You wake up in the morning and know something is wrong and for a flickering moment can’t remember what it is. Something is missing. In a few seconds you are going to remember what it is, and then it all comes flooding back.
You’ve been told your role isn’t needed any more. It – and you – are surplus to requirements. Despite the team building, the late nights in the office, the good work, you are being made redundant. The HR exec says it’s business, it’s not personal, but from where you are sitting on the other side of the screen – because everything is done via Zoom nowadays – redundancy feels extremely personal.
In this surreal moment, you feel it shouldn’t mean that much – it’s only a job – but then it slowly sinks in. And it hurts.
When your identity has been intertwined with your work for three decades you can’t help feeling lost.The realisation dawns that you will have to face your team, as well as deal with your own anger and pain at not being needed any more.
As a department head, you will have to be strong enough to explain what’s happening to the people you have loved working with, who you care about, and who will be shocked and looking at you with wide eyes, wondering if they will be next.
And you will need to pick yourself up pretty damn quickly because you are a parent of two children. Lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself is not an option, because a) you don’t want your children to see you like that. And b) you have a mortgage and bills to pay.
Losing more than money
But – money aside – why is there such a sense of loss when you you’re made redundant from a corporate job? Surely it’s ‘just business’, as the HR person was at pains to say?
In my case, I think it’s because I am institutionalised. I’ve been going to work for 30 years, day in day out. The routine only stopped for two babies and Covid. I am used to everything about it, which is decidedly different to liking everything about it, and it feels comfortable and normal. If I have a whole day stretching ahead of me for me to fill, I feel a sense of panic, not because I don’t have lots of things to do and a head full of plans (I have both), but because I am just not used to it.
Instead, I am used to the ‘uniform’ you have to wear. Admittedly, it’s changed over the years from shoulder-padded jackets (hello Jigsaw) to swishy dresses in clashing patterns (yes that’s you Rixo). I am used to grabbing an over-priced coffee in the morning, which has also changed, from straight-up Americano to a more sophisticated decaf flat white.
And then there’s the routine of the commute – the few moments you have to yourself to think in between family and work, to look at the people around you, what they are engrossed in (useful for us media types), what their work uniform is.
But the big thing is – of course – the independence. My mother wanted to work, but in the 60s and 70s it was hard to combine a family and a career. Convention then meant that you if you had young children you, mostly, stayed at home. And in any case there wasn’t the childcare infrastructure that there is now. So my mother gave up her career plans and poured her energy and creativity into her children. But she impressed upon me how important it was for me, brought up in more progressive times, to have a career and to be financially solvent.
My female role models
I wanted both those things. I wanted the freedom it would give me: I wanted to be able to leave the provinces and live in London and to become a writer. Looking at the female role models in publishing back then, I was aware that they had fought hard for their positions. That as a younger woman I was following in their formidable footsteps and had to step up to the challenge. I had to work as hard as the men, if not harder.
And I know I have been lucky.
As a writer and then an executive in the thriving newspaper and magazine industry in the 90s and noughties the jobs came to me. Each more prestigious than the last, but each more stressful and more all-consuming too.Just as I was getting a bit bored, had done everything required of my role, a call would come. Would I like to meet for a chat about a new job, could we meet in a swanky London bar? It would be something bigger and better than I was doing.
I liked trying new roles, pushing my capabilities and I never expected the calls to stop. But the traditional publishing industry has changed radically. Now we have social media, influencers, lots of free online content. There are less of the exciting jobs I was once offered and, in any case, once you become a parent you can’t work until 10pm, the time newspapers usually go to press. You can’t network late into the evening so you are on people’s radars.
Learning from Noele
Watching the recent biopic about Crossroads star Noele Gordon I was struck by the emotional devastation that losing your job can cause. Helena Bonham Carter brilliantly portrayed the crippling self-doubt that crept in as 62-year-old Noele was suddenly axed after 17 years as the daytime soap’s lead actress. She was forced to simultaneously grieve for her old, all-encompassing, work life and and throw her uncertain self into reinvigorating her stage career. Things had changed while she had been in television for nearly two decades: was she still ‘good enough’ to cut it in the theatre? Did she need to change to keep up with the times?
This resonated with me as I work out where I fit in the rapidly changing industry I have been part of for three decades. I also understood why – when the TV bosses realised the mistake they had made losing her – she was lured back, feeling the need to belong, to be in her work comfort zone, despite them treating her so badly.
So what’s next for a 50-something woman who has been made redundant? I lie awake at night wondering what I will do. I field questions and texts from people asking me what my work plans are.
And in all honesty, I don’t know yet.
First, I need to grieve for the world I have left behind and then I will build up the strength to reinvent myself so that, unlike Noele, I won’t be tempted to try to be the old me again.