As the director of a small vocational school where the typical student is a female nearing the age of fifty and recently displaced from long term employment, I have had a cursory awareness of the detrimental psychological effects being laid off can have on older workers for some time. The first sentence of the mission statement of the vocational school in which I serve as director reads: “Rocky Mountain Business Academy exists to give our students the skills and self‑confidence they need to procure employment and succeed in the career for which they have trained.” When that statement was developed almost ten years ago, I understood that new skills alone were not enough to secure employment. Self-confidence and a positive attitude were also necessary components of a successful job search.
What I did not understand fully understand at that time was how emotionally devastating a job loss can be for some older workers. In addition to dealing with the financial and emotional costs of job loss, older displaced workers often find it very difficult to procure new employment (Shafer, Choppa 1993). To better understand the special challenges my students and other older displaced workers face, I embarked on a journey to add to my knowledge base. In the process I discovered many studies, both quantitative and qualitative that addressed the effects a lay off can have to the self-esteem of older workers. I also found practical steps they can take to begin rebuilding their confidence.
Losing an established job, aside from the obvious financial affects, also causes many displaced workers to enter a grieving process (Archer, Rhodes 1993). This study reported that over half of its unemployed participants reported feelings of “depression, anxiety connected with the job loss, restlessness, and a feeling of loss of self” (Archer, Rhodes 1993, p 399). When reporting their feelings about their job loss, some participants reported nearly breaking down in tears at times and isolating themselves socially. The Archer and Rhodes (1993) study also suggested that the grief resulting from a job loss often stayed with participants years after the layoff and was not unlike the grief experienced when losing a loved one.
In a qualitative case study which followed a 53 year old male painter displaced after his employing firm shut down, the researcher reported that he “had been showing signs of depression and withdrawal” (Smallen 1993, p. 535) at the beginning of the study. Smallen (1993) suggests that older workers are significantly affected by a job loss when it changes their “life narrative”. Many older workers are adaptable and can handle change but, when that change does not fit the life narrative they have created for themselves, they find it difficult to adjust. Smallen (1993), through the use of recording the participant’s work like narrative, was able to help him create a new life narrative that included a new career. After accepting the new life narrative himself, the participant presented the plan to his spouse, and with her support, changed careers into a lower paying, but satisfying position.
After being displaced, older workers often need to be retrained to once again become viable job contenders. However, as one qualitative study in England reported, older workers often harbor negative feelings about themselves and their abilities and this prevents them from entering retraining programs (Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar 2010, p 86). The study in England used semi-structured interviews of 56 individuals with a mean age of 58.9. Of these 56 participants, 22 were employed in some capacity and the others were displaced.
The lower self-perceptions of older workers are often related to commonly held myths pertaining to age. Those myths are; “1. Older workers are slower than younger workers; (2) Older workers do not have the physical capabilities to perform the job; (3) Older Worders have high absenteeism rates; (4) Older workers do not adjust well to change.” (Shafer, Choppa 1993, p. 36).
Although many studies have debunked these myths, they still plague the older job seeker. One study participant reported, “I feel very able to do a lot of things, and my husband… We both go out cycling. We both do lots of things and we also know people that are a lot younger than us that are not physically fit…But, an employer won’t see that at all,” (Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar 2010, p 92). This study reported that negative self-perceptions actually kept at least five of the survey participants from entering a vocational retraining programs.
Although illegal in both the United States and England, this study reported that several participants feel they have been victims of age discrimination. As one reported, “I believe I was discriminated against…I didn’t get past the first interview. And I’ve seen the faces in the paper of the people that have got those jobs and…there were very young indeed…and I’d like to know how there were qualified,” (Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar 2010, p 95). This study also reported that thirteen of the participants felt their age had negatively influenced potential employer decisions.
Vocational training, especially training in information technology skills is paramount in assisting older displaced workers re-enter the workforce. However, as the Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar (2010) study reported, many older workers are reluctant to enter training to enhance their technology skills. The study attributes this reluctance to low self-confidence and self-efficacy in their abilities to learn. As one participant reported, “I think a lot of older people are very reluctant to take on board new technology…a long of people are very, very reluctant…because they might fail. This is part of the problem. They are too afraid of failure…” (Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar 2010, p 94).
The Porcellato, Carmichael, Hulme, Ingham, Prashar (2010) study concluded that negative self-image led older workers to self-discrimination as they often bought into the common myths about age. That, coupled with fear of failure, prevented many from entering re-training programs and becoming more employable. Real and perceived age discrimination caused many to undervalue their own ability to contribute to a new employer.
The psychological damage resulting from a job loss is well documented in numerous studies. Losing a job often damages the displaced worker’s self-concept by eliminating the identity that comes from an occupation (Garrett-Peters, 2009). In most cases, to become employable, self-esteem and self-efficacy must be rebuilt and improved. In a study of twenty-two displaced managers and professionals, most of whom were over forty years old, Garrett-Peters (2009) used a combination of grounded theory and analytic induction to determine the methods used to rebuild damaged self-concept.
In the course of this research, Garrett-Peters (2009) observed several support group meetings for displaced workers and also conducted intensive interviews with the twenty-two participants focused on their experiences related to unemployment. In these interviews Garrett-Peters (2009) discovered major damage to self-concept resulting from unemployment. As one participant reported, “I think the one thing I would like to emphasize is how devastating the layoff was. I talk about having three pillars; family, job and religious faith. And, it was like all of a sudden one of those wasn’t there” (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 552).
Through this study, Garrett-Peters (2009) discovered five strategies to rebuilding a displaced worker’s self-concept after unemployment. Those five strategies were; “(1) redefining the meaning of unemployment, (2) realizing accomplishment, (3) restructuring time, (4) forming accountability partnerships, and (5) helping others” (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 549).
In the first step, redefining unemployment, support group members were encouraged to focus on potential new achievements rather than on the layoff itself. Three of the four support groups observed in this study were affiliated with churches. These groups stressed helping the group members to see the layoff as part of God’s plan for their life. “Seeing one’s suffering as part of God’s plan also made that suffering bearable by giving it meaning” (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 554).
In the second strategy, realizing accomplishment, group members were encouraged to celebrate daily accomplishments, job search related or not. In placing value on these daily accomplishments participants were reminded that they were still competent and “still capable of making things happen” (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 557). Group members were encouraged to set and attain daily goals, such as sending out a specific number of resumes or making a certain number of calls. Getting an interview, even when not successfully landing the position, was cause for realizing accomplishment.
In the third strategy, restructuring time, the displaced workers learned to stay busy in goal achieving activities. Staying busy enhanced efficacy and the conception that the displaced worker was still capable (Garrett-Peters 2009). Some participants reported having to learn better tine management even during the job search activities. As one participant reported, “I limit myself not, the time on one the computer. I just tell myself, ‘Okay. You’ve got thirty minutes to go in there and do what you’ve gotta do. Then get off.’ Because you can waste so much time” (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 563).
In the fourth strategy, forming accountability partnerships, group members were encouraged to become accountable to someone else. These partnerships patterned the motivational element of the workplace of having to meets the expectations of a supervisor. (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 566). Some group members found accountability in the support groups themselves while others formed partnerships with one or two group members and met additionally with their partners.
The fifth and final strategy defined by Garrett-Peters (2009) was helping others. In this strategy displaced workers were encouraged to look beyond themselves and assist others. The support groups provided members with opportunities to volunteer their particular areas of expertise to assist group members and others outside the group. The study found that “feelings of efficacy could thus be derived from offering something concrete to another group member. Such acts of help, consistent with a Christian ethic, also helped members of the church affiliated groups bolster their feeling of self-worth (Garrett-Peters, 2009, p. 568).
The Garrett-Peters (2009) study concluded that these five strategies are effective for the crucial step of rebuilding self-concept after a traumatic layoff. As other studies have shown, damage to self-confidence is a critical challenge to an older displaced worker becoming re-employed. The Garrett-Peters (2009) study offers some concrete strategies to overcoming that damage. Still, these studies leave room for additional research in this topic.
Archer, J., & Rhodes, V. (1993). The grief process and job loss: A cross-sectional study. British Journal of Psychology, 395-409.
Garrett-Peters, R. (2009). If I don’t Have to Work Anymore, Who Am I?: Job Loss and Collaborative Self-Concept Repair. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 547-583.
Joanne, S. M. (1995). Social Timing, Life Continuity, and Life Coherence: Implcationsl for Vocational Change. Social Work, 533-541.
Porcellato, L., Carmichael, F., Hulme, C., Ingham, B., & Prashar, A. (2010). Giving older workers a voice: constaints on the employment of older people in the North West of England. Wor, Employment and Society, 85-102.
Shafer, K., & Choppa, A. J. (1993). Vocational Rehabilitation of Older Displaced Workers. Journal of Rehabilitation, 35-39.
Luther Maddy, ChristianManager.com
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