What I learned about midlife redundancy – and five ways to survive it

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Eleanor Mills - Heathcliff O'Malley
Eleanor Mills - Heathcliff O'Malley

Earlier this year I wrote about the agony of being made redundant. That terrible moment when you walk into an office and realise it is THAT meeting – the tissues are on the table, the head of HR is wearing a sympathetic face, there’s a heaviness in the air that wards off small-talk. Yes, you are being whacked. The article generated a huge amount of response, partly because the over-50s have been hit hard by the pandemic, with unemployment up 50 per cent among this cohort.

But now with jobs opening up all over the economy and a shortage of skills, Rishi Sunak is our new best friend; the Chancellor has outlined a £500m scheme to help get furloughed workers and the over-50s back into harness. He is evidently keen that we do not become the “left behinds”.

But what does it take to get yourself back on the horse when you’ve had a painful rejection? What are the phases of recovery after redundancy? Below I share some of the shiny white pebbles which provided my own path out of the deep, dark forest of despair. I’ve walked in your shoes, I know how you feel and I send you a big virtual hug and a new certainty to hang on to: it will get better. I promise.

1. Acknowledge the grief

This might sound obvious but in the aftermath of a huge blow to one’s identity and status, it is OK to feel sad, lost and lonely. Losing the job you have had for a long time (in my case 23 years) is massive: it’s like a bereavement. OK, no one actually died. But in some ways something did – you in that old role. And like a death, there is no going back. There is a before and an after.

So, be compassionate to yourself. Don’t reckon you’ll dust yourself off and it will all be instantly fine. It won’t. Cry a lot. Binge watch Neflix. Wallow in what has gone. Mourn it. Accept that change is difficult and being in the pain that you feel is a really important part of the process. As Lisa Unwin, who specialises in getting midlifers back into corporate jobs through her company Inclusivity, says: “You’ve gone through a loss, you can’t move on until you accept that and feel it. I work with so many people who are in denial about that and it comes back to bite them. Go through this stage. Feel it. Please.”

This a time to lean hard on your best friends, your partner, your children. My teenage girls got really used to coming down to breakfast and finding me weeping. They’d give me a hug, make me coffee or pancakes and tell me to have a bath and be kind to myself. They were right. When you let people know you are hurting and vulnerable and reach out for help, the world is kind. Let yourself be loved and consoled.

2. Rediscover your confidence

I’m afraid this is the hard bit. Just when you are feeling most rubbish about yourself, flat on the floor, kicked in the guts, you have to pick yourself up and start selling yourself. It is cruel and counter-intuitive, but it is the only way forward; you need to earn a crust, the mortgage must be paid. So go back to basics. What are you good at? If the only answer in your head is “nothing”, ask a best friend or former colleague for their view.

Sometimes it is hard to see ourselves objectively. Think about the good bits in your career and what established you in the first place. Remember what makes you happy, or the dreams you had when you were younger. This is a time to fulfil them. I had always wanted to write a novel: I wrote a first draft in lockdown.

Practically, get yourself on LinkedIn with an updated profile and CV – that’s where the opportunities are these days – and start thinking about being creative in your job search. What would you like to do? Who do you know in that field? Send them an email, go for a coffee: you are five times as likely to get a new job through someone you know than by applying blind. I know it’s hard and you don’t feel like it, but it gets easier. Dig your fingernails into your hands as you make the call if you have to (I did).

3. Look after your physical self – push your boundaries

One of the great revelations to me about no longer being in hectic corporate harness was having time for a bit of self-care. In fact, I joke now that I do so much self-care I don’t have time to do anything else.

At my lowest ebb, I started listening to Eckhert Tolle’s The Power of Now and meditating. Now I meditate for half an hour every morning; having a still place to return to, a new place where everything is peaceful and OK, has been a lifesaver. I recommend it. If meditation isn’t for you maybe try yoga, or play football, or go for a run, or a swim. I’ve started swimming every day in a local lake. I love the community, the chats I have with other swimmers there. It gives me a focus and makes me feel better.

It doesn’t matter what your new physical thing is – just get off the sofa and move. It will improve your mood.

4. Find a new tribe

This is really important. One of the most painful things about leaving a place you have worked at for a long time is that sense of being ousted from a tribe. The best cure for that is to find a new one.

Frances Edmonds, in her excellent book Repotting Your Life, talks about how she went back to study at Stanford at 60 and the joy of finding a whole posse of people who shared her new perspective and purpose. Think of the redundancy like a pruning, a chopping back of the dead wood in your life, and the new things you do now as creating a lovely roomy new pot, with new soil, lots of fertilising compost and room to grow, put down roots and flourish again.

New people are part of that; it is exciting and energising to make new friends in midlfe – it feels like being back at university. We run these kinds of retreats at Noon (the platform I started after leaving my job to help others in midlife find their next chapter) but there are plenty of others available. Going back to study is always a great way of finding your new people and now Rishi Sunak is providing reskilling grants for midlifers to help funding it easier.

5. Just go for it

The next job or next project doesn’t have to be forever and it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always get another one afterwards. This is Lisa Unwin’s key piece of advice for oldies returning to the job market: “Forget perfection, just hold your nose and jump in.” She helps people onto “returnships”, the schemes being run by many professional firms to get back the (often female) talent they lost to raising families. “Often they suggest a six-month trial contract to begin with but after three or four months my women are being offered permanent jobs.”

She is right that confidence comes back by doing. You could join a not for profit board, or volunteer in your local neighbourhood – just get out of the house and get out there.

Personally, I started my own business; a rollercoaster but an exhilarating new challenge at 50. I’ve found unexpected pleasure in being able to make my own technology work, or pitching and winning new business. Truly hand on heart now, if I was offered my old job back I wouldn’t take it. I love paddling my own canoe. Freedom has no sponsor, sure – but my is it heady.

Good luck!

Eleanor Mills is the founder and editor-in-chief of Noon, a new platform for midlife. She will be speaking at the Telegraph’s Women Mean Business virtual conference on Wednesday, Oct 20 alongside guests including Anya Hindmarch, Julia Gillard and Kate Bingham.

For more details and to buy tickets click here

Have you been made redundant in midlife? Share your experience in the comments section below

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