After the axe: What it's really like to lose your job

A polite letter, a brief meeting, a tearful announcement... and then what? Six people who've lost their jobs in recent months tell Simon Usborne how it's changed their lives
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Jo Tongue

30, TV and radio producer, south-east London

We had our Christmas party on 15 December. It was fancy dress with a sporting heroes theme. I went as a pre-fat Maradona in full 1986 kit with a replica World Cup trophy, as well as a bag of icing sugar around my neck like cocaine. The big boss came, but just put money behind the bar and left. Looking back, I should have thought that was a bit weird. The next morning, at our weekly production meeting, just as we were about to exchange our secret Santa presents, the boss came in and said we were going off air.

There was silence in the room. Our boss was devastated. I had lost my job, but this had been his whole life for four years. He seemed embarrassed and as if he didn't want to be there. He said he was really sorry – I think he felt responsible, but it wasn't his fault. He told us we could do that night's show or just go down to the pub. We said, sod doing the show, let's have a drink. It wasn't until I got home that I thought, my God, I don't have to go to work tomorrow.

Previously, I'd worked for the BBC for seven years and had always wanted a job there. I worked on the Eamonn Holmes show, the Gabby Logan show for Radio 5 Live, and as a producer onInside Sport. I loved working at the BBC, but wanted a promotion so when SportsXchange came along I jumped at the chance to be at some-thing from the beginning. My Dad had told me to be careful with start-ups but it seemed safe. It wasn't – it was a terrible time to start a new sports channel because suddenly nobody had money for advertising.

The rest of December was fine because I had pay for that month and it was Christmas and everyone was going out – I didn't have to accept it was real. It was only on the Monday after New Year I realised I was the only one not going back to work – and that my money would run out at the end of January. I've been meeting with people about jobs and sending my CV out. There are jobs around, but I'll probably have to freelance for a while. I'm just, like, "Look, give me something to do today – I'll be a runner tomorrow just to keep my mind active."

I've also been busy – I've loved having time to go to the gym, train for the marathon, go shopping and for coffee with friends I haven't seen for ages. I used to do the food shopping online but I've even had time to go to the supermarket. I spent £100 in Asda a couple of days ago, so at least the fridge is full.

I'm a very proud person. I've always had a job and somehow it's embarrassing to be unemployed, as if you're not good enough.

I should be signing on – I've paid my taxes for 13 years and am entitled to that money, but I don't know if I can be that person. There's a real stigma attached to it.

If I could do it online I'd have done it the day I got made redundant, but I haven't been able physically to walk into a Jobcentre. Give it two weeks and I'll probably be there.

Margaret Bewley

66, shop assistant, Cumbria

I had worked in the Barrow-in-Furness branch of Woolworths for 45 years except for a break when I had my daughter. Her husband, Stephen, had worked there seven years and his stepson, Matthew, did weekends and holidays. We knew things weren't brilliant but nobody told us how bad. The first sign something was wrong was towards the end of November, when a customer came in and spoke to Stephen. He had seen something on the news about Woolworths being sold.

We couldn't believe a company like ours, which had been going on all those years, was in such a state. It was an awful shock. A few days later, our manager got us all together and told us that the company had gone into administration. He said hopefully somebody would take over, but he was also talking about getting rid of residual stock, so we should have known. It was up and down before our hopes were finally dashed. It was very emotional, the way things swung back and forth.

I decided nothing was going to spoil our Christmas, so we really put things on hold and said right, we'll get through to the new year and then we'll really have to pull the belt in. It had been really busy in the shop – normally we take on extra staff before Christmas, but it had just been the usual crowd of all-year-rounders and they worked magnificently. But there was anger because you think, why did they let it get so bad? That there must have been something they could have done. But, I don't know – I'm not a business person, and at the end of the day it's just the economic climate.

We had such a lot of sympathy from customers – people were really sorry and hoped we'd find jobs. It's heartening in some ways to think people are so concerned. It shows that for all we weren't, perhaps, the best company in the world, people actually quite liked shopping in Woolworths and were going to miss it.

We ceased trading on Saturday 3 January but we had to stay on until the Tuesday to begin clearing out the whole shop. It was really, really upsetting. We talked together and decided that we wanted to leave the store in as good a state as we could. We'd looked after it all these years and had all worked together really well. It's just a shell now.

The first thing I've done is to get the house back to the usual condition – I've been working so hard I've neglected the home. And then I'll be looking for something. I don't want a full-time job at my age, but I want something to keep my brain working. I'm not one of those types to sit about. It's different for Stephen. He's got a mortgage and five kids with a baby on the way. They don't go without, but it's hard. You just want the best for them, don't you? We'll get by, we just won't be able to help quite as much as we'd like to.

Sajjad Katariwala

27, financial consultant, west London

There were no signs my job was under threat. And then it just happened: I was taken into a meeting with the rest of the team and was told that a couple of our colleagues, who had come in for work that morning, had already been canned. Then we were told our contracts were going to end. It was my manager who broke the news. He would have been more apologetic if it had been his decision but it wasn't – the company just had to get rid of people and as consultants, we were first in line for the chop.

I didn't grow up in wealth but had always wanted to achieve it. My dad worked for London Underground and brought me up on an estate. I was lucky enough to go to a good school and got a degree in business finance, before becoming an operations consultant for investment banks. It was very well paid. I was out all the time, I had two properties, an Audi TT and, just last May, I went to Spain for the weekend, Copenhagen the next and Las Vegas after that. It seemed like the party would never end.

When times are good you put yourself in a position where you always want to get to the next level. I'm always looking for that next rung and made certain investments to help, but none of them seemed to be paying off. Early last year, a contract with Barclays Capital ended. Usually I'd find something new within a few days – I could pick my job. But things were drying up so I had to go to Brussels to work for ING. Budgetary constraints meant I had two months with no work. I had to accept my last job, with Credit Suisse, with half the pay I had been earning. It was a huge emotional insult.

Now the party has ended and my life is completely different – it's absolute belt tightening. I had to sell a property, the car's gone – I've had to dig out my travelcard. You have all these dreams you've built up over the years and, just as they seem to be coming true, they're suddenly dashed. Now I'm not even sure I want to get back into banking. Even if there are jobs, the rates are knocked down so far the industry has become unrecognisable. If I get back in, what will it be for – more of the same work, for a quarter of the pay? It's completely unappealing.

Things got worse recently. I was putting spread bets on the pound reaching parity with the euro but got it wrong and lost heavily. It's the kind of thing you do in the hope of making it big and not having to worry about the job situation for the next year. And it went really bad.

If you win the lottery and piss the money up the wall you can only make it back by winning again, which is unlikely. But when you've started from zero and reached a certain level, sure – it's demoralising to be heading back to zero, but, chances are, with a bit of grit and determination you can do it again. I'm optimistic that I will.

Ilona Richards

59, lorry driver, north Lincolnshire

I loved driving lorries. I left school at 15 and did a few girly jobs in shops, offices and factories, but never really settled. Then I got a job driving a van and thought, wow, lorries – wouldn't it be good to get in one of those? I was 27 and passed the test first time. Since then, I've driven fridges, tippers, heavy haulage, abnormal loads, cement, chemical tankers, dynamite to quarries – just about every vehicle on the road. I loved the freedom and never knowing where you would finish the day.

The week I was ready to come back to work after my hysterectomy in July – I had collapsed in the middle of the night in March and called 999 – I read in the local newspaper that the B&Q depot where I worked in Scunthorpe was going to close. It was a big shock. I only had a bit left to pay on my mortgage so I thought, if I worked like hell until I'm 60 next May, I might just be able to get rid of it. There's only a bit left, but it was the sense of wanting to be free – free of that mortgage. Now that's not going to happen.

Going to the Jobcentre was horrible. I've only ever done it once before, when I was a teenager doing seasonal work in Blackpool. Now it's all changed, of course. I thought you'd just knock on the door and say, "Hey-ho, I haven't got a job – what can I do?" It's not like that. They send you on your way with a phone number. You ring it and have no idea who you're speaking to – I think it was some chap on his computer in south Wales. He asks you questions on just about everything and taps in the answers. It took more than an hour and I thought he was such a nosey parker. He wanted to know all about my money, how much I've got in the bank, my account details, savings – "Well, I haven't got any savings," I said.

It has always been my ambition, even after leaving school without any qualifications, to pay my own way. It's all I wanted to do – earn money and not scrounge off anybody. I haven't even bothered to get married because I wanted to be totally independent. It was a blow to lose that. Who's going to give me a job so close to retirement?

I'm now living on about £37 a week, but it's actually not that bad and I'm not panicking. My central heating packed up two years ago and I never got it repaired. At the moment I'm wearing a pair of thick woolly tights, jogging bottoms, two pairs of socks and a big pair of furry slippers, three T-shirts, two sweatshirts, a fleece, an outdoor jacket with a scarf and a woolly hat. I do have a gas fire in the living room, but that's really more for my poor little cats. My last quarterly gas bill was for £15. I live off my own vegetables and have ditched my telly. When you're working, you're earning a living. When you're not, you're forced to work towards living. I just can't wait to get my bus pass – I shall be off!

James Dale

28, architect, London

We knew something was wrong when the jobs stopped coming in. We usually had phone calls and emails from potential clients every day but by June or July it was down to every other week. We weren't that worried because we had plenty of ongoing work but then clients starting putting jobs on hold or scaling down their plans. After a while it was a case of trying to spin out what little work we had.

Rumours and gossip trying to predict who was going to be going were rife. Then, in the middle of October, one of the partners sat me down, explained what was happening, and told me he was going to have to let me go. We knew each other well and it took him a while to work up the courage. It was an odd feeling for me but I wasn't shocked because it was a manoeuvre I had anticipated. And I'm not alone; I don't know a single person in architecture who doesn't know people who have been made redundant or had their hours reduced. It's the conversation everyone's having and there's constant anticipation about who's going to be next.

I studied at Hull School of Architecture for four years before doing a year of work in North Yorkshire. Then I did my two-year diploma in Edinburgh and worked on a project abroad before getting a job in a London practice. It was a small firm of two partners and three staff and most of our work was very high-spec residential refurbishments and extensions. We're talking about million pound-plus budgets for basements that included swimming pools, steam rooms, saunas, games rooms and gyms. It was silly money and the work soon became repetitive and tedious. The challenges that came up were solved by throwing money rather than trying to find a sympathetic solution. But at least the money was there.

Only a year ago work was abundant – you could leave one job and go straight into another one. Suddenly, there's this strange feeling because the work isn't there and there's a lot of competition for jobs that do come up. It's intimidating as well because you're not sure when it will change. It got me really down before Christmas. This is my profession – what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I've invested a lot financially – when I was working, a third of my salary went towards paying off debt – but also emotionally. This is what I want to do and if someone takes it away, what else can I do? The worry has been heart-wrenching.

But, regardless of how long this goes on I will find work – it's just a matter of when. In the meantime, people say a lot of good things come to architecture in a recession. People are challenged more and forced to find new ways to push forward ideas and produce more thoughtful buildings. There'll be fewer prestige projects and everyone will have to improve the quality of their work to compete. I just hope I'll be in the race.

Theo Mance

35, antiques dealer, east London

The alarm bells started ringing last May, before the shit really hit the fan. The showroom I worked in was on the King's Road. We got all the west London sorts in there. These were high-end customers – people with money to spend and big houses to fill. The products were high-end as well – replica 18th-century French furniture that only an expert could tell apart from an original. We had opened three showrooms within about four kilometres of each other, including one in a well-known department store, in what appeared to be an endless market.

But if you're in retail you see weekly figures, and in May they got bad. We changed our warehouse structure, reducing storage overheads and cutting delivery costs, and then closed a branch in June or July. Rumour and counter-rumours about what might happen started to circulate. A colleague spotted our boss in conversation with other people about the lease we had in the department store and the figures kept getting worse.

The letter came in early September, but it only said we were in a consultation period and that perhaps not all the remaining shops would close. There was no end date so we had what turned out to be a two-month redundancy period. Normally, you get the letter and a date and that's it. In this case it was left open, which was irritating. If you're going to look for something else you need to know where you stand.

The final letter came at the end of October but the stores would not close for another month. That's a long time to hang around. You're demotivated already and then we had to reduce everything to half price, which made things intolerable because we ended up doing the equivalent of a year's business in two months. We'd been put under increased pressure and were being given a greater workload at a time when they should have been considering our feelings. The settlement wasn't particularly motivating, either.

But I had been made redundant from my previous job, so it didn't seem like a disaster this time round. When things had gone horribly wrong, my thoughts were to look for something else. But now you have to rethink – is there going to be something else out there? I think the best thing one can do is not hop straight into a job you don't really want. If you can, I think it's important to let out that steam and tension. I've been drinking a lot and meeting people I haven't seen for a long time – it's a natural reaction to what was a very stressful two months. I went to Paris and blew some of my redundancy money on a piece of art. I'm planning to do the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, which will cost me less than living in London for a month. And I'm thinking of going back to a job without responsibilities – behind a bar on in a shop, perhaps. Or perhaps I'll retrain and do and do a course in furniture making – something that's better for the soul.