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Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

Out of Work...at My Age

Simple techniques for managing age-related unemployment stress.

A few months ago, I posted an article ("Maybe If I Was Younger") highlighting how some of the ways we identify with our ages can make unemployment harder on us.

But there's good news, too: sometimes we can think about age in ways that make unemployment easier. Here are some techniques that may be of (temporary) help as you navigate unemployment:

1) Compare Yourself to Others…in Positive Age-Related Ways

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re unemployed. It’s especially hard when you compare yourself to others, like other people your age who have jobs or are financially better off.

However, when I listened to people who had lost their jobs, some of them talked about their ages in ways that helped them feel better. One of these people was 30-year-old Amber , who had lost her job at a newspaper.

She had been depressed about having to move into her parent’s basement, and at first compared herself to others her age, noting that she “should be” self-sufficient by now.

But as Amber thought a little more about her situation, she realized that she WAS essentially like others her age. She told me that after talking with her father, she understood that it was almost normal for young adults to live with their parents at some point these days.

In Amber’s words: “My dad told me, “Of all the friends I have, four out of five of them have a kid your age who had to move back in. ”…So that kinda makes me feel a little better.”

Making comparisons to other people that remind you of the ways you’re like others who are struggling with the same problem can give you a sense of unity; that way, you don’t feel so alone and you’ll go a little easier on yourself for things that may be out of your control.

2) Emphasize Other Age-Related Identities

You’ll often get the message from society that there are certain things that you’re supposed to do at certain ages. Sometimes this can be hard. For example, when 60-year-old Louie was laid off from his engineering job, he could have thought about how most people his age would be preparing for retirement.

Fortunately, he was able to identify with other roles that many people in their sixties have. For Louie, being a grandfather was one of the most important identities he had, and he said he “couldn’t be happier” when he focused on that. He also treated me to a delightful story about the morning he woke up to get doughnuts with his granddaughter, and how that reminded him that his granddaughter didn’t care whether or not he had a job – to her, he was just “Grandpa.”

Louie also identified with the wisdom and perspective older adults have, and told me that this made being unemployed at his age easier. In Louie’s words “Unemployment used to be something major, but I’m a lot older. I know too many people that are dead and gone to worry about unemployment.

These techniques won’t help the financial part of being out of work; only money can do that. But the hurt many people face after losing a job often involves identity, and money can’t usually solve identity problems. Finding new ways to think about age-related identities is one way to improve mental health as you move forward toward your next step.

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