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ON THE PHONE, EDITH, my re-employment dominatrix, was emphatic: “Wear a tie, Mr. Looper, and don’t be late.”

Let go, and “out-placed” as a senior design engineer at 58 years of age, I am about to enter a building that resembles a tall, mirrored box. I walk past a fountain that sprays streams of water into the breeze of a Southern California afternoon. The spring poppies, our official state flower, stand golden on green stems as they wave in the roiling Pacific air. Eucalyptus trees partially hide the large chrome numbers of what I will call “University Colony Court,” “colony” being a favored real estate descriptor here on the West Coast — it sounds exclusive yet cohesive —denial in the face of a substantially fragmented society.

This building is to be the locus penitentia of my out-placement, my halfway house to poverty. I have never been out-placed before. I am that strange mixture of humiliation and curiosity characteristic of all cooperating victims. Will the out-placers ask me to remove my clothes? Will aliens appear and probe my nasal passages with fiber-optic wands? My speculations are cut short, as an elevator, its interior stainless steel scratched with graffiti and smelling of stale perfume, decants me on the second-floor landing opposite my destination, which I will incorrectly name here as Pacific Career Strategies. I have been told to arrive promptly at 2:00 p.m. for my intake session.


I push down on the brass offset handles of paneled doors that open inward. And there, in the marble-floored nave of this mighty out-placement service, stands Edith, amid a background of brocade drapes and Louis XIV wing chairs, upholstered in moiré silk.

With age, I am learning to pay attention to my gut: our first impressions are not just important, they may be crucial. With heightened perception I see that Edith is hard in the face, and her hair is dyed. She looks like the product of a hostile makeover. But beneath the slick professional façade is a middle-aged woman, sagging beneath her makeup, one quite properly mad as hell about having to stand on hard floors all day and fake enthusiasm.

Edith tells me that my first objective of the day is a “personal inventory.” This takes two hours and consists of a large battery of written tests with hundreds of Procrustean choices such as “I have occasionally wanted to strike a child — (yes) or (no).” Where are the pseudo-scientists who devise this junk? Here is a better query: “I have occasionally wanted to strike a smart-ass psychologist — (yes) or (yes).”

After my inventory, I am coached by Edith in her office. We discuss the tactical fundamentals of re-employment for aging males in a collapsing world economy. I can see that to Edith, rhetoric is important. I am a “job candidate,” not an unemployed engineer who is ready for the immense bone pile created by the surgical removal of middle-class workers from the 21st-century corporate body. I attempt humor, but Edith is not amused when I inquire if, as a candidate, I will be required to shake a lot of hands and kiss babies.

Business activity, ultimately derived from prehistoric hunting, has retained the metaphors of hunters, stalkers, and warriors. Edith is at some pains to educate me in the vocabulary. On the one hand I am to “penetrate” the corporate culture; on the other hand I am to (ominously) “reposition” myself for, uh, re-employment. Question, readers: Exactly what “position” is this? Am I, in street metaphor, being asked to “assume the position”? Further, I am to “target” potential employers and to “impact” (now a transitive commercial verb) them. I am to “attack” my midcareer deficits with extensive retraining, which is, regrettably, not offered by Edith or her organization.

Edith appears serious about all of this. In her let’s-pretend atmosphere, I am to arrive on site every morning wearing a coat and tie, since “getting re-employed is your new job, Mr. Looper.” I am to sign in — and out — at the front desk, as if I were the CEO of some mega-corporation, so that the front-office secretary can keep track of me in my important comings and goings. Yeah, I can see that this regimen is to accommodate those frantic potential employers who, calling in, have just seen my résumé on the Internet and are doubtless fretting at the likelihood that I may already have been snapped up by a competitor!

After my coaching by Edith, she takes me on a tour of the facilities. Like Galileo under house arrest, I am shown the instruments of torture. My office is a small cubicle holding only a telephone on the faux-grained veneer of a Fourier desk with scrolled feet. I berate myself silently and can hear the Psalmist softly proclaim in my head, “Behold how the mighty are fallen!”

But, good news — my phone is my own private line to the world, not an extension of the company phone line. Wilma, our solitary girl Friday at the front desk, will answer my incoming calls as I sit at my particle-board desk. She will say something like “I’m sorry, Mr. Looper is in conference now, can I schedule a time for him to return your call?”

Edith sells intangibles, and I have noticed that people who sell intangibles love words like “resources” and “tools” — anything that sounds materially substantial in their smoke-and-mirrors world of hand-waving and endless, endless talk. The mouth must be the most overused organ in America.

Edith next takes me to the cerebral cortex of our facility, the all-important Communications Center, a kind of Enron-style war room, utilized, I see, by a few of those faithful re-employment candidates.

The balding pates of older men predominate here in the Communications Center, reflecting the glare from fluorescent lights, as they fax and email résumés to employment databases that few employers actually search. These older job candidates are clearly in denial. I see men in their late 50s or early 60s who are essentially the managerial Living Dead, who just don’t have the good Darwinian sense to lie down. They are evincing instead, to quote our previous Great Father at the Federal Reserve, “irrational exuberance.” There is one pathetic fellow, in frayed Armani slacks and polished Gucci loafers, who has that same skin-taut, manic look on his face as those desperate people on crutches who attend tent revivals. They want to believe. They stay busy. There is no fanatic like a convert.

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Comments

David Dodd Sept. 15, 2010 @ 8:54 p.m.

I'd have walked out too, that offer of "out-placement" was a slap in the face. My last job in engineering was over eight years ago, laid off for the Nth time. I'm never going back to that. Even the best engineers are so easily marginalized, they'll keep ineffective sales staff and lay off good engineers. Ridiculous.

Next thing I design and build is going to be my own house.

Good luck, Norm Looper, I hope you are wildly successful in your next endeavor.

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MsGrant Sept. 16, 2010 @ 8:48 a.m.

I have a friend who told me that they have a new term for being down-sized. They are calling it "right-sized". Can you believe that? Norm, I wish you the best as well. You sound like a stand-up guy.

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SurfPuppy619 Sept. 16, 2010 @ 8:55 a.m.

At 58 I am VERY surprised you are not discriminated against based on age.

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Reed50 Sept. 17, 2010 @ 3:15 a.m.

This is a very well written article. Signed up just to say that.

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doughardy Sept. 18, 2010 @ 7:53 p.m.

Reed's right, a career in writing could be in your future.

I meet with new clients every week who are twenty years my junior. It's a tough world, but the good news is our generation works harder than theirs.

Chin up.

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acannell Sept. 19, 2010 @ 9:48 a.m.

Guess what my employment tool is? CRAIGSLIST. I have had no trouble finding and keeping employment from when things hit the fan in Sep 08 to today. If you actualy KNOW how to do circuit design and firmware design, people will pay you to do so. If you drank the kool aid and got your middle-quality-colllege EE degree, GOOD LUCK. Why did you even become an engineer? Jesus christ. Pick up Art of the Electronics, PCB123, a PIC programmer, and MAKE SOMETHING.

In my experience, engineers who dont actually like engineering, but went to school and got a degree, tend to be very timid and make EVERY EXCUSE to avoid redesigning or solving any problems using actual engineering. They would much rather band aid and hobble along then actually get into THEIR OWN DESIGN to figure anything out. Its really depressing. They love using student-grade tools and pre-fab design chunks. And strangely they have no idea how to solder or write firmware. Its like they never grew or learned anything once they left college. THIS INCLUDE PHD'S.

The greatest engineers I have worked with may or may not have had degrees, but its absolutely clear they love engineering and the college degree was just a footnote.

This topic connects directly with whats wrong with America, and whats right. If you are a pointless, empty person with no interests and no desires, you will end up at some giant building desperately trying to get through your life because you never had the guts to explore what you might REALLY be good at. Now you feel like you need to piss on the system because it didnt serve you, and you feel like you are in the majority because there are so many like you. Thats true! YOU ARE THE MAJORITY. There are millions of you zombies.

Whats RIGHT about it is that if you actually are very good at what you do in EE work, YOU WILL FIND WORK. PERIOD.

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Evelyn Sept. 21, 2010 @ 11:58 a.m.

Leaving to never return again, doesn't sound very heroic considering the writer arrived at 2pm, then did a 2 hour test. At most, the writer spent 3 hours in the place.

"I do not realize as I sit here at my cheap desk that I am on the threshold of starting my own company, designing and selling industrial process controls."

Does this mean Norm Looper has started his own company?

And reply to #3:

The decision was probably more about Mr. Looper's retirement. The company can't say age. But they can make it a financial issue.

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nan shartel Sept. 21, 2010 @ 1:06 p.m.

the writing is superb...it may not be non fiction...it may be a fictional interpretation "of a man of that certain ages" difficulties and with the roller coaster of anger and disappointment and then personal resolve to take his work life into his own hands and do something about it

if it's true...my hope is all will turn around for u...thx for this excellent piece Norman

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Donald Sept. 22, 2010 @ 8:06 p.m.

Another well written piece in The Reader! It's great to see this kind of quality prose getting printed in San Diego, instead of the usual political talking points dreck.

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DaveTheWriter Oct. 5, 2010 @ 5:09 p.m.

Moral of the story is blatantly obvious:

Self-employment (or temp, agency, contract work) is one of the smartest options for us tech and IT geezers. Even though it is contrary to the get a J O B at some C O M P A N Y indoctrination, we need to think in terms of self-reliance. To our parents, starting companies and being an owner was unusual and risky. These days it is more of a gamble to keep relying on corporate America to care about us over folks at 50, 55, 60. Message to fellow 50-somethings: tech firms don't want us as full-time employees.

Good article.

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jgriessen Oct. 27, 2010 @ 1:15 p.m.

Hi, I enjoyed your article -- laughed -- I'm 50-something too. I'm developing my company making instrumentation for field biologists and also met a man selling continuous process control machinery to semiconductor fabs and equipment vendors and it seemed like an easy market to satisfy. We should talk. You can find my phone number in a flash by a whois of ecosensory.com.

John Griessen ecosensory.com Austin Texas

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