Our Long, Hard Fall from the Fortune 500
Surviving the Great Recession Meant Complete Career, Life Reinvention
Editor’s Note: Nearly everyone has a Great Recession tale to tell. Eight years since the U.S. economy tanked, some are still struggling. Others have successfully reinvented their financial futures, in part because of diligence and innovation–in part because it was do or die. In this Reporters Inc. original, one Midwestern woman recounts her family’s fearful fall from economic security, the search for answers that could sustain them, and their eventual success in regaining a firm financial foothold. She’s asked us to refrain from identifying her.
The financial crisis of 2008 created an epic storm throughout our nation, and my husband and I knew we might be affected. Nevertheless, it was quite a shock when the turbulent waters of the crisis came right to our front door.
I’d been reading the papers. I knew what was happening in the financial services industry, but somehow I thought my wonderful husband wouldn’t lose his job. He was a vice president in charge of operations at a Fortune 500 company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’d been responsible for saving millions of dollars through operational improvements for the company. He never once missed work–he only allowed himself to be sick on weekends, and only weekends when he wasn’t at work. He’d won awards for being an exemplary leader. The company had paid for him to earn his Master’s Degree in Business Administration. He had an alphabet of designations in insurance, financial planning, business law and estate planning. He seemed indestructible and indispensable. He was only 55.
But then, despite it all, he was laid off.
Pounding the Pavement in Middle Age
I was a little taken aback about my husband losing his job, but still in a state of disbelief. He was a self-made man. He was the only one in his family who attended college. He’d grown up with his grandmother, and had earned money for college by working at Armour Meat Packing Company. He’d been buying his own toothpaste since he was 14. He knew how to survive and how to succeed. Not to worry, I thought.
During the next few months, we ruminated about how we could maintain some of the gold for our golden years. I had already retired from my teaching job. I had a pension. We would not starve, but our hopes and dreams of a comfortable retirement seemed in jeopardy. Our only child, a daughter, was attending an expensive private college. Depriving her, and us, of that dream was out of the question. My husband decided to begin his job search before his final day of work.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that the job search in 2008 was going to be tough. The financial services industry was in the tank. Many of my husband’s former colleagues had also lost their big jobs. Nobody was hiring. Everyone was laying off people. Men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties were searching frantically for work.
Friends sent us newspaper stories about desperate former corporate executives delivering pizza or working in coffee shops. We weren’t offended; we knew they meant well. My cousin’s wife, however, once made a comment that my husband could work at McDonalds. I’m sure she didn’t mean it as an insult, but it was hard to swallow, and my reply to her was “no way.”
My husband knew the score, but he was determined. He spent months on the computer. He sent out hundreds of resumes. He networked with everyone he knew. He read books about job searches. He had phone interviews. He considered moving to Minot, North Dakota, and coming home on weekends.
Then came the in-person interviews–quite a few, really. One major company interviewed him four times, only to hire a younger man. It finally became apparent to us that there were no jobs for fifty-somethings in 2009 and 2010, especially in the financial services industry, which was hit extremely hard during the crisis. The rejections from job opportunities were devastating. I can remember praying fervently during one of my husband’s most important interviews. I so much wanted a job for him. I wanted things to return to how they’d been before. I wanted the status of having my husband working for a good company with good benefits. But mostly, I wanted him to be happy.
Unfortunately, I knew he was just the opposite—depressed–and that alone was difficult to witness. I wasn’t much better. I was also quite tired of all of our friends and family members constantly asking about his job search progress. Usually there was no progress, and I kept trying to prop both of us up at the same time. I started to regret having retired from teaching. I wished I were back in the classroom and busy. Being around my husband during this time in our marriage was no fun, no fun at all. He’s the kind of man who gets a lot out of work, and that payoff was no longer there.
One of my husband’s last interviews was in downtown Minneapolis, his familiar work environment. He came home that day saying that everything looked the same, except that all of the men and women with brief cases were young. There must have been a few older ones somewhere, but he didn’t see them. We had to think of a new strategy.
From Business to Bus
We were in need of two things: health insurance and an income flow. Obamacare had not yet been instituted, and neither of us was old enough for Medicare. Insurance was our first priority.
My husband decided to apply for work with the school district where we live. The job? Driving a bus. Some of our friends asked us why he’d even consider this kind of employment. “Isn’t it beneath him?” was the vibe behind the questions.
But actually, he’d always thought bus driving would be a good part-time retirement job. Big vehicles intrigue him–actually, all vehicles intrigue him. We went to the Indy 500 fifteen years ago, and he’s returned every Memorial Day weekend since. He loves anything on four wheels. He’s always content with his hands on a steering wheel.
One of my retired teacher friends, who was also driving a school bus, encouraged him to apply. So my husband went down to the district office, filled out the paperwork, passed the commercial driver’s test, and was hired. After several years of rejection, he’d finally landed a meaningful job—albeit one that was completely outside his previous career experience.
I remember the day he started driving. He was the happiest he’d been in months. He wanted so much to be taking home some sort of paycheck. His self-esteem improved on a daily basis.
Bus driving school kids involves early hours, major responsibility, and hard work. The pay isn’t great but now I know why so many men and women want, and need, this job. For many, it’s all about the benefits. We learned that a bus driver qualifies for the same insurance as the superintendent of schools in our district. And as soon after my husband started driving, we were able to receive family health care benefits.
My husband was also pleasantly surprised to find out that he was no longer one of the oldest employees at his new job. He was one of the youngest. Many seniors in their sixties and seventies (like my former teacher friend) take up bus driving in retirement. And like my husband, many were white-collar professionals during their previous careers.
A Summer Clean-Up
Of course, many bus drivers are unemployed in the summer months, when kids are out of school. That fact opened up another new, and surprising, opportunity for my husband: school district custodian. He decided he’d give it a try, to earn a few extra dollars.
The first few weeks were brutal. He was absolutely exhausted at the end of a shift. Corporate boardrooms and sedentary work hadn’t prepared him for cleaning classrooms and lunchrooms—even a swimming pool! It was hard work, and his muscles ached for the first few weeks of the job.
But as the summer wore on, it was quite noticeable that my husband was losing a significant amount of weight. He proudly showed me that his pants were loose, and he reported that he hadn’t felt that good in years. The weekend yard work seemed less onerous. He was in shape. He met new friends at his custodial job and read several good books during his breaks.
So now, my brilliant and business-savvy husband is both a bus driver and a custodian, and he’s excelled at both. But there’s much more to it. One of his areas of expertise in the corporate world was learning to read and fully understand a contract. The drivers and custodians have come to trust that my husband can help them interpret their own contracts, understand workman’s compensation laws and facilitate seniority issues; they seek him out, gratefully, for representation when there are conflicts with the school district.
In fact, he was elected union steward for all of the bus drivers and he’s now the chief salary negotiator for both the drivers and the custodians. One aspect of his union job that he especially enjoys has been serving as a lobbyist during the state legislative session on behalf of SEIU (Service Employees International Union). He’s always pointed out that leaders lead, no matter what the widget.
Real Potential in Real Estate
During the time when my husband was launching his bus driver/custodial job, we also had to deal with another cold reality: income flow. We were going to think outside of the box. His idea for our reinvention was to invest in real estate. We already had one rental property, a townhouse that my husband had bought before we were married. It was the only business we knew, and it turned out we didn’t know much. But, that was the plan.
The ironic “silver lining” to the financial crash of 2008 for us was that there were many foreclosures, and real estate prices were low. My husband told me there was always an opportunity in every crisis. We just had to find it. We decided to buy distressed townhouse properties, renovate them and put them on the rental market. At that time, there were many townhouses in our area that were in foreclosure. All could be had for a song. All were in good locations. All were a mess.
Owners who’ve suffered a foreclosure tend not to care about their property anymore. The properties we saw needed major improvements. They needed new everything. We looked at each other and came to the same conclusion. We just didn’t have the capacity to fix up a townhouse. Neither one of us have the “handy gene,” and we just didn’t want to tackle the long and arduous process of renovating properties with potential mold, faulty wiring, mice and squeaky floors. Clearly, the plan had to change.
Things went our way, though, because at about that time the townhouse next door to our existing townhouse went up for sale. The seller was a senior citizen moving into an independent living facility and she wanted out right away. She didn’t want to wait for financing from a buyer who had to qualify for a loan. My frugal husband, however, had the cash. As usual, cash was king. Having an emergency plan and other financial resources made all this possible. We got a good deal on our second townhouse. We were on our way.
As the years passed, we bought three more townhouses. We now have five. It’s not a large real estate empire. Donald Trump need not worry that we’ll upstage him, but the income from these properties has provided the cash flow that we need to live.
Our townhouse business changed my life also. After I left teaching, I started to think that retirement was overrated. I didn’t yearn to return to the classroom, but I did feel that something was missing. So I reinvented myself as a property manager/landlady and it reinvigorated me. I’ve had to learn about rental licenses, credit reports, small claims court and more. I now know how to unclog most drains! I’ve learned to appreciate the connection between effort and return. The more I work at the property business, the more satisfaction I receive. It comes from the revenue we take in from the properties, but also from knowing that we provide well-maintained homes for our tenants.
Getting Our Golden Groove Back
We’ve had to learn to roll with the punches, but it’s definitely put a little shine on our golden years. We can now afford to travel again, as we’d planned. We don’t belong to the country club or have a yacht but we do feel more financially secure than we did in 2008.
I know that sometimes my husband misses the business world, and his former career in corporate America. He loved the hustle and bustle of being downtown and he refuses to part with all of his nice Brooks Brothers suits in the closet. He misses looking sharp for work, and he doesn’t enjoy smelling like diesel oil.
I have great memories of the corporate Christmas parties and I miss being able to say that my husband is a vice president of a major corporation. But I know that those reflections represent another time and place in our history.
We both believe that his job as a bus driver saved us. It gave my husband a paycheck, benefits and a renewed sense of purpose. I’m happy that we have full insurance coverage and some extra income.
When I meet new people, I usually tell them that my husband works for our local school district. If they ask what he does exactly, I tell them. My husband’s job no longer defines me. He’s working; I’m proud. For me, it’s meant learning to concentrate on gratitude.
My husband has kept in touch with some of his friends who also lost their positions in the late 2000s and many are doing nothing now, other than sitting on the couch watching TV. My husband would never want to be home all day, and he’s not the kind of man who likes to whittle away time building birdhouses in the garage. He takes pride in giving back to the community, something he never had time for when he worked in the business world. He works for free as the union steward, spending hours helping, and he feels gratified when one of the drivers or custodians has a problem resolved. He frequently receives nice notes and gift cards. Recently he brought home a lovely pan of home-cooked enchiladas. The driver was very appreciative. My husband saved her job.
And then there are the kids. He’s proud to drive them safely to school and back each day. One little girl on his route even told him she wishes he were her grandpa. When the children bound out of the bus for class in the morning, he always tells them, “Do your best!”
It’s a line, and a belief, that both he and I have taken to heart, and put into motion. This is certainly not how I foresaw our future back in the mid 2000s, but given the circumstances, we, too, are doing our very best.
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