Profiles in (Un)employment

Gen X and Gen Me Me Me

Even though I’ll be starting a new job soon, yesterday I had to go to EDD to attend a presentation that explains all the features of their website and how to take advantage of the services they have for the recently jobless. I have to say that I’ll probably keep using the EDD website to keep my resume updated because there’s not only good information and tips on there, but the Department of Labor has a couple of really good job seeking sites that are easy to use and had job notices that I didn’t see on LinkedIn or Craigslist.  So, if you’re looking for another job, or are unemployed, make sure you really dig into the EDD’s website and join a job club to network — because who you know is about 90% of getting in the door.

Okay, that’s the practical advice from me based on what I learned.  But there are other things that struck me about yesterday’s presentation — which dovetails into some larger views of the labor market and the differences in generations. I’ll start with the most striking  observation that’s not scientific at all:

Everyone in the EDD conference room was over 40.  Everyone.

The Larger Picture

Like I said, what I saw was not based on a larger dataset, but rather just an observation. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a different story about workers over 40:

BLS Unemployment Rates
Unemployment rates. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE So you can read the tables.

The most obvious is that teenagers have a high unemployment rate.  Well, that’s to be expected since they are required to be in school for nine months of the year. If you’re in the 20-25 year old bracket, the rate is high, too. Part of that could be deferred full-time employment because of attending school.  You’ll notice the rate drops significantly at 25 years of age — spikes up a bit between 25-34 — and then trends down after that to 5.7-6% in age groups older than 34.  Now, the people who show up in these BLS stats are those who qualify for some kind of Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefit and have a applied for it. The actual number of unemployed people is much higher than the statistics suggest, since many people have exhausted their benefits, never qualified for them in the first place, or have stopped looking for work and have fallen off the radar.  The benefit in California, by the way, has a range from $40 a week to $450 a week, and the amount you gets depends on how much you made at your job.


Because of the sequester (you know, the mandatory reduction in government spending and the end of the Bush-era tax cuts — because Congress couldn’t do their job and come to an agreement on a budget), UI benefits have been reduced by 17.69%.  So, if you were getting a UI benefit check for $450 a week, it’s now $371. If it was hard to live off of $450 a week, now it’s even harder live because your benefit has been cut by almost 18%!  Despite Mitt Romney’s 47% talk about people on government help, UI is a benefit and not a handout.  You — yes, you — pay into UI benefits when you’re working and it’s an insurance policy that’s designed to cushion the blow of losing a job.  It’s not a replacement for lost wages — which is pretty frickin’ obvious to anyone who just read this paragraph — but it does help keep some folks from being homeless soon after losing a job.

The “Over 40 Club”

While standing in line to prove that I had an active resume on CalJobs at the EDD office, I spoke to a couple of people and their stories of why they were “let go” were surprisingly similar.  Age + salary = liability to the company.  You see, as we age, our total compensation package that includes benefits like health insurance go up.  Employers and employees see it every year during open enrollment when the HR rep comes in with the news that insurance rates will rise.  So, unless you do a job that’s essential to the health of a company and there are very few candidates who can do your job cheaper than you (no matter how old your are), you’re vulnerable to a lay off.

One very nice woman I chatted with told me that she was laid off from the company she worked for because of her age.  Personally, I couldn’t peg her age, because she didn’t look that much older than me.  She said that she was a grandmother (a young one at that), and when they let her go, they replaced her with someone who was younger and childless (and, needless to say, grandchildless).  She was okay with the separation because her job required her to go to environmentally dodgy places and she was concerned about her health.  So for her, she was grateful to be moving on from that job.  Also, her husband made “good money” working as a contractor for Genentech.  However, even that job left them feeling insecure.  She said that her husband applied for full-time/regular employee positions at the company only to be passed over for younger workers.  His job function is pretty integral to Genentech, but they won’t bring him on a regular employee.  She told me that it was “an age thing” and sort of rolled her eyes at the business logic of it all.

Another member of the “Over 40 Club” was older than those in attendance.  He was probably in his early 60s and had worked for a company for about 20 years when they showed him the door. He was in a different boat because he hadn’t updated his skills because the company didn’t require it for him to do his job.  Now he was faced with the prospect of having go through “retraining” to find another job — which is going to be difficult to get because of his age.  Employers want them “young and cheap” and if someone with gray hair walks in the door, 9 times out of 10, it’s game over for that candidate. The guy running the presentation at EDD didn’t say that, but did remind everyone that “entrances and exits” are what people remember.  In other words, it doesn’t matter all that much if you look great on paper, people will size you up based on how you look when you walk in the door, and how you act as you’re leaving the interview.  I gotta hand it to the guy who lost his job after 20 years. He didn’t give up.  Rather, he made notes on all the EDD services that applied to him and generally kept an upbeat demeanor.

The rest of the “Over 40 Club?” Well, I didn’t speak to any of them, but I could see from the expressions on their faces that many were bored, embarrassed, pissed off, and enthusiastic. A range of emotions, to be sure — but none that I haven’t experience during my time being jobless.  For many of those in the “Over 40 Club” it’s going to be a slog to find another job.  Unless one is well-connected, has skills that are in demand, and can “pass” for a younger employee (Oh, that ageist thing really sucks), the amount of time it’s going to take to land another gig is about six months.  This figure comes from a LinkedIn group where those who are “older” workers told tales of how long it took them to find work after being laid off.

The takeaway:

  • Get your UI benefit paperwork completed the day you get laid off.
  • Join a networking club right away.
  • Use EDD’s site to revise your resume, research companies, take self-assessments, and find out about workshops.
  • Tell people you are looking for work — and remind them often.
  • This one involves risk, but it might work:  Start a company with your friends and colleagues who may be tired of working for The Man. Collectively, you have more experience than younger workers who are doing the same — and often failing.

Generational Attitudes And Workers

Time magazine had a recent cover story on Millennials that highlighted this “Me Me Me” generation (born between 1983-2000) who are, yes, narcissistic, coddled by their parents, rewarded for mundane things (“Every kid gets a trophy!”), and have an inflated sense of entitlement.

My kid's generation?
My kid’s generation?

Yes, older people will forever complain about “youth,” but the fascinating part of the article was that while these kids are obsessed with themselves, they are also incredibly nice and don’t feel they need to rebel against authority (Why bother?  They are friends with their parents on Facebook — and have no real problem with it).  Because of this new “flat” environment where hierarchy is almost erased, people in this generation feel it’s okay to contact the CEO of a company to tell them why they should be hired.  Forget “Apply Online” or HR, just go right to the source. I think that’s an admirable trait and shows a lot of moxie. It means the traditional obstacles that have been in place are ignored in favor of just going for the brass ring — no matter if you’re qualified or not.  Like I said, this shows a lot of moxie and leadership qualities. However, there’s a downside to this for employers.  This generation is made up of people who are not loyal to a company — which can make them hard to control with traditional carrot and stick methods.  They will only stay at a job for as long as it hold their interest, and they are more apt to take a chance and start a company with their friends than bother with working for someone else.

My generation...a bunch of slackers?
My generation…a bunch of slackers?

In 1990, Time ran this cover of basically my generation (1964-1982). Did I recognize myself in the description and cover photo?  In a way, yes.  There was a kind of “Lost Generation” quality to me and my cohorts back then.  Not everyone I knew fit this category (how could they?), but yes, I wore a ton of black, kind of felt directionless at times, and was also a bit annoyed by the glorification of a certain group of Boomers for whom “The ’60s” where their defining moment.  Me?  I buried myself in the Gen X culture of alternative rock, more meaningful career choices (academics), and wanted a better quality of life than accumulating wealth.  What did that attitude do for me in terms of a career?  Well, I went headlong into academics because it was something I was very interested in, and, as far as career choices go, there were supposed to be many opportunities for me when I got my PhD.  Sounded good.  I wouldn’t make millions of dollars, I wouldn’t change the world, but I would live a life of the mind and be compensated in a manner that I could live a comfortable life.  Well, through a combination of bad luck and bad timing, the economy tanked, there was an oversupply of PhDs, and colleges weren’t filling many full-time positions.  I had to adjust — and adjust quickly to find other means of employment.

What kind of worker did this new economy make me?  Flexible, practical, and one who put aside ego in favor of making a living.  I’m not thrilled about the alternate jobs I’ve taken, but I did what I had to do to scratch out a living. Unlike some, I don’t feel entitled, nor am I obsessed with myself (much).  And that “laid back” attitude Time magazine ascribes to my generation?  Well, it could be a shield against abrupt change.  Remember: it was my generation that experienced deep changes in the family structure that was, at times, jarring.  Plus, with an increase in the divorce rate, the growth of single parents, and the need for both parents to be working, mine was a generation that had to kind of take care of themselves — which is probably why many of us overcompensate with our kids (i.e., the Millennials) and want to be connected to them as much as we can be.

So, comparing each generation in terms of their work ethic is tricky because we don’t all fit into neat little boxes.  I’m no expert, but based on my experience and what I’ve read, my takeaway on Gen X and Millennials are as follows:

  • Gen X:  Practical, detached, responsible, and are late bloomers.
  • Millennials: Practical, egalitarian, entitled, friendly, and go after what they want.

So, if you find yourself unemployed, know that there’s more going on than what’s happening on “Planet Me.”  We don’t live in a bubble, but the connections and forces that pull and push us along this life course are often invisible to us.  Stepping back to find larger connections is instructive in helping to frame your job search and to know what kind of culture you’re facing as you move into the next phase of your career.

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