted to share that success with young Ben: "Plastics." For the generation that launched their careers in the 1940s and 1950s, a cushy management or marketing job with corporations such as General Motors, Proctor & Gamble or Dupont was the American nirvana. Barring a major personal or professional blunder, the job had lifetime tenure, full benefits and pension and the chance to grow in a company and an economy that seemed to have no limits. But Ben was smarter than his years would suggest -- or that his elders would suspect. He smelled fish where his father's generation smelled only the sweet bouquet of unlimited opportunity. He probably knew instinctively what it took most of us until middle age to figure out. And he understood that corporate America always demands more than it gives -- more loyalty, more integrity, more sacrifice. It's been 30 years since Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson rode into the sunset in the back of that gritty Santa Barbara public transit bus. We can only guess what Ben has been doing since then. (Mike Nichols and Buck Henry wisely declined to make a sequel.) Ben and Elaine probably aren't together anymore -- you know how those things go. As for what Ben decided to do career-wise, well, I like to think that maybe he opted to teach high school English in some little town in Northern California and spend his summers writing poetry on a lonely beach in Baja. Or maybe he got into the nursery business and goes days without shaving while he watches his rhododendrons and spider lilies grow. Whatever he's doing, I think it's safe to assume that Ben didn't follow his father and Mr. McGuire and Mr. Robinson into the desert of corporate serfdom. But for those of his generation who did, the journey has not been as sweet as the one our fathers took.The Axe FallsDepending on whose figures you want to believe, American business since 1989 has terminated from 3.1 million to more than 21 million jobs in an orgy of corporate slaughter that has been christened "downsizing." As with the AIDS epidemic 15 years ago, the downsizing epidemic burst upon the scene quite suddenly, took the specialists by surprise and required some time to identify and to name. Economists still don't agree on its causes, its cure, or how pathological it is. The vagaries of the free market can be cruel to anyone at anytime, but there's something unconscionable about the wave of layoffs that has characterized the 1990s. They're happening even as the stock market and CEO earnings hit celestial heights; some argue that it is precisely the downsizing of middle class jobs that is making investors and executives wealthy. And, by many accounts, it hasn't made American industry more productive. "I think we're at the tail end of the (downsizing) trend," said Dr. Peter Lodge, professor of sociology at Belmont Abbey College. "For the most part, it has not lived up to expectations in terms of increased productivity." Downsizing is corrosive to the morale of survivors and destroys the institutional memory of a corporation, Lodge said. A few corporations have made an effort to do their downsizing mercifully -- Lodge points to IBM as an example -- "but over all, it has not been done well," he said. IBM, which laid off more than 63,000 employees in the mid-1990s, went about the cutting with clear criteria as to who would be axed, then offered out-placement services and generous severance pay to its downsized employees, Lodge said. "It has given many people an opportunity to start their own businesses," Lodge said of the IBM layoffs. "It can be an opportunity, but it's not for everyone. But there are those who flourish." For the rest, there is often unemployment. The unemployed, like the poor, will always be with us, but today the unemployed are taking on a new look. They are not unskilled or uneducated. They are not some culturally isolated underclass. Many come with white collars and college degrees. Some come with feelings of bitterness and betrayal. They once had the American Dream burning inside them, guiding them like the North Star through life and career. They had struck their own deals with corporate America. They thought they had the same contract Mr. McGuire had. Now, in mid-career, they've learned that corporate America doesn't want them anymore. Many of them in middle age, with mortgages, with kids in college, with the first physical and psychic pangs of mortality beginning to stiffen their joints and trouble their sleep, they are told to clean out their desks, turn in their keys and "good luck." In the shock of downsizing, there lies another analogy to AIDS. For the middle-aged career professional, being laid off can be like a death sentence. (Indeed, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who studied and identified the emotional stages of the terminally ill, wrote that losing one's job is one of the most traumatic experiences a person will ever know, ranking behind learning of one's own impending death, enduring the death of a loved one and enduring a divorce.) When a person is diagnosed with AIDS, he or she goes through the inevitable denial, disbelief, anger and grief before coming to reconciliation to the inevitable. Likewise, when an employee is downsized -- when he realizes that his career is derailed; his seniority lost; his pension, his retirement, everything he has spent the best years of his life working for has been taken away -- he will go through much the same process. But in the same way that the AIDS victim comes to realize that, while he is terminally ill, he nevertheless has years to live, so the downsized worker will wake up one morning to realize that he's in the middle of his life -- not at the end. What does he intend to do with the years he has left? For each of these victims, the answer to that question may ultimately be the measure by which he or she is remembered.New Expressions of Self-worthThe downsizee faces some immediate and painful choices. She can either put her career back on the fast track and try to preserve her standard of living -- even as she knows that she'll likely be downsized again, that she's entering an era of diminishing salaries, benefits and job security -- or she can start downsizing her expectations. She can run ever faster on the treadmill of part time jobs and shrinking paychecks or she can get off the track and re-assess why she was on it in the first place. In her book Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track, Amy Saltzman identifies five strategies that corporate fast-trackers have adopted to stay sane and solvent in the age of corporate downsizing: * Back-tracking, or choosing self-demotion in order to have more time and less stress. * Plateauing, or intentionally staying in place and in control by turning down promotions. * Career-shifting, or transferring one's skills to less stressful fields. * Self-employment, or going solo for more control over work hours and location. * Urban escape, or opting for more hospitable, less stressful environments. Saltzman identifies the American "tendency to set goals and measure success along a vertical career path that we have come to describe as the 'career ladder' or the 'fast track.' One is not successful...unless one is constantly moving up the ladder in some clearly quantifiable way." Saltzman quotes the lament of a fast-track professional: "The more successful we were, the more money it seemed we needed just to stay on top of the mortgage payments and maintain our expensive offices. It's hard to see the point of being successful if all it gave us was more work and less time to do the things we really wanted to do." Dr. Tom Forrest of the sociology department at UNC Charlotte says that one of the great challenges for American society in the coming years will be finding new expressions of self-worth in a world driven by status and consumerism. "We are constantly surrounded by all these things we're supposed to want," Forrest said, "and the only way we are able to attain them is to work harder, work longer." It's too early to tell, but Forrest envisions a day when we may produce less, consume less and live better, defining ourselves in ways other than through our careers and consumer habits. With less commitment to our corporate identities and careers, downsized Americans may have more time and energy for... for what? To drink beer and watch Wheel of Fortune? Or will we see downsizing as an opportunity to give texture and meaning to our lives? Will we develop relationships, get to know our families, explore our spiritual, emotional, cultural needs? If Forrest is right, then the first pioneers have already arrived and pitched their tents on the vast new plain that will be 21st century American society. Two of them are Ed Hanson-Kelly and John Bryant."I amazed myself" Ed Kelly was born and grew up in the South Philadelphia melting pot, the last of 10 kids of an Irish carpenter. He was raised tough, living in a crowded South Philly row house, playing football and baseball with neighborhood kids, hustling at odd jobs when he was 13 and 14. His voice still carries the hard edge of the streets. "I never had a bicycle growing up," he remembers. "That was the one thing I always wanted most of all...There were a lot of things my family didn't have, but -- you know -- we never thought of ourselves as poor. We weren't poor. That was a word we weren't allowed to say or even to think." Kelly never finished high school, though he eventually got his GED. His first regular job was selling french fries during the summer in a boardwalk stand in Wildwood, NJ, when he was 16. There was a stint in a shoe factory, then nearly 10 years in a book bindery, where he did gold tooling on special editions. His break came when he was 29 and he got into the apprenticeship program at the Philadelphia Electric Co. With a few months of intensive training he became a licensed and bonded electrician, a career he followed for nearly 30 years. While he was building his career, Kelly was also building a family. He got married and had three children between 1958 and 1970. And he bought a house -- his dream house -- in a South Jersey suburb. It had everything the kid from South Philly always wanted -- including a private driveway for his two family cars. Ed Kelly was becoming an American success story. Kelly put in 18 years with Philadelphia Electric Co., leaving to go into business as a private electrical contractor. That lasted for one hard year before he took a job at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, doing mock up work to test electrical components the Navy bought from private contractors. Then he heard about an opening for a high voltage electrician at the University of Pennsylvania. He got the job and found himself maintaining six substations, serving 101 buildings on campus. By the early 1990s the downsizing of America was well underway. The University of Pennsylvania joined the mania by laying off electricians. Kelly wasn't among them. He and the skeleton crew that was left found themselves working longer hours, doing more dangerous and demanding tasks. He complained to his superiors, but got no relief. "You don't do that kind of work with a lot of distractions," Kelly said. "I was not about to put myself into those situations. It was a lot of pressure." Accidents started happening. In one incident, the university hospital was blacked out. He continued to complain, but to no avail. He felt it was only a matter of time before he killed himself or somebody else. He had no choice but to quit. With his resume and union connections, Kelly thought he would be working again in no time. He was wrong. The year was 1991. The nation was in recession; unemployment lines were growing everywhere. And so began Ed Kelly's long descent into the financial and emotional abyss of the unemployed. Two weeks after he quit the University of Pennsylvania job, his wife was laid off. Kelly did small commercial and residential wiring jobs, but the phone wasn't ringing at his house. The union could not find anything for him. "After six months I knew I was in deep trouble," Kelly said. "Years before, if you got laid off or lost your job, you'd get picked up somewhere. But I looked around and I saw guys 20 years, 30 years younger than me and they couldn't find work. And I said, Who's gonna hire somebody my age?" Kelly remembers going in to pick up his first check at the Philadelphia unemployment office. It was a grim, crowded environment of gray walls and long lines and arrogant, indifferent bureaucrats. "The assumption was that there was something wrong with you if you were on unemployment," he said. "I felt cheap and embarrassed to be there. There was a lot of anger, a lot of hate...I learned a lot about human nature from that experience." Kelly was in the unemployment office six months later to collect his last check when he picked up a flyer. The Philadelphia Unemployment Project was lobbying to get President Bush to sign the unemployment extension bill. He called the PUP offices, where a staffer invited him go to Washington as part of a national caravan of the unemployed to picket the White House. "I said, Yeah, why not? I'd never done anything like this before." An hour after that conversation, Kelly got another call back from PUP director to ask if he wanted to be on the ABC news program Nightline. For the next days a news crew followed him around Philadelphia looking for work and then followed him to DC and the national demonstration for unemployment extension. The Citizens Action Group, based in Washington, saw the Nightline report and asked him to do a television spot for them, calling for unemployment extension. Kelly didn't know it at the time, but he had already begun his new career. For the past five years Ed Kelly has been a full-time activist for the unemployed, lobbying in the halls and chambers of Congress, three times addressing members of the House Ways and Means Committee, calling press conferences, addressing the national convention of the National Organization of Women about unemployment among women. He organized the Jersey Unemployment Project, the Delaware Unemployment Project and, in 1995, the Charlotte Employment Project. But the experience has taken its toll on Kelly. His marriage broke up under the strain of unemployment and nearly losing his house to foreclosure. He has lost a lot of innocence about himself and his country. "I spent a lot of the last few years angry at society," he said. "I didn't want to be on unemployment. I wanted to work. This is the most powerful country, I kept telling myself, so why can't I work here?" Through his political activism, Kelly met Eileen Hanson, a union organizer in Charlotte. They were married two years ago and he moved here to launch the Charlotte Employment Project. He even took Eileen's name, becoming Ed Hanson-Kelly. "It was like nothing I ever did," Kelly said of his new career. "I'm not educated. I have no speaking ability, no leadership experience...I didn't think I could do it, then I found out I could. It's been a great experience and discovery for me. I wasn't pushed into it. I fell into it. It's been a new life for me...I amazed myself more than anyone else."Deepened FaithJohn Bryant was never as enamored of the corporate mystique as many of his generation. A 1976 civil engineering graduate of The Citadel, Bryant had been designing nuclear and coal-burning stations for Duke Power for 10 years when he was laid off in 1988. Fortunately, he was already looking for the door and had been sending out resumes before the axe fell. He got a good severance package and nice words from his former employer; six weeks later he started with the local office of a nationwide engineering firm. But the experience taught him something important: "Basically, Duke reinforced my opinions of corporate America. I'm just one little cog in their big machine and I really don't matter to them in the long run." Bryant had a chance to learn that lesson again a few years later when he was laid off a second time. He now works for an engineering consulting firm in Charlotte. "I'm 43 years old and this is my fourth job in 20 years," Bryant said. "They say the average American worker will have seven jobs in a career. I probably will have seven jobs before I retire. I could change careers next week. It could happen. "They tell you to quit looking at moving up the ladder as a measure of success," he said. "They tell you to look at lateral moves to better jobs. I guess that's what I'm doing... I don't think I'll ever be management." If Bryant seems nonchalant about his career, there is one thing he is very serious about. He is a Baptist and his faith -- along with his wife and two young children -- are at the center of his life. Bryant has used the downtime between jobs and the vacations during jobs to go abroad to Haiti, Honduras, Africa and Spain, where he helps missionary friends build homes and schools and survey land for future construction. He has taken eight trips abroad since 1988, buying his own airline tickets to get to the missionary fields. "We were brought up in affluent times. We had material expectations," Bryant said. "Nobody wanted their kids to grow up to be missionaries. That took some special kind of person, we thought. But it really doesn't. I want my son to know that. I was 32 before I knew it, before I was presented an opportunity to do a project. I didn't know I could be a part-time missionary. I didn't know there was a role for me there. Somebody has to build homes and survey land, not just preach. "If I was independently wealthy, I would do this full-time," Bryant said of his missionary work. That day might be closer than he thinks. "Being laid off from Duke opened opportunities for me," he said. "It allowed me to meet people I wouldn't have otherwise met." From one of those encounters with a turkey farmer in Monroe County he invented and patented a poultry feeding station which he is testing and hoping to market to poultry growers around the country. If it comes to pass, Bryant will be independently wealthy -- something he could have never expected to happen working at Duke Power.Life was full of shocks and disappointments before the age of downsizing. Perhaps the only thing remarkable about what is happening in corporate America is that it is happening in corporate America. Farmers, construction workers and factory hands have always been the first to feel the pinch of tough times, but they didn't have a five-dollar word to describe it. They were just laid off or pink-slipped. Yet they knew something important that we could all stand to learn. Life goes on, even after downsizing. And downsizing, like life itself, is what you make of it.

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