No Gold Watch – Nor Golden Parachute – When You Work For Pariah Corporation: The Story of Melissa and Phil

September 1, 2009

by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

With close to 65 years of big-company experience between them, this perfect corporate couple kept their noses to the grindstone and their feet on the ground – until they lost a million dollars one very bad afternoon.

“Call me naive, but I really believed in the Myth of Corporate America,” Melissa tells me. At 50, she is still a Texas belle, charming and well-mannered. It’s easy to see why she fit in so well as a big-company manager, serving 27 years in one industry, until her entire division was disbanded, virtually overnight, in August 2007.

Since then, she’s made do with consulting jobs in her specialty area of housing industry software, but “each contract has become progressively less lucrative,” she says. Attempts to get back to full-time work have been rebuffed with responses along the lines of, “You’re too senior for this position,” or “Your experience is too specialized.”

Melissa thinks her story is “very typical of what so many Baby Boomers are going through right now. We put in decades of hard work and dedication to companies that have either suddenly shut down or not come close to showing the loyalty they expected and required of us. Not only was there no gold watch. In many cases, there was neither a warning nor so much as a thank you.”

Her husband Phil is still employed. But as a First Boomer of 63, less than two years from his company’s formal retirement age, he’s “sitting on pins and needles” waiting to see how long his division will stay afloat. It’s up for sale. And he’s been told that if it isn’t purchased by the end of this year, its parent company will shut it down forever.

That parent company – let’s call it Pariah Corporation – has virtually imploded over the past year or so, one of the twenty or so big companies in the financial services sector which quickly descended from Powerhouse to Poorhouse for reasons both general and specific. Externally, they fell victim to worldwide recession, the massive market meltdown, and a rapid shrinking of consumer and corporate demand. Internally, Pariah and its Shameful Brethren were wracked by scandals, incompetence, internecine feuds, and executive suite greed unmatched since the days of the Gilded Age robber barons – although with tales of gluttony, orgies, drunken revelry, and toga parties, maybe the Roman Empire is a better analogy.

‘Twasn’t always so. Phil, a lanky Arizonan, spent over half of his near-40 corporate years with Pariah, and he remembers how thrilled his parents were when they heard about his first job there. “We’re so proud of you, Son,” Phil’s Dad told him. “There’s no better company in America than Pariah.” Adds Phil, “At that time, he was probably right. Our founder was considered one of the titans and visionaries in financial services. Pariah was respected and revered, not just here, but around the globe.”

Since its downfall, however, Pariah’s managers, even those far from the boardroom and free from blame or scandal, have been subjected to escalating harassment from the general public. “There have been some death threats,” says Phil. “A few of my colleagues have been accosted by irate shareholders. One man I know was literally beaten up in an airport lounge.”

Some Pariah employees conceal where they work from friends and neighbors. Phil doesn’t do that, but he finds it depressing that while once upon a time, “you said you were with Pariah, and everyone looked at you with admiration. Now they look at you with pity or scorn.”

Gutted Accounts, Dreams on Hold

Phil has more than simple scorn to be depressed about. Over decades of service to Pariah, he’d amassed stock options that were worth a cool million dollars – until one afternoon last autumn, when the company’s stock turned into confetti, taking Phil’s nest egg along with it.

“It represented our dreams of a worry-free retirement,” he says. Melissa is an accomplished cook, and the couple had hoped to spend their golden years running a small inn or bed-and-breakfast. If they decide to do that now, it will have to be with the help of bank loans, mortgages, and the financial obligations they entail.

Despite years of respectable earnings, an extravagant lifestyle hasn’t been in the cards for Phil and Melissa since their respective companies relocated them to northern California eight years ago. Previously living in the southeast, they found California so outrageously expensive, they decided to rent a modest townhouse, rather than buy a new home.

That seems a prudent decision after the housing crash. But it also means Melissa and Phil won’t have equity in a home to cash in, if they decide to relocate a few years from now. And though they certainly don’t begrudge it, in retrospect, they’ve spent an enormous proportion of their life’s earnings educating Phil’s three children from a previous marriage, who now range in age from 22 to 35.

The kids attended top-notch universities and graduate schools, which cost a not-so-small fortune these days. “Our youngest daughter, Allison, graduated last spring,” says Phil. “One year of her tuition cost as much as a nice-sized house – or maybe a small island – did thirty years ago.”

Even with that fancy education, Allison has had trouble finding lucrative work – as has Melissa since her layoff. “We’ve heard the stories about bratty Millennials dissing Boomers and scheming to take our jobs,” Melissa says. “But good kids like ours empathize with Boomers, because they’re in the same boat. There aren’t enough jobs now, no matter what your age.”

Melissa thinks the nature of work may change for many Boomers in the years ahead. “So many of us feel betrayed by big companies, I think we now have mindsets that are both defensive and proactive.” She sees herself having a “portfolio career” from now on, where she does “a little of this and a little of that.”

While continuing to accept software assignments that come her way, she’s also earning a real estate license and is taking courses towards becoming an holistic nutrition educator and consultant.

Melissa and Phil sense they’re in a transitional stage, both in their careers and in their lives. “Solidity and permanence just aren’t there any longer,” says Phil. Although still an employee – for now – he shares his wife’s disenchantment with a corporate career and where it has taken him.

“You go into corporate life seeking recognition and security,” he says. “You work extremely hard, move around the country, make all sorts of sacrifices – only to see it shatter to pieces.”

“We’re questioning whether we should have been there in the first place,” Melissa adds. “At this point, we are truly disappointed.”

What Do You Think?

Do you work – or have you worked – for one of the Pariah Corporations in the financial services sector? Tell us about your experience.

Are you disenchanted, discouraged, or disappointed about spending your life in the big-company sector?

In retrospect, are you sorry you didn’t work for a smaller company or become an entrepreneur?

Do you think you made too many sacrifices – like moving frequently – because your company told you to?

Have you been hit by a stock options or 401-K meltdown like Phil’s?

Has paying your kids’ college tuitions taken a toll on your savings?

For the Introduction to Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3

For Ellen’s hard-hitting piece on Anti-Boomer Propaganda, see: http://wp.me/pxD3J-8

For a related story on Financial Re-Engineering: http://wp.me/pxD3J-B

To hear about How Boomers May Save Twitter: http://wp.me/pxD3J-K

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3 Responses to “No Gold Watch – Nor Golden Parachute – When You Work For Pariah Corporation: The Story of Melissa and Phil”

  1. Art Carr Says:

    The accounting profession and SEC have made a huge deal over the past few years about the “value” of stock options, etc.

    It is a standard requirement that the value of those options be “disclosed” in the proxy materials and, of course, that number is included in the newspaper and Internet articles when reporting how much money the CEO of the company is paid.

    There have obviously been well-publicized excesses, but I wonder how many more of our generation were like Phil, trusting in their company and then never getting the chance to cash-in? I know it has happened to me during my career!

    AND, the company doesn’t even have to go “belly-up” – all it takes is a decline in the stock price for a couple of quarters when the options are due to expire.

    What has happened to all those “option expenses – also known as non-cash compensation” that were previously recorded? Will we see a reversal of those expenses in the quarterly earnings as a result of the downturn in the economy?

  2. Thom Sudol Says:

    It is rare anymore today to encounter people who’ve spent so many years at one company as Melissa and Phil.

    While they should be blest for their loyalty and diligence, they get kicked to the curb the same as those of us who have changed careers any number of times.

    Either way, the corporate life has lost so much of its luster, beginning with the dot.com meltdown followed by the Enron debacle and others. It is almost not something to aspire to any longer.

    Transferrable skills and flexibility are today’s watchwords for those “in transition.” What a sanitized term that is for us jobless types, huh?

    I believe that the idea of the “portfolio career” will grow ever larger in the coming years as Boomers and Busters seek to adapt to a rapidly changing, information-driven workplace.

  3. Rosalind Joffe Says:

    I love that you mentioned that Melissa and Phil’s children are in the same boat. We’re in our late 50’s, looking to send our two daughters to graduate school – a total of 10 years because one has to take post bac courses. And we can’t possibly afford this. But neither can they. But we can’t rely on their ability to repay loans either. I think this country has taken a deep financial hit and we’ve only begun to realize how much has to change regarding our expectations. As someone who works with people with chronic illness and career, I’ve grown used to dashed expectations. But now I see it among the healthy population as well.


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