Typically, the family is on its way to realizing the American dream, with a nice home, children, and two cars. The wife may or may not work, but the husband is steadily climbing the career ladder into a middle-management position. With a good record behind him, his future looks solid.
Until, unexpectedly, he loses his job. Then the challenges to self-esteem as well as family unity can be stiff, particularly if there is no substantial second income to absorb some of the shock.
Being in a career track in middle management no longer spells job security. The current recession has reached up to pinch even the largest corporations, causing layoffs. The number of unemployed managers and administrators grew from 2.7 percent at the beginning of this year to 3.8 percent as companies trimmed management pools.
The recession is not necessarily the main cause for managerial layoffs, however. ''Management style, mergers and acquisitions, politics - all can cause termination,'' says Beebe Bourne, president of THinc Consulting Group International Inc., in New York, an executive outplacement firm which founded the concept as a corporate service in 1969.
''At first, it was just devastating,'' recalls Sue Atteberry, whose husband lost his job in August. ''You can't understand why this is happening when you've done everything the right way. It was really a blow too because he was doing a good job.''
Mrs. Atteberry's reaction is typical. Many people envision selling the house, losing the car, and making drastic changes in their lifestyle. The concern can be heightened by fears of finding another equally good job. If a job search is not directed or immediately fruitful, managers may lose their self-respect and confidence, something which can cause them to slip into the pool of so-called discouraged workers, who give up actively looking for a job.
At such times, maintaining a stable home environment, as well as developing a new schedule at home, is important.
''At first I thought, 'should I put our life on hold?'' says Mrs. Atteberry, whose husband's severance pay could carry them through the year. ''But I realized we shouldn't do that. He would feel pressured if he thought we were going to make drastic changes. So we worked on keeping home life normal.''
Dale Atteberry, who was chief financial officer with a finance and leasing corporation in St. Louis for seven years, says he concentrated right away on the idea that there wasn't a stigma attached to being unemployed. ''I was very open about it,'' he reflects.
After all, he points out, ''High visibility and letting people know you're looking can be one of the keys to finding a position.''
Working with an outplacement officer was helpful. An outplacement officer ''picked me up and dusted me off,'' he says. ''I quickly realized I couldn't spend time on anger and questioning; I had to go out and find another job.''
His five-year-old daughter helped bridge initial queries from neighbors, confidently informing them about her dad's new - though temporary - lifestyle.
Honest communication with children can be vital. ''Everything is often camouflaged, not told the way it is,'' says Kate Thompson (a pseudonym), whose husband lost his job as chief executive officer when his foreign-owned computer firm was phased out. ''But we've been quite successful in being very honest with the kids. They learn that the important thing is that we're together.''
For the husband, adjustments are obviously necessary. Staying disciplined in his search and treating it as a job have helped maintain Dale Atteberry's optimism. He set up an office in the basement of their home, put on a suit each day, tried to schedule at least two appointments per day, and worked a minimum of 40 hours a week on the search. Home repairs and mowing the lawn during work hours were out. Basically, he says, ''I had a marketing job for myself.''
Mr. Atteberry was fortunate: he started a new job at a leasing company in December.
''Communication is really important at this time,'' says Kathleen China Miner , vice-president of Human Resource Management Corporation, a corporate outplacement firm in St. Louis. ''The executive must have a clear sense of what's going on, and the only thing that's changed is that he's not bringing home a salary. It's important, too, for the home situation to remain stable.''
That can be difficult. ''Bumping into each other full-time was foreign to both of us,'' recalls Mrs. Thompson. For Mr. Thompson, finding a job equal to his former position was difficult at 57. He recently accepted a lower position that required a move to the Midwest.
''We changed our lifestyle after a while. I stayed away more from the house, '' Mrs. Thompson says. ''I guess I was a typical mother at home with all the kids. With my husband home, I felt I had to talk with him, communicate all the time. Ideally, you support each other all the time when you both need it, but it doesn't always work out that way. But you give when you can. It's not always smooth.''
Mrs. Thompson did start to work, although with four children her job had to be part-time. The income didn't begin to meet expenses. ''The advantage, though, was that it kept me busy,'' she says.
Relationships with friends may change as a result of unemployment. Sue Atteberry found that ''our friends really came through, especially in introducing any acquaintances that might be helpful to the job hunt.''
Mrs. Thompson acknowledges the same support from very close friends, but points out the difficulties that arose with neighbors. ''I either got acceptance and not too many questions,'' she reflects, ''or a 'what did you do?! ' approach. Some people really rallied, but others just didn't deal with it at all. Some just stopped coming by completely.''
The Thompsons' situation was complicated by two mortgages on a house that isn't selling, and the fact that all their savings were eaten up by the extended period of unemployment. Mrs. Thompson acknowledges that when the house finally does sell, there won't be the money to buy another, and they will rent, at least for the foreseeable future.
''We're still pulling together pieces from four years,'' she says, matter-of-factly. ''It's a transitional time, and we're not going the other way yet. But I've learned not to worry. I'm not as intense about some things, and I don't always think long-term about it. ''
And with her husband working again, she adds cautiously, ''I do see a resolution down the road.''