What’s the greatest fear of your average middle age guy?
Is it getting into a traffic accident and becoming paralyzed for life from your neck down? Is it losing your wife and all your children in a house fire? Or is it aggressive cancer unexpectedly striking you down?
It’s all of them. Over the past several years I’ve talked to middle age men about their greatest fears to research for my book. They mentioned each of these frightening scenarios. But one fear ranks right up there during this time of life. I call it the “boogieman” of middle age.
It’s the fear of layoffs and downsizing, the fear that demand for your business will suddenly dry up during what should be the peak earning years of your life.
In our generation, we’ve seen a cultural tsunami of more women in the workplace and new attitudes about that. But the fact remains that guys still cling to the gender role of being the “provider,” and their work often defines who they are and how they feel about themselves.
In his 2010 Psychology Today article Our Male identity Crisis. What Will Happen to Men?—Ray B. Williams noted that for the first time in the history of our country, women make up more than 50 percent of the nation’s workforce.
“In 1967, by comparison, women account for just 30 percent of all workers,” Williams wrote. “The recession has hit men hard: 80 percent of the jobs lost during the current recession have been held by men.”
Phil, an occupational therapist, has seen the impact. He remembers depressing scenes in the early 1990s after the Smith Corona manufacturing plant closed in Cortland, N.Y. As part of his job working with handicapped children, he visited their rural homes.
“I saw guys sitting in front of the TV during the middle of the day, unable to find work,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, he can go back to school and get a new career.’ Easier said than done when you’re in your 50s and used to a high-paying salary with benefits. It was horrible.”
We’ve seen it happen to family members, friends or acquaintances. There are numerous tales of depression, alcoholism, and suicide – all the aftermath of guys losing their jobs.
You can paralyze yourself by worrying, but that gets you nowhere. In today’s economy middle age men should think about Plan Bs and Cs should their current jobs end.
Our parents’ generation had this “job for life” thing going. Both my father and father-in-law put in a solid 40-plus years with the same companies. They were rewarded for the years they worked.
My father retired with appreciable benefits (pension and full health coverage) from the phone company at age 57. My father-in-law cashed in at age 58 from IBM with the same deal.
Those days are gone. Middle age is not a time to coast at work. It’s time to gear up and make needed changes.
Several years ago, author and social researcher Gail Sheehy wrote that the most at risk (for a pink slip) guy is the one sitting at his desk with a musical instrument with one string. He’s the one who keeps plucking, making the same sound and expecting to retire with full benefits.
Mike, who specialized in accounts and billing, told me recently he swallowed his pride and stayed positive to avoid seven waves of layoffs at his company. “I just adopted the attitude that if they asked me to clean the toilets and continued to pay me the same salary, I’d do it – or whatever else they asked.”
Bill, a counselor who I interviewed for my book, inspired me with his answer to my “greatest fear” question.
Bill said he was unhappy with his job at age 55 and dreaded the idea of continuing with it until he retired. His greatest fear, he said, was that a better opportunity would come along, but that he would “lack the guts” to make the change in his career path.
Bill worried that he would be miserable in retirement, “always looking back and wishing [he] had taken the risk.”
After turning 50, I found myself resenting work, feeling like every day was a scene out of Bill Murray’s, “Groundhog’s Day.” I needed a change.
Bolstered by Bill’s story and Sheehy’s writings, I took a risk. After some 23 years of working as a city desk reporter and editor, I landed a job as the newspaper’s outdoors editor for the sports department.
Today, I can honestly say I love my job. I busted my butt and gave the beat new focus and life. In the past few years, I’ve also become active in the state outdoors writers association, freelanced and continued to work on my book about middle age guys.
Bottom line: Nothing’s guaranteed. You never know when the boogieman will appear. The best defense against him is a strong offense.
That is unless you want to chance sitting back, plucking that one-string instrument. It’s up to you.
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