Fifty-Plus helps men grapple with their feelings about new jobless status


June 19, 1991|By Jean Marbella

As an efficiency expert, Tom Johnson understands how companies have to get leaner and meaner during a recession. But that knowledge didn't help much when he himself ended up on the sharp end of the layoff ax.

"They did what had to be done. Unfortunately, I was one of the people they done it to," said Mr. Johnson, 49, who was laid off by USF&G in January as part of the Baltimore-based insurance company's massive downsizing.

Five months and 70 mailed-out resumes later, Mr. Johnson is among a growing group of middle-aged men who are out of work for perhaps the first time in their lives. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that 166,000 men between the ages of 45 and 64 were laid off last month, 49,000 more than at the same time last year.

Too young to retire, too old to completely start over, they are out of work at a point in which they expected to be at the crest of their careers. And the impact goes beyond economics: They've lost not just their jobs, but also, at least temporarily, their role as the family breadwinner and their self-image as valued company men.

"It's devastating," said Sam Fountain, 59, a Reston, Va., resident who lost his job in November after a managerial change at the trade association where he worked. "Our culture has developed on what you could call the Puritan work ethic. If you're not working, you're emasculated. What else can you do?"

Until this recession, middle-aged men, as a group, have faced little of the economic difficulties of the generations that came before or after them, said Neil Howe, co-author of the recent book, "Generations: The History of America's Future 1584-2069," which characterizes various age groups by their shared experiences.

"This is a generation unaccustomed to such adversity," he said. "The story of their generation, economically, is similar to riding on an escalator going upward. It's one of constant upward mobility . . . of their salaries going up year after year."

Mr. Howe says this group of workers, currently about 49 to 66 years old, had neither the Depression of their parents' generation nor the job competition of their baby boomer children.

"I've been unemployed before in my life, but I've always found a job," said Mr. Johnson, who worked at USF&G for seven years, streamlining their computer operations. "But that was also before children. Now we have a house and children.

"We did have some savings, and I am collecting unemployment. We're going to make it," he said. "It's not like we're going to have to sell the house. But we've cut back on going out. My wife and I both ask ourselves, 'Do we really need this?' before buying something."

In the meantime, he's picked up a greater load of the household chores while his wife, a schoolteacher, is at work.

L He says his 12- and 9-year-old kids have been understanding.

"Their allowances are in arrears," Mr. Johnson explained wryly.

Mr. Johnson was among about 50 people who attended an organizational meeting Monday evening of a new group, Fifty-Plus, that has formed to help unemployed professionals get back into the work force. The meeting, held in the basement of St. Mary's Church on York Road in Baltimore, drew 50 people, almost all men.

The group was created by John Brain, 60, a former public relations director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who teaches part-time at Towson State University and does free-lance consulting jobs.

Mr. Brain believes the solution for some unemployed middle-agers may not be finding the standard, full-time job at a company but rather becoming self-employed.

"I don't think there's much work out there in this market," Mr. Brain said. "We may need to strike out in new directions, looking for work on a contractual basis or starting new businesses on our own. There is a great amount of talent here that is going to waste."

In addition to job networking, Mr. Brain hopes the group also will serve an advocacy role, fighting the age discrimination that exists in the work place. It is something many of those attending the meeting have seen in practice.

"The advertising industry is notoriously young. They want guys in their 30s," said Don Ripke, who is in his 50s and does free-lance advertising work out of his Towson home.

"Where there are openings, they'll look for a younger fellow," said Les Lear, 62, who does marketing in the broadcast equipment field. "Everyone is more comfortable around their own. There's a generational conflict. We look at the world quite a bit differently; we have different values, different expectations. There is a greater gulf between the younger generation and my generation than between my generation and my parent's generation. I don't think there's a feeling of kinship."

Some believe, however, that age itself is not the hang-up.

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