Christina Patterson: How to survive losing your job in mid-life

Nothing prepares you for the day it happens to you. Photo / Getty
Nothing prepares you for the day it happens to you. Photo / Getty

First, there was a meeting with a young blonde from HR. There would, said the blonde, be a "consultation". The process would be "transparent" and "fair".

I looked at her, and at her red nails that looked like talons, and knew from the feeling in my stomach that it  wouldn't.

What followed over the next few weeks didn't feel "transparent".

What followed felt more like Kafka's novel The Trial, where the central character is put on trial, but never told what crime he is meant to have  committed.

And then, one day, I was called into a meeting. There was, I was told, "no appetite" for my work.

I have had breast cancer twice. I was, in fact, still being treated when I was forced out of my job. I can honestly say losing my job felt worse.

I will never forget the moment I first found a lump in my breast. Cancer grips you with a horrible, pulsing, primal fear, and the fear of the treatment is almost as strong as the  fear that you will die.

But when you get cancer, it isn't because someone has decided you aren't good enough. Cancer doesn't fill you with shame.

I'm 52 now. It's been three years since I was "made redundant" from my job as a writer and columnist on a national newspaper.

Nothing prepares you for the day it happens to you. I never set out to be a "career girl". My father was a civil servant, my mother was a teacher and I was brought up to believe it was important to contribute to society, work and pay tax. This is what I have always tried to do.

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I started off in book publishing, then worked in the arts and then moved into journalism aged 39.

When I became a journalist, I felt I had found my vocation. I worked extremely hard - often till late at night and through the weekend - but I felt lucky to earn a living by doing the thing that I loved.

I never meant to make this the focus of my life. I wanted to get married and have a family, but I didn't meet the right man at the right time, and then I got breast cancer, and then it was too late.

When I got cancer for the second time, at the age of 46, I was terrified I would die alone.

After my mastectomy and reconstruction, I stayed with my mother for two weeks, but went through the rest of my convalescence on my own.

I felt like damaged goods. I felt like a failure as a woman.

But at least I had my career. Thank God I had my career.

And then one day, when I had just turned 49, a new young editor on my newspaper decided he didn't like my work, and that was the end of that.

Everyone who loses a job will have her own story. Sometimes the process is fair - or reasonably fair - and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, you're just fired on a whim. Your face doesn't fit any more, and you're out.

It's almost better when they forget about "due process" and just tell the  truth.

When, for example, they say, as one senior manager told a friend of mine, that you'll have to reapply for your own job, but won't get it because the CEO likes "youth and energy". My friend was 47 and it turned out her manager was right.

It would be nice to think cases like this are rare, but statistics show an awful lot of women in their 40s and 50s are losing their jobs.

Between 2010 and 2014, the number of women over 50 who were unemployed went up by almost half. The rise in unemployment overall was 1 per cent.

Cuts in public spending have certainly played a part. There are almost twice as many women as men in the public sector. Three in four members of staff in local government are women.

And twice as many women as men in local government have lost their jobs since 2010.
There have been new jobs created, too, but these are not going to older women.

Many employers feel uncomfortable taking on employees who are older than them, and they seem to feel particularly uncomfortable with older women. Younger workers are cheaper and easier to boss  around.

If you've lost your job as a woman in your 50s, the statistics show it won't be at all easy to find  another.

No wonder many women who are made redundant in mid life develop serious depression.

No wonder that quite a few even say they have been  suicidal. I never felt suicidal - it would be a bit crazy to get through cancer twice and then go and top yourself - but after I lost my job I lost 3.6 kilograms in four days and  didn't stop shaking for two weeks.

At social occasions, I could see people trying to avoid me. When people stopped me to tell  me how much they "used to love" my column, it made me feel as though I was already dead.

And even the best moments often had a sting. I was thrilled to be shortlisted for a big political journalism prize, but a lot less thrilled to have to tell the organisers to change my CV because I no longer had a job.

In one sense, I was lucky. I got a redundancy payment, so I knew I wasn't about to starve. But I also knew my chances of getting another job on a national newspaper were about the same as those  of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. The media is even more obsessed than the rest of the world with youth.

So I decided to do something different. I decided to try to launch my own "portfolio career", doing a bit of this and a bit of that.

Although writing is my passion, I also decided to diversify into consultancy and research. I'd had some bad experiences in the UK's NHS and wanted to do some work in the healthcare field to try to make things better.

At first, it was really hard. I spent all day every day firing off emails to people I'd never met (from directors of charities to academics).

I was brought up to believe it was bad manners to try to "sell" yourself and whenever I pressed "send: I could feel my cheeks burn.

Some people replied. Some people didn't. Some people agreed to meet me for coffee. Most were polite. Some were kind, but what soon became clear was this: I would have to pitch for every single, tiny, and often poorly paid, scrap of work.

Then one email struck gold, or something like it. It has led to my biggest strand of fairly regular work. Other emails seemed to lead nowhere, but months later led to chunks of work.

Nobody ever tells you how to start a freelance life from scratch. Nobody tells you about the effort it takes. But nobody also tells you about the lovely surprises if you put the effort in.

Once I'd got my contacts established, the work started coming to me.

And soon people outside my job started asking me to help them with their communications. This has taken me into whole new, and often quite exciting, worlds. I like being my own boss. I like having relationships with lots of different people in lots of different organisations.

I like the fact I never have to do anything I don't want to do. I can't say I don't miss having a regular salary, but freedom, it turns out, is worth a lot.

Not everybody can go freelance. Freelancers generally earn less than people in employment and many people become self-employed because they can't get a job.

I'm not someone who thinks everything always turns out for the best. If someone offered me a job like the one I had before, I can't promise I wouldn't snap it up.

But I do know this. Three years ago, I lost my job, my status, my income and a key part of my  identity.

It has taken a lot of time and effort, but I feel I am building at least some of these things back up.

Perhaps it's coincidence, but I have also met a lovely man. It's early days and I don't want to jinx it, but work seems a whole lot less important when I'm lying in his arms.

I'm currently researching a book about resilience, called The Art of Not Falling Apart. I'm drawing on my own experience and that of people I've met to explore what gets us through when life - illness, broken relationships, bereavement, financial worries or loss - trips us up.

There are no easy answers, of course, but here are some of my top tips for what to do if you, like me, are part of the growing number of forty- and fiftysomethings who find themselves unemployed:

• Never leave home without lippie.
• You probably aren't planning to make the cover of Vogue, but it's still worth making a bit of an effort. Get up, have a shower, maybe even go for a trot round the park and then put on proper clothes and make-up.
• You have a new full-time job as a one-woman employment agency with just one client and you need to get her the very best deal. You will not do this - even on the phone - if you are wearing a leopard print onesie.
• Always network like crazy.
• You don't have to join the mafia, but people often give work to people they know.
• Email everyone you can think of.
• Ask to meet them for coffee. Most people will, at least, give you some advice.
• You can't burst into tears with people you've just met (though, to be honest, I sometimes did) and having to make a social effort will make you feel less like a leper.
• Don't ever be too grand: When a school secretary tried to tell me how to write a press release, I was very tempted to tell her I had interviewed Nobel Prizewinners and a Prime Minister. I managed not to, and took the cheque.
• If you know how to do it, and it's legal, and it will tide you over, do it. You don't have to do it for the rest of your life and you will not be able to pay the mortgage with your pride.

Sharpen up on new technology

As a staff journalist, I was semi-forced to join Twitter. At one point, we had Twitter league tables, and I felt I was being judged on something I actually felt guilty for doing at work. This is the new world. You don't have to become a vlogger like Zoella, with your own online videos, but unless you are going to breed yaks in the Outer Hebrides, you are going to need to have some idea how social media works.

Have a laugh

Yes, I know how you feel. You have lost your livelihood, your pride, your dignity and your reason to get up. And the bastards won! The bastards actually won.

Trust me, I know that you don't want anyone to tell you to "cheer up, love". But there are always reasons to laugh. See the friends who make you laugh. See a funny film. Read a funny book.

If laughter isn't quite the best medicine, it's sometimes almost as good as a nice glass of Chablis.

Keep your eyes open

Of course, you should keep your eyes open for work opportunities, which might pop up anywhere, any time. But you should also keep your eyes open because the planet is still spinning on its axis, even if you sometimes feel that you have been hurled to some outer ring.

And what you will see, if you keep your eyes open, is a big, bright and often beautiful, world.

Seize the day

In the three years since I lost my job, I have sometimes been fed up, but I have never, ever been bored. And I can honestly say that my life has, in so many ways, been more interesting, and more varied, than it was before.

I have also just joined the board of a big charity that handles government contracts to help people at a disadvantage, or with a disability, into employment. I'm looking forward to taking on more trustee and non-exec roles and fitting these around my other work.

Many of us will lose our jobs at some stage in our lives. In many of these cases, it won't be fair. Who ever said life was fair?

You can sit around weeping. You probably will, to be honest, do a fair bit of sitting around weeping. But I agree with the late, great writer, Nora Ephron: "Be the heroine of your life, not the victim."

If it does happen to you, do your crying, then get up, get going, and start fighting back.

* Christina Patterson is a freelance writer, broadcaster and communications consultant.

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