Too young to retire and too old to hire

James Kunen was miserable in his lucrative but meaningless job in corporate public relations.

His life became even worse when he was laid off in 2008 during the Great Recession and found himself, like thousands of other unemployed baby boomers, in the too-young-to-retire-and-too-old-to-hire category.

Kunen chronicled his experiences in the book "Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life," which is available in the new books section at the Ashland library near the check-out area.

Kunen does such a good job of capturing his malaise working for AOL Time Warner in New York City that I almost stopped reading his book. I was torn between empathy for his quest for meaningful work, and annoyance that this privileged, highly paid, employed American was whining about his job.

After being laid off in a round of corporate downsizing, Kunen also perfectly captures his sense of "What now?!?"

He thinks he's too old to go back to college to get a new degree, yet he doesn't have the educational credentials and work experience to start over with a new career. With much of his 1960s-era idealism still intact, all he knows is that he wants to find a job that allows him to help people.

Becoming a child-abuse investigator is out because he lacks a social sciences degree. He doesn't know anything about public housing programs, so he can't help HIV and AIDS patients find housing.

Through trial and error and a lot of false starts, Kunen gradually realizes he wants to teach English to immigrants in New York — even though he lacks a degree in education. The first half of the book is devoted to Kunen's corporate experiences and post-layoff floundering. The second half is much more engaging, heart-warming and enjoyable as he gradually forges a new identify for himself as an English instructor.

Kunen tutors an Iraqi refugee family and learns that the father has a doctorate in chemistry, speaks French fluently and was a professor in Baghdad. The father speaks about the sudden loss of his career and his family's status after they fled to the United States.

Kunen writes about their conversation.

"There I am professor, but here I am ..." He shrugged his shoulders.

"You're starting again," I said.

That theme plays out again and again as Kunen meets people who, like him, must start life anew. A history teacher and author, a student of industrial engineering, a pediatrician and many others are reduced to working as hotel maids, janitors, doormen and other low-status, poorly paid positions.

Kunen is inspired by their work ethic and positive attitudes as they strive to improve their lives and lay the groundwork for their children to succeed in America.

A flaw, to me, is Kunen's flower-child belief expressed throughout much of the book that being financially successful is somehow inherently evil. Meanwhile, the immigrants are striving to be successful and have financial stability — and Kunen is helping them achieve those goals by teaching them English.

Yet Kunen does learn from them, catching their sense of excitement about all the possibilities available in America while still acknowledging pervasive unfairness.

After learning that Adam, one of his students and a Darfur escapee, is about to earn his GED and win a college track scholarship, Kunen writes, "Thanks to Adam and my other students, I see college as wonderful, a decent job as wonderful. I feel enthusiasm. I see life as challenging and full of promise."

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

Share This Story