Being Downsized

Last week, a young friend got the ax. She was one of 8,000 people downsized by a large investment bank with reported losses of $10 billion in the first quarter. If that figure boggles the mind, it’s only because few of us can conceive of it in any real terms. How many tall skinny lattes would $10B buy? How much human misery does downsizing cause?

It didn’t matter that she had been at this firm for 10 years and had been assured when the last round of layoffs occurred that she ‘had nothing to worry about.’ She is single and turns 40 next March, so time is certainly on her side. Also, she has credentials in another , completely different field that could soften the loss of income. But that will take time to develop, just as it will take time to recover from the blow.

At first, she was more upset about the way it happened than that it happened. If you’ve been downsized, you recognize the circumstances. You are called in, given the news, and never return to your desk. Your things are mailed to you. If you are lucky, you will get assigned to an outplacement firm which helps you sort out COBRA, severance (if any) and so on. Sometimes, you get some career counseling. But it’s all pretty cut and dried. For the pain of separation, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

In some ways, the abrupt nature of downsizing is like retirement, even when it is voluntary. Endings are wrenching, especially if you’ve been with an organization for any length of time. You grow accustomed to health care coverage, colleagues and familiar faces, work you know how to do, perhaps even enjoyed, a sense that you are needed. Suddenly, THEY don’t want you any more. How do you not take it personally?

These days, people change jobs frequently and downsizing is so much a fact of corporate life, that your resume will not be blighted by this event. And, as we all know, retirement is not irrevocable. But even the most self-confident among us needs some time to process the separation, to let the shock subside, and even to grieve, if that feels right. If there’s no financial pressure to find another position, it could be an ideal time for a sabbatical.

Unless you are in academia, chances are an opportunity to take a break won’t come around again. Why not take advantage of the breathing room, the time to think and reflect? Perhaps you will find yourself asking Big Questions, like: What am I here for? What can I do to improve my community, society, the world? What kind of impact am I making in the larger sense? And if money were no object, what kind of work would I be doing? Such a shift in perspective could be just what you needed, and never had time for.