Trauma of job loss in middle age

By Phan Duong   March 31, 2024 | 03:05 pm PT
Tri Nguyen, deputy director of a factory in HCMC, received a termination notice from his employers on the second last working day before the Lunar New Year holidays.

"I had anticipated it due to the shortage of orders," the 42-year-old says. "But what surprised me more was that right after Tet [in February], the company decided to shut down the factory and lay off all employees, including long-serving staff."

It was the second time Tri had lost his job in just over a year. The first was in September 2022, but he was aware of the disadvantages caused by his age and so did not rush to find a new job. Instead, he took some time to learn new skills.

But when he began job hunting again in May 2023, he realized that times had changed. The positions he wanted were no longer as plentifully available as before; many applicants were willing to work for lower wages.

So, even if he made the final rounds of interviews, he was ultimately not hired. It took him a full year of unemployment before he found another job at a similar level as his previous one.

But since the manufacturing sector remained mired in difficulties, he lost his job again after five months.

"This time I started looking for a job immediately after being laid off because I saw that the market was gradually recovering and I needed to act fast," he says.

Tri has been actively searching for jobs and sent applications to two places since Tet, but has yet to receive an interview call. Since first starting to work over 20 years ago, he has never experienced such difficulty, he says.

Middle-aged workers at the Hanoi Center for Employment Service file for unemployment benefits on March 13, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

Middle-aged workers at the Hanoi Center for Employment Service file for unemployment benefits on March 13, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

In 2023 Vietnam had over 1 million out of 52.4 million people of working age without jobs, according to the General Statistics Office. The trend of laying off middle-aged employees increased sharply, with their number in 2023 1.6 times up from 2021.

The same year observed nearly 30% of people who lost their jobs in HCMC were over 40.

Analysts expect 2024 to be a challenging year for middle-aged workers, with their unemployment rate rising rapidly.

Tri and his wife, who have two school-age children and a mortgage on a house in Binh Tan District, have been forced to tighten their belts. He finds it painful whenever he has to tell his children to quit their piano or English class.

The fear of letting his family down is strong with each job loss. His children wonder why they no longer see him go to work. Neighbors and friends have started gossiping about his prolonged unemployment.

Whenever he goes for an interview, he has to hide the fact from the family to spare them the cycle of hope and disappointment.

"The repeated job losses and unsuccessful interviews have severely eroded my will and confidence," he says. "At times I feel like I’m trapped in a tight space, unable to stretch my arms or legs."

Since resigning in early March, Nguyen The Hung, a construction engineer in Hanoi, is in a similar mood as Tri.

Despite having planned to relax after 30 years of working, the 53-year-old felt so despondent on the day he went to claim his unemployment benefits that he skipped lunch that day.

"I was engulfed by a sense of loss throughout the first week [after quitting]," he says.

With the real estate sector in free fall, his company consistently failed to win bids. Previously a key player in securing billion-dong (VND1 billion equals US$40,400) projects, Hung found himself going to work daily without actual work to do and his efforts increasingly futile. His income dropped by more than half, and he was not paid a bonus for Tet.

"I thought quitting would liberate me from all of that, but it was not the case," he says. "The lack of money, social status and admiration tortured me."

Following the "great resignation" phenomenon for better work-life balance during COVID-19 and "quiet quitting" two years ago, 2023 and 2024 were expected to be years of "quiet firing" or mass layoffs in Vietnam, especially in tech companies and labor-intensive industries like textiles and footwear.

A report in January by executive search services provider Navigos said 18.4% of businesses do not have the intention of hiring new employees, and nearly 60% said they plan to add less than 25% of their current workforce.

Bui Doan Chung, founder and managing director of the Vietnam Human Resources Professional JSC, says: "Job opportunities will become more limited regardless of age."

"This also increases the risk of job loss and hinders employment opportunities for middle-aged workers, who are already affected by the ‘curse of 35’."

Đàm Thị Thu Trang, CEO of a recruitment company in Hanoi, says many industries will continue to pare their payroll this year, with a focus on redundant senior and mid-level positions. Experienced workers with high salaries will be replaced by juniors or newcomers who are paid less and can play multiple roles.

During mass layoffs caused by economic downturns, older workers are especially vulnerable, she says.

"Some of them that cannot adapt to new job contexts are more likely to be laid off and find it harder to get hired," according to her. "Moreover, biases against older workers such as being ‘conservative’ and ‘unwilling to learn new things’ put middle-aged workers in a more vulnerable position."

Chung of Vietnam Human Resources Professional JSC, who has assisted and interviewed many older people in the past 18 years, says the most important thing for middle-aged workers is to dare to "reinvent themselves" and "step out of their comfort zones" to undertake tasks they had never done before or that require a high level of detail and expertise.

A period of unemployment is an invaluable break to reassess one’s skills and strengths, learn new languages and technologies and find a career direction they can pursue until retirement, he says. Being able to accomplish these also makes employers better appreciate the responsiveness and adaptability of candidates to new work environments, he points out.

"Sometimes the perception that older workers have a big ego or are very inert is just a prejudice," he states. "Many people in this group I interacted with recently are very proactive in learning and have an open mind."

Hong Anh (name changed), 41, a single mother of two living in District 7, HCMC, is one such.

Once a representative in Vietnam for a Hong Kong company, her contract was terminated at the end of 2023. She was shocked to learn that the termination was not due to any fault of hers but merely an excuse for layoff.

But she accepted it and quickly bounced back. During the Tet holidays, she learned how to use LinkedIn to reach human resources managers, studied a new language, and revisited her knowledge about laws and legal matters.

Currently on probation at a new company, she now has many advantages.

"My sudden job loss made me realize that I must always be prepared for unexpected changes," she says. "Looking back I also saw that I had been resting on my laurels."

Tri has now obtained chief product officer (CPO) and total quality management (TQM) certificates. He plans to move into a management or executive role at a business or represent a foreign company in Vietnam from his current production specialty, and has enrolled in a CEO course.

"I’m also preparing for the possibility of starting my own business in future if another crisis occurs because it becomes harder to find a job as one gets older," he says.

Hung has decided not to return to the construction industry due to his lack of health and competitiveness when compared with younger colleagues at his age. His plan includes receiving unemployment benefits before transitioning to retirement and getting a pension since he has paid social insurance premiums for the 30 years needed to qualify.

Though his youngest child is about to graduate from university and his oldest has become capable of taking care of themselves, Hung said it is necessary to work further to save for his old age.

"I’m considering working as a security guard," he adds, indicating he might never use his engineering degree again.

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