Out of work at age 52 - what are the options?

By JEFF BISHOP jbishop@newnan.com Terri Studley had read all the gloomy news in the papers about the rising numbers of foreclosures, the escalating unemployment rate, and the layoffs. But she never thought it would happen to her. Studley had been working at the same large shipping company in Atlanta for 23 years. At age 52, she was only three years away from retirement.
"We felt safe," Studley says of herself and those in her department. "We knew the company had been downsizing throughout the U.S., but we maintained national accounts in our department. Multimillion dollar accounts. It was kind of an elite department. We just didn't think anything would happen to us." In early August, she found out differently. "One day we all came in," she said. "And we could sense that something was going down that day. We could just feel it." She said the look on the faces on their supervisors told them everything they needed to know. "It looked like some of them were going to cry," she said. "We were all like one, big family." The company divided the employees up into four different groups of 10. "When the first group didn't come back down, we knew it was bad," she said. "We were saying, 'Where are they?' It was scary." Studley said that "it all happened pretty quick," and before she could really process what was going on, she and 47 co-workers were out of a job. Twenty more were let go the following day. "Even the big bosses were let go. It was very sad," she said. Studley received a severance package, which she is thankful for, and she was allowed to work for two extra weeks to help train the person who would be replacing her in a different state. But Studley, a single mother of an autistic child with special needs, was soon back home in Newnan and left wondering about her options. "I've looked around a bit," she said. "And it looks like if I get something that makes $10 an hour, I'll be lucky. But surely to God I can make more than that." That's about half of what she was making at her former job. But the job market has changed in recent years, Studley said, and it's tougher for people who don't have a college degree to earn a living wage. With a lot of fixed expenses now in place, it's difficult to see how she's going to make up that difference. "I'm thinking now, how much less could I make and still get by?" she said. "If I worked locally I could save on gas, but it's hard to see how it's going to all add up. "I've never known anybody who got laid off," she said. "And I didn't think I would ever be one of those. But I am. I'm not married, and I have a kid to take care of. I'm going to have to step up." Studley said she has always been employed and has never been the type to seek a "pity party." But for someone nearing retirement age, the prospects look pretty bleak, she said. Younger workers are cheaper, typically take fewer days off, and don't get sick as often, which keeps insurance rates down. "I think people probably are very discriminating, when it comes to age," she said. "At 52, I really don't feel old. I feel like I can probably do everything someone would ask a younger person to do." Studley thinks she's found a solution. She is putting out resumes and going on job interviews, but she's also trying to look at this as an opportunity to go in a new direction. "I put some ads in some places and I'm going to start my own business," she said. She envisions herself as an "errand girl" who can do odd jobs for people such as "offering a child shuttle, take pets to the vet, get someone's prescription or go to the grocery store for them," she said. Studley also feels she's good at packing away things and "de-cluttering" and organizing. She can envision her business catering to people and businesses who would really like to get organized. "I really enjoy organizing other people's things, labeling boxes, and that kind of thing," she said. "I've had my own business before, so I do have some experience." Her previous business was in the furniture refinishing industry, she said. "But I just couldn't make enough money at it, so I had to do something else," said Studley. She hopes this time will be different. With unemployment rates rising in Georgia and foreclosure rates in Coweta even worse than the national average, she doesn't want to become another statistic. "I feel like I know people here. I like Newnan so much. I used to own a historic home in Newnan. I feel like something good is going to happen," she said. "But it is a little scary," she admits. "With the economy the way it is right now, can people really afford to hire me to do stuff? I've just got to be optimistic about it and hope for the best."

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