older male workers

Men at work

It’s not easy for anyone to find a job these days. But the recession and the shrinking job market has been especially challenging for men.

An April 2009 article in the Financial Times laid out the brutal truth. At that time, more than 5 million jobs had been lost. Men represented a whopping 80% of that number.

Part of the reasoning is that men were the bulk of the industries hardest hit, like construction and manufacturing. There’s also the (unfortunately still true) fact that women make less than men in the workplace. It stands to reason that if you’re trying to cut costs, the most expensive employee (the man) goes first.

But I also think there’s a bigger shift in the workplace that hit a lot of men, particularly men who were over 40. It’s a more subtle shift – a shift in perceptions, if you will.

Men have had to cope with the days of the “salaryman” disappearing. It used to be when a guy found his career, he’d be as loyal to the company as he was to his wife and kids,  staying there for twenty or thirty years, if not more. My father spent over 30 years working for the same company.

It still happens these days, but in far fewer numbers. The perception has changed: what used to be seen as a mark of stability is now viewed in some corners as a mark of inflexibility and an unwillingness to change.

I just read a comment on another blog where someone said that men can wear the same clothes and shoes every day and no one would notice. That may have been true decades ago, but again, perceptions have shifted. A guy who’s worn the same shirt every Tuesday for the last 5 years might have have been thought of before as a consistent team player. Now? He’s seen as a person who’s stuck in a rut, a guy who’s totally out of it.

It sucks that the recession hit so many men, and that these paradigm changes have made it harder for them to find new jobs. These guys have been hard workers who have sunk a lot of time and effort into their work and their careers. At a time where companies should be showing their appreciation, these guys are getting the boot instead. It sucks.

Of course, we all want to be viewed for our skills and our capabilities. And it seems shallow and stupid to be judged on something as superficial as appearance, or have something as commendable as consistency held against us.

But today’s workplace is in a constant, violent change of flux. Traditional business are shrinking and slaughtering sacred cows to stay alive. New businesses operate without a flight plan to try and forge new territory (and earn new dollars).

They need nimble, flexible warriors who have stayed in the game to do whatever it takes to win. A guy who hasn’t been inside of a classroom since Reagan’s second term, a guy who wears his Tuesday socks and brings his Tuesday lunch to work every Tuesday? Not the first guy to make you think “flexible.”

This is not a new idea (the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” touches on this in a much larger context). But it’s one that’s disproportionately affected a lot of guys in the last year. Guys who have a lot to offer. Breadwinners, family men, guys who are used to being in charge, carrying the load on their backs.

Guys who are greying a little around the edges.

Guys like me. I learned all of this firsthand when I was laid off. I was one of the millions who landed in that 80%.

What can a guy do? Well, he has to play the game. He has to emphasize flexibility in his past career, and maybe take some new classes or seminars to show he’s still exercising his mind.

Nobody expects a guy to look like he’s got a personal stylist, but it might be time to throw out some of those washed out old white work shirts and get a new pair of pants or two. If he’s the kind of guy who’s bought the same thing (or had his wife buy it for him) since he was 16, it’s time to ask for help and advice. He’s gotta spend a few bucks on grooming and tailoring.

Learning never ends, and change never stops. These are good things to keep in mind in general, but they’re also essential ideas to understand how the workplace is today.  If you’re in a job, those ideas might keep you there. If you’re looking for a job, they’re tools that may help you get there.