Fired at 50

How do you start over so close to retirement?

By Lynn Sherr
Photograph: Yuko Shimizu

The euphemisms are pure corporatespeak: Reorganized. Downsized. Excessed. Made redundant. But the reality is just another F-word: fired! And if it happens when you’re in your forties or fifties, it can slam you into despair.
“I wanted to vomit.”
“It felt like a divorce. Or death.”
“I thought, what do you mean you don’t want me?”
Those are the voices of women who were abruptly stopped in their tracks—dumped from their executive offices or comfortable cubicles just as the careers they’d built over a lifetime were cresting. It wasn’t fair, they say. Never mind that life, famously, isn’t, or that those women represent mere data points among the 10 percent of Americans officially unemployed as of December 2009. For these once successful women, getting fired utterly upended their lives.
“I was still growing,” recalls Anne Friend, 55, a vice president and project manager in Washington Mu-tual’s credit card division in Pleasanton, California.    “My boss was getting ready to move on, and it was looking like they might move me to her level.” But then WaMu was bought by JP Morgan Chase, her division was closed, and Friend was out on the street.
Denise Durham Williams, who spent 30 years in banking before a major firm eliminated her position as global director of diversity when she turned 50, says her career went exactly as she’d planned. “Every-thing I set out to do, I got to do,” she says. “I was promoted to vice president very young—27—so I guess I was on the right path.” Williams, one of the few African-American women to crack the banking trade, put in 14-hour days even when her daughter was young. For her, the job was full of meaning: “I was really getting to a point where I could make a difference in terms of diversity at my firm.”
Instead, she and the other women in her situation faced a more immediate and personal crisis. While none had to worry about rent money at first—thanks to sufficient savings and, in some cases, working spouses—the financial hits were enormous. Williams and her husband, who owns a sales and marketing company for men’s clothing, proudly put their daughter through private school in New York City and her first year at Smith College, “paying cash.” Now, as a result of Wall Street’s plunge and her reduced income, Williams says, the college funds are “pretty much wiped out. My net worth is virtually nil. I had to sell a lot of stock to keep going.” Patrice Moore, who lost her six-figure job at British Telecommunications in Virginia when she was 46, got $30,000 in severance—“a nice chunk of change,” as she puts it. But with no additional money coming in, she made a decision about her upcoming destination wedding in Hawaii. She and her fiancé, a man she’d met on the job, didn’t cancel the big party; they did, however, secretly marry ahead of time, in nearby Arlington, Virginia, so she could get his health benefits. Then they flew off and got hitched again for their friends. Other women have cut back on clothing (“Why buy suits when you’re not working in an office?”) and fancy vacations (“We spend our holidays closer to home, with family, where we can get free meals”). One couple gave up Starbucks and the housekeeper. All of them have reconfigured their retirement plans. “I thought I’d stop at 70,” one woman says. “Now I figure I’ll work until five years after I’m dead.”
Who am I now?

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