At 58, a Layoff Looks Different

Joyce Fish (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

Joyce Fish (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

Forty years ago, Joyce Fish had a vision of herself, “standing in a large, windowed loft looking out the windows at the vast NYC skyline.” Once, Fish commanded a six-figure salary as a director for photo shoots. She traveled to places like India and Alaska for work.

But after having the career of her dreams, she has wound up in a place she never expected to be: unemployed and struggling to pay the rent. And worse, she is 58, an age that she believes inspires resistance from potential employers, many of whom are younger than her and, she fears, assume she isn’t technologically savvy or isn’t up on the latest fashions.

The recession has been particularly hard on older workers. Although their rates of unemployment tend to be lower, the average time it takes them to find a job are longer. In the first half of 2013, New York City workers over 54 were unemployed for an average of 11 months, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Fish wouldn’t mind retiring, but she can’t afford to. The $400 she gets a week in unemployment isn’t enough to cover her expenses, so she has taken in roommates. And she keeps looking for work.

At Fish’s last job, as a manager at a photography studio, she was stunned when her boss called her into his office on the Monday after Valentine’s Day and told her he was letting her go. She had gotten a raise just two months before. But after a young assistant had been brought in—and trained by Fish—the assistant was promoted and took her job. “In my mind I kept thinking: I’m 58,” Fish said, sitting on a black sofa in the lobby of her apartment building. “Who’s going to hire me? Should I ask for less money?”

She had been grateful to get that job, too, even though it paid a third of what she used to make. And it had taken her a while to find it. She feels she has been on a downward slide for a while now.

Fish says she has heard such stories over and over from friends her own age. “You have experience, they bring in a 26-, 27-year-old willing to work for less pay,” she said, shrugging. “Who’s going to stay? The lower-paid person.”

Fish always knew she wanted to do something related to fashion and photography. Originally from Long Island, she studied fashion illustration and advertising at Syracuse University in the 70s. After college, she moved to New York City to pursue her ambition.

Once she landed a position as an art director for ads at Vogue a few years out of college, she felt like she had arrived. One day on the job there, while directing a photo shoot for prom dresses, she thought about her vision of years earlier: “This is it,” she thought. “This is the picture I saw out the window.”

Her job entailed setting everything up for the shoots: coming up with a concept, creating a mockup design and choosing the models, stylists, photographer and location scouts. Once the shoot was finished, she would use photo-editing software to add text. She would then give the clients a few different versions of the finished product to choose from.

Then in 2002, she found her “dream position of life”—creative director at Macy’s, one of the world’s biggest department stores. She thought she was set for life. “I was like, ‘I made it,’ Fish says. “I thought working there would be a ticket to more work.”

But she was wrong.

When the recession hit, Macy’s undertook a vast reorganization, laying off thousands of employees in 2009—including Fish. This time, it wasn’t as easy to find work. As a boss, she hadn’t been involved in the day-to-day details of the work, and as technology changed, she had fallen behind.

These days, she’s determined to catch up. She has taken a class in social media and even coding. When she was fired, her first thought was that she needed to learn Microsoft Excel—something that former employers had wanted but she couldn’t provide. Googling “Free Excel class,” she found an employment workshop for people over 50, run by a nonprofit social agency, FEGS Health and Human Services.

It helped. Besides assistance with the practicalities, like brushing up her resume and perfecting elevator pitches, the month-long workshop picked up her spirits. “I went in there feeling really crummy about myself for being laid off,” she said. “It was good for rebuilding confidence and saying, ‘I’m looking for a job. Do you know of anything?’”—something she had felt too ashamed to do before.

Since the workshop has ended, Fish and her classmates have stayed in touch, sending each other job ads and practicing interviews. Talking and making plans with friends has helped her to stay motivated and positive.  She can even joke about it. “My friend jokes that she’s a professional job seeker,’ Fish says. “‘What do you do for a job?’ ‘I look for a job.’”