Video: Turning mid-life crisis into opportunity

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NBC 'Nightly News' contributor
updated 11/10/2010 7:42:22 PM ET 2010-11-11T00:42:22

The help wanted ad said an exciting opportunity awaited me!

I was in no position to argue.

In June 1990, the high temperature in Tempe, Arizona averaged about 110 degrees. I had just graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and was living in an un-air conditioned guest house infested with brown recluse spiders.  I sold my cassette tapes to a used record store to make ends meet.

Calling about the job, the man on the phone directed me to an address in a sad office park nearby. And so it was that I ended up interviewing with a start-up company selling a product called Toyola-Tab. From what I can recall, Toyola-Tab was a small plastic device designed to lift the seat of toilet bowls in public restrooms. The idea was, you wouldn’t have to touch a potentially dirty toilet to do your business. The manager told me, should I qualify, I could be one of the first to sell this new invention!

I don’t know if Toyola-Tab ever got off the ground. I never heard from the man again. I guess I wasn’t Toyola-Tab material. The whole experience was incredibly depressing. Shuffling out of the interview, into the heat, I prayed I had enough gas in my ‘72 VW Beetle to get home to...to do what? I had no job and no prospects. With a college degree in journalism, what was I going to do when my only interview was with the Toyola-Tab man?

Fortunately, the production manager at KPHO-TV in Phoenix ended up giving me a chance. He hired me as a part-time camera operator. and I was able to upgrade to a rundown house shared with three roommates.

Related: Living Better with Less

Needless to say, NOT having money is no fun. Living simply is not all it’s cracked up to be…as millions of Americans struggling to find jobs well know. It is easy to be part of a trendy anti-consumerism movement when you’re middle class, employed, and doing it by choice. It’s another thing when you’re selling your stuff so your kid has new clothes for school.

I was lucky in my job search. My advantage was youth. It’s easy to rebound at age 22—not so much in middle age or older.

When talent and experience aren't enough
Carl Van Horn  is the Director of the  Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and studies older workers for a living. I met with him recently and his message was dire. “More and more workers have lost their jobs just due to restructuring but also due to the worst recession that we’ve had in our generation. If you’re an older worker and are unfortunate enough to lose your job, it’s more difficult for them to get back into the labor force.”

Van Horn  classifies the older worker is anyone over age 55.

It seemed to me an employer would welcome an older worker—after all, they have more experience than someone just out of school. Van Horn told me there are other factors involved. “They might find a younger worker who they can pay less money, who is less likely to have health care problems and stay with them longer. The facts are that the older workers are having a greater difficulty getting re-employed than younger workers in this economy.”

It isn’t all bad news, though. Van Horn adds that some industries are reaching out to older workers because of their excellent work habits, efficiency, and willingness to take part-time positions.

That’s exactly what happened to the talented people we profile in tonight’s Back to Basics series.

This evening, correspondent Mike Taibbi and I introduce you to two older workers who have had to re-invent themselves after getting laid off.

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Michael Gates Gill, 70, now works part-time at Starbucks. He was part of an elite group working at a famous advertising agency when he got his pink slip. He’s been in the news a lot over the past few years because of the extreme adjustments he made in his financial situation. But more importantly, he’s well-known for discovering the joys of simplicity. Gill wrote two books. The first, “How Starbucks Saved My Life,” describes his emotional struggle after getting fired. It also details what he GAINED by working at what he used to consider a menial job. His latest book, “How To Save Your Own Life,” highlights the beauty of living on less, and the benefits of having more free time. Both books were very inspirational.

Related: Clothes Call--Confronting the Fashion Fix

sy Breckenridge had a different situation. A former television reporter and public relations expert, she continued searching for similar high-profile jobs without any luck. She lives in a large house and loves antiques… many left to her by her mother. Always interested in heirlooms, Betsy has been able to parlay that knowledge into a position working with estate sale organizers. She says she’s seen what happens when families leave behind houses full of THINGS and she desperately wants to downsize. She’s working on selling her own items and plans to find a much smaller, more manageable home. At this stage in her life she’s realized she has more than she wants to maintain.

Both Michael and Betsy were extremely thoughtful and introspective during our interviews with them. They offered unique and realistic insights into the ups and downs of trying to figure out who they were when they didn’t have job titles anymore. More than that, they provided hope that we can move beyond the notion of what we do is who we are… important lessons in a fractured economy.

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