NEW YORK When the telecommunications startup firm Tom Gaffuri worked for went belly up in the last recession, he found himself without a job in his mid-50s.
Gaffuri, who is now 57, said he spent about a year looking for work, answering ads and tapping in to his network of business associates, but without success.
''As you get older, you find that your network has gone on to do other things outside of your core industry, or your network is barely hanging on to their own jobs, or your network is unemployed just like you,'' Gaffuri said. ''It's difficult.''
In a nation where people define themselves by what they do, losing a job can be devastating to both a worker's ego and finances. That's especially true for people in their 50s, the age when they should be reaching peak incomes and putting aside peak retirement savings.
The loss of a job can turn their family's finances upside down. Getting a new position generally takes longer for men and women who are 50 and older than for other age groups, and they often must take a pay cut to get new jobs.
For Gaffuri, of Fairfax, Va., the economic blow was cushioned because his wife Marianne continued in her sales job. Still, they've had to make ''brutally honest assessments'' of their financial situation, cutting back on things like eating out and vacations.
''We also understand that the time line for achieving our objective that is, you don't have to work but you still want to work has extended,'' he said. ''Every day I don't have income, it extends another day.''
For the last year, he's been building his own management consulting firm, a project requiring ''an incredible amount of sweat equity,'' he said.
Karen Hochman, head of the national Marketing Executives Networking Group, said some older workers who are laid off or fired can get very depressed or even suicidal, fearing they'll never recover from the job loss.
''Baby boomers expected to be working until age 65,'' she said. ''No one said, 'At the age of 50, you're too old to seek employment and you're going to be roaring through your retirement savings.'''
Others, she said, are so used to functioning within a corporate environment that they can't see their way clear to ''reinvent'' themselves, say by buying a franchise or setting up a small business. There are also workers who find they need new skills.
Marion Elizabeth Mein, 54, of New York, handled the legal operations for a physicians' group before she lost her job a year ago. A single woman, she's had to take in a roommate to help cover the rent and other bills while she hunts for new work or possibly a new career.
Unable to find a similar position, Mein is now thinking she should go back to school to get into a different field, perhaps in teaching or medical technology. But that has drawbacks.
''Going back to school is a very expensive proposition,'' she said. ''And I'm already worried I'll never recoup the losses from losing this job.''
Another problem for those who find themselves unemployed in their 50s is discrimination but not necessarily about age, said economist Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O'Clock Club, a career counseling and outplacement firm based in New York.
''What they have to do when they're looking for a job is not to confuse age prejudice with salary prejudice,'' he said. ''They think they didn't get considered for a job because of their age when it could be that their salary is too high.''
Bayer said older workers can be strategic, not including salaries on their resume and trying to put off discussion of the issue in early interviews.
''They also need to emphasize in the interview that maturity and experience do count,'' Bayer said. ''Think about the dot-coms. If they had had a few gray heads around, some of them might not have gone under.''
For Dick Andersen, 55, of Littleton, Mass., unemployment began in February 2002 when his company, which manufactured chips and network software, was sold and he was let go. He was out of work for 20 months.
Andersen said he structured his days as if he still had a job, getting up and checking Web sites and sending out resumes and keeping in touch with executives he knew.
''I also focused myself on other things so I wouldn't lose my edge,'' he said. ''I became even more active in the Rotary. I helped interview candidates for local police officer positions. I had been a soccer referee as hobby, so I upped the number of games I handled.''
Last December, Andersen landed a job as vice president of marketing at HighStreet Networks, which makes software products. The starting salary, about a third of what he had earned before, has since risen to about half his previous compensation, but he also has an equity position in the company.
''It's a small company with a good product, and I feel comfortable with the other key players,'' he said. ''I traded salary for equity, OK. But it says you can still win, even in this environment.''
Daniel E. Ross, 52, of Mount Arlington, N.J., lost his job in international marketing for a cosmetics company in the spring of 2002.
''When I took a look at the job market, I realized there were precious few positions out there,'' Ross said.
Faced with the possibility of an extremely long job search, he decided instead to set up a company to develop international markets for U.S. cosmetics and toiletry manufacturers.
Ross, who is single, has had to dig into his retirement savings while he gets the business off the ground.
''The savings were there for a rainy day, as it were,'' he said. ''My preference would be for the business to take off rapidly and start throwing off cash to put away for another rainy day. ... For now, I spend the money where I need to spend the money.''
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