Things I have learned from being retrenched (twice)

In 2002 I was at last pregnant.

After two years of fertility treatment, we had done it. Things were going well. We owned our own house, our relationship was strong, I had a good job. I was worried about how I was going to manage a baby and a career but I thought I would figure it out.

That was not how it was going to pan out, though.

At about the six or seven months mark of my pregnancy, I found myself in the boss’s office being told that my job was being made redundant. I was given a good package and a generous baby shower, and shown the door.

My therapist was a little unsympathetic, pointing out that being retrenched was not as bad as, say, losing a baby. With hindsight, she was of course right.

But retrenchment is not nothing, either.

At the time I was so focussed on motherhood that I don’t think I ever made a proper reckoning with the effects of that blow. I got on with being a freelancer, which took a long time to get even a little off the ground – it is not easy to hustle for work when you have a three-month-old to consider.

The financial ramifications were huge. The retrenchment package was soon gone, with baby medical bills and general short-sightedness being the order of the day. With my husband also self-employed, we were soon hugely in debt, taking menacing phone calls from the bank about our maxed-out credit cards. We sold our much-loved flat in Cape Town’s lucrative city bowl and used the proceeds to buy a mortgage-free run-down house in the suburbs (years later, I still miss that apartment and our city life).

When my son was three years old, I took serious stock. It didn’t seem my freelance career was ever going to bring in enough money, and I thought my boy was ready to go into full-time nursery school. So I started job hunting, and eventually went back to my previous employer (for whom I had been doing bits of freelance work during the three years away from full-time work).

We got back on our feet, and I progressed up the career ladder, now a lot more cautious and inclined to serious saving and careful money management. Then in 2013 the company was sold, and the internal culture changed over time. In 2016, retrenchment packages were offered and I took one. My second stint as a freelancer was under way.

Thinking about the two experiences now I am struck mostly by an obvious thing: that retrenchment happening to you is very different from choosing to take it yourself.

The second time round, even though I was (and am) often worried about money, I did not have the lingering feeling that my worth as an employee had been kicked in the teeth. Walking away of your own volition is a good way to go, if it can be managed.

There are other things I have learned from both experiences:

One: Never take having a job for granted. Your full-time employment could end at any time. And the universe could throw a curve-ball, as we have all learned from the Covid pandemic. Your full-time job is really just the job you happen to hold now.

Two: Because of that, keep learning new skills even as you work full-time. This will keep you ahead of the game. And even when you have established your own business as a newly self-employed person – keep upping your game, and keep an eye on trends in your field. As we have learned since 2020, nothing is certain.

Three: Save, save, and save some more. After that first retrenchment and re-employment, I took several years to build a “freedom fund” equal to six months of my salary. That kept me afloat in the first precarious years of running my own business. And now that I am established (for now), I am starting to build such a fund again.

Four: Your job is not the same as your worth as a person. Don’t let it become all of your identity. It will be gone with the wind before you know it. See point one. (Equally, your side-hustle or your small business are not your identity. They are important, but your worth resides in much more important things than meeting the next deadline).

Finally, and most importantly: Be your own safety net. No one is going to catch you when you fall. Work on your life, and yourself, so that you have the resilience and the courage and the resources to bounce back, no matter what happens.

Also read: Things I have learned in a year of running a business

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Main picture: Matt Hoffman, Unsplash

This post has been slightly updated from one written in 2018.

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