Love the Job You're With

by Lindsy Van Gelder
Photograph: Illustration: The Heads of State

There are times in your life—the ninth month of pregnancy, the annual mam?mogram, April 14 at the post office—?when you just have to suck it up and calmly deal. So now please bring that attitude of Zen acceptance to one of the biggest ongoing challenges of 2010: the jobless recovery.

The long-term unemployed have their own tales to tell. But even people who still have jobs are struggling. They may be more than ready for the next challenge—?but with no chance of moving up or out, they need to hold on to the jobs they have without seeming bored. For women in their forties and early fifties, the positions they expected to have moved into by now may simply not be available. For those who were anticipating retirement, their current jobs have become islands of security while they wait for their 401(k)s to come back, the housing market to rally or their grown kids to find work. For all of them, the question is the same: Is there any way to learn to love a job you can’t leave?

Susan Kotrady-Mello, a 58-year-old divorced psychiatric nurse from Putney, Vermont, lost $20,000 in the crash of ’08, is still paying off her kids’ student loans and is giving financial help to a thirty-something daughter. Kotrady-Mello’s working conditions aren’t ideal: She says she earns “a third or a quarter of what a doctor makes,” puts in a full shift on most holidays and has patients who yell at her and call her names. But she can’t afford to retire. Neither can creative director Jay Young Gerard of Arlington, Virginia, who turned 65 a few months after her employer cut her job to three days a week. A single parent, she has a 25-year-old son who just graduated from college. Her savings were wiped out about five years ago, during a bout of unemployment. No paycheck is not an option.

Rebecca Sesnowich of Tinton Falls, New Jersey, actually did retire early, at 49, in a buyout from a technology company. Now 59, she rejoined the workforce, as a human resources administrator at a health club, after discovering that her retirement expenses, including the health insurance that covered her and her self-employed contractor husband, had skyrocketed. Although Sesnowich hopes to retire for good at 65, she’s spending her fifties making money (she also helps pay the college tuition of a niece and nephew) instead of lounging on a beach.

People who aren’t near retirement age are also finding that security is the new black. In a study of 20,000 workers earlier this year, more than half felt there was no clear path to advancement in their current jobs. Yet 44 percent have no plans to leave. Nicole Karaman, 44, who works for a New York City private equity firm, is in this spot. She has wanted to make a career change for a few years, but first came the recession, and then her husband was laid off. Her job pays well. “But it’s always been a case of golden handcuffs,” she says. “Sometimes I get the itch to do something else.”

Some of the happiest people in this sorry economic climate are hiring managers. “We haven’t had a lot of turnover,” says Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, a nonprofit in New York that feeds the hungry. When the organization does have an opening, “we’re seeing hundreds of applicants where we likely would have seen dozens before.”

For the stuck, the question becomes how to make peace with the zeitgeist. Karaman and two of her coworkers cope by keeping a gratitude journal that they pass around the office to help them “focus on what we do have,” she says. In her case, “just knowing that I was providing for my family was empowering.” For Kotrady-Mello, the silver lining is her coworkers, a group of women in the nursing unit who are, for the most part, in the same situation she is. They have an esprit de corps that extends beyond working hours. When one of the women turned 60 recently, the others threw her a party. “She’s Greek, and we all dressed up as Greek goddesses,” says Kotrady-Mello. “When she came up the street in her car, there we all were in the middle of the road, dancing.” If someone in the group has a hard day, she can expect a call at the end of her shift from one of the others.

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