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Should You Ever Volunteer For a Layoff?

If you’re 50 and thirsting for change, can it make sense to take the money and run?

Workers Raise Hands and Shout, Sticky Notes On Glass, Should You Ever Volunteer For a Layoff?

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Taking a voluntary severance package may provide a financial cushion and a springboard to a new life, but not everyone over 50 is ready for that challenge.

A former colleague heard that her employer was seeking volunteers for the next layoff. Her industry is going through massive changes, and her company is in the news regularly for restructurings and staff reductions. She herself has talked frequently about jumping to a competitor or starting her own venture. Yet, in the final calculation, she decided not to raise her hand. A big factor influencing her decision against a voluntary layoff was her age—she is in her mid-fifties and didn’t feel confident to job hunt now.

Does it ever make sense for someone at midlife to take a package?

Yes, it does. Getting laid off provides a clean break. Severance furnishes a financial cushion. Outplacement support, part of many packages, brings coaching, information, networking and leads toward your next pursuit. Getting laid off from work can be a terrific doorway to change. While workers over 55 can remain unemployed for a longer time, there is an upside: The 55-64 age group has the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the U.S. and start-ups by people over 55 are almost twice as likely to succeed as those founded by people 20-34, according to Kauffman Foundation research.

But is now the moment? Here are three considerations to gauge:

Do you have something better to do?

A layoff might be just the push you need to finally go after the dream you’re harboring. I talked about starting my own firm for three years before I did it; I finally got the nerve when my employer asked for voluntary layoffs, and I took it as a sign. What would you do with newfound freedom? Are you energized by the prospect of finding another opportunity, even if it’s similar to the work you do? If you decide to stay put because you love where you are, keep in mind that layoffs may change your role and will certainly change the culture.

Is the timing right?

I’m not just talking age. Twenties, forties, fifties, whatever—job search requires a willingness to persist through networking rejections, the ups and downs of the hiring process, and the silence of waiting for feedback and decisions. But timing also means other commitments in your world right now. Are you shepherding elderly parents through assisted living options or navigating college applications with your teenage kids? Is your significant other at a particularly hectic time in his/her career? Did you just take on responsibility for a specific project or client that you’d like to see through?

 If your responsibilities will prevent you from launching a full-strength job search or giving a start-up your unswerving attention, you may be wise to wait for better circumstances before getting laid off. But keep in mind that this offer may not be repeated, and mandatory layoffs, usually with punier packages, may follow. My former colleague’s firm has cut its severance benefit in recent years.

Can you pull it off financially?

I used my severance to pay household expenses while I landed my first clients. I knew I could also get consulting work in my field, and health insurance on my spouse’s plan. Is the severance offer large enough to give you traction in your next pursuit? Do you have options to fill in gaps (like spousal medical coverage) that your typical severance package lacks? Remember that severance, meant as a cushion, is unlikely to cover the entire transition, especially if you’re starting a business (which often takes longer than even your most conservative projections). Run the numbers based on your household expenses and the expenses for your next pursuit.

If the severance offer isn’t rich enough, don’t dismiss getting laid off outright. See if you can negotiate for more, or go after alternatives like consulting work that can supplement the severance. Once you have confirmation that additional resources will be there, you can then raise your hand.

Voluntary layoffs shouldn’t be driven solely by fear, including anxiety prompted by an extreme change like this at midlife. Look at your fears with eyes wide open to see where the risks are and how you can mitigate them. Don’t dismiss the idea of volunteering to go before reflecting on whether it would work for you. Sometimes, getting laid off is the best next step.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®.  She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology, and pharma/ biotech. Connect with Caroline on Google+.

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