“You’re Fired!” Great. Now What Do You Do?

by Vered DeLeeuw · 15 comments

How much of your identity is tied to your work? How much of it SHOULD be tied to your work?

I recently watched a movie, The Company Men, and was deeply touched. The movie follows the crumbling lives of three men who, having climbed the corporate ladder for years, “had it all” in terms of material possessions, until sudden downsizing in their company had proved that when everything you “own” is financed by debt, you don’t really own it.

As the main characters get stripped away from their “wealth,” facing the reality of giving up luxury and dealing with the difficulties – and humiliation – of trying to land new jobs, we are reminded of several important things (the following post does contain spoilers, so watch out if you’re still planning to see this movie):

If It’s Financed With Debt, It’s Not Yours

The movie opens showing us the lavish lifestyles that the three main characters have grown accustomed to – huge mansions in upscale suburbs, luxury cars, private golf club memberships, using the company’s private jet when going on vacations. We see this blatant consumerism, and we see how their entire identity is tied to their perceived wealth – perceived, because this wealth is financed by debt and evaporates as soon as they can’t make the payments.

Corporate America is Cold and Soulless

Maybe you happen to work in an amazing company, but it’s true for the vast majority of employees. As much as a company pretends to “care” about its employees, it does so only in the sense that happy, healthy employees perform better. Your company probably does not “care” about you (the bigger the company, the more this is so), and if the bottom line will demand it, someone higher up will get rid of you, fast.

Ageism Runs Rampant in Corporate America

One of the most depressing topics the movie tackles is how nearly impossible it is for older employees to compete. In past generations, age used to be an asset – experience and wisdom admired and sought. But today, technology and fast evolving trends mean that experience has less and less value, because everything keeps changing so fast. In some professions, such as medicine or the law, over-50 may mean more experience and better performance. But in a growing number of fields, if you’re over 50, you should watch your back carefully – Corporate America might soon grow tired of you.

Material Possessions Can Define People

And when they do, it can be dangerous – one of the characters in the movie, pushing 60 and unable to find a new job, chose to kill himself, stating that “his life is over” now that he doesn’t have a job anymore.

But If You Don’t Let Them Define You, You’re Better Off

Of course, even in bad times, even in recessions and depressions, the vast majority of people don’t end their lives. This can simply mean that the will to live trumps financial hardship, or it could mean that most of us are smart enough to realize that life isn’t all about work – that work is just one aspect of it.

In fact, losing your corporate job can create new and exciting opportunities. The two characters in the movie that dealt with the situation better, did it by focusing on things other than their corporate identity. One of them rediscovered his family, the other became an entrepreneur.

The movie is not an easy one to watch, especially because it was released so soon after the Great Recession and when unemployment rates are still so high. It certainly grates on some raw nerves, and my husband and I felt quite shaken as we were leaving the theater. But despite the many implied warnings the movie contains, it’s not all negative – there’s definitely a positive message of “It’s not the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand, that matters.”

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Jonathan says:

    I love your closing comments “It’s not the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand, that matters.” I think this really does hold true in every aspect of life, including financial management. I think it’s also what makes America stand out from other western countries, because no matter who you are in America, you really can make it big with hard work and vision.

  • Witty Artist says:

    You made me curious about the movie and I’ll definitely see it.
    On the other hand I want to say that having a career it’s important and rewarding, but when you get really absorbed by it (like you’ve said with the emails check 24/7) it’s the most stressful and stupid thing; because you no longer have a life, you become a machine.
    And one more thing to add: nowadays companies look for experienced staff only. But what if you’re a fresh grad, where on earth you’re supposed to get that experience if not by starting to work. No wonder there are so many unemployed young people.

  • Cool bean. Thanks for the recommendation, I just reserved Company Men from the library. 😉
    One thing I learn is this – anyone is replaceable. Unless you’re Steve Jobs, you are just a cog in the wheel. There are tons of hungry newly grads and other people looking for a job. I can’t wait to get out of Corporate America. It’s just not me.

  • UH2L says:

    With all these corporate layoffs, the remaining employees are squeezed so that companies can get as much out of them as possible. If those remaining employees don’t make work their life, they’ll get fired. Even if they do dedicate their lives to work, if the company doesn’t need them, they’ll get laid off anyway. I’m not about to fall for that trap. I do have a life and interests outside of work, but my career suffers. At least my sanity and relationships with my family and friends have not suffered. Starting my own business may be the way to go and I’m exploring such opportunities.

    The solution to our jobs issue is for companies to hire more workers. Instead, they use the recession as an excuse to get rid of more people. It seems that companies forget that unemployed people make bad customers. Corporations hoarding cash isn’t helping us come out of this recession. The corner may be turning, but there is still a long way to go.

    Of course I’m generalizing here and there are exceptions but apparently they are few.

  • Hunter says:

    I’ll have to check this movie out.

    I can honestly relate to this post. As a former corporate finance professional I took the road less travelled and became a stay at home Dad and have been living all over the world following my Wife’s Navy career.

    It has not always been easy. Men do identify themselves with their occupation. Losing economic power is significant too. It impacts friendships and people look at you as if you are some kind of new age trendsetter or freak. I don’t consider myself that way, but perceptions are real, as they say.

    If you don’t like your situation you can always change it. Nothing stays the same for very long, unless you let it. Make exciting plans for your life and move on.

  • Amy Saves says:

    I lost my job 2 years ago due to the bad economy. It was a blessing in disguise. Now, I work for a great company that does actually care about our well-being.

  • Patricia says:

    I truly felt OLD after my job interview yesterday and the 30 something got the position – My letters of recommendation are OLD too and most of the interview questions were about how was I keeping current….I scored well there with all my reading and intentions.

    This movie is about Corporate work, but the non-profit sector of work may not make one tons of money, but it certain is in trouble because of folks debt and people who work there becoming totally identified with the work 24/7

    Nice article Thank you for sharing

  • vered says:

    That’s why I willingly risk being labeled as an out-of-touch dinosaur and refuse to own a smart phone. I just know that if I get one, I’ll be checking my email (and working.) constantly. As long as I don’t have Internet access when I’m out of the house (I work from home), I’m safe from the constantly-checking-your-email-syndrome.

    • MoneyNing says:

      That’s the reason why I don’t setup my email account on my phone since it doesn’t help me at all.

      I do check my sites too regularly though but most of the time, it’s because I’m bored or waiting in line somewhere.

      • KM says:

        Same here. I see no need to set up my work email on my phone. I have my personal account, but I don’t get that much email and it’s actually nice to get a “heads up” on something before I get to my computer. I also resisted a smartphone for the same reasons, but it’s actually been awesome having internet everywhere I go (from checking for coupons when I decide to go somewhere in the spur of a moment to reading websites when I am on the tram and have nothing to do because I am standing and can’t pull out my homework to being able to email someone before I forget). I guess if you have some self-control and don’t waste time surfing, it’s not really a problem.

  • marci says:

    Can’t say I’ve ever felt “defined” by my career… except when I was a dairy farmer…. now that IS 24/7 🙂

    Sorry to know that people can actually feel that way.

  • MoneyNing says:

    I always feel like most people can never actually “leave” work, with all the blackberries and smart phones these days where we are almost expected to check our emails 24/7.

    All this adds fuel to the fire of us feeling that we are defined by our career, because that’s actually one of the only things we do. If we don’t want to be defined by our work, then we shouldn’t be spending 100 hours on our work full time and another 68 hours doing it part time every week.

  • JuicyG says:

    You’re right. Most people are defined by the work they do and would find it close to impossible to detach, to try and define themselves outside the workplace.
    Reason why most become workaholic empty shells and/or get depressed is because they can’t relate to anything else besides work.

    Once you act as a tool your whole life and then you are removed, a purpose to keep going might be hard to find.

  • Rob G says:

    Vered: you raise some interesting points taken from this movie about how much of a person’s identity is the work one does. If you think about it, most of us spend more time at work than with family, or simply doing leisurely things. The problem is exacerbated by social media and social networking, especially for those who are part of the image of a company. The other side of the coin is that who you are to the public can also be used as a leverage for career progression.

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