Jan. 15, 2009— -- Ernie Bjorkman has been a television journalist for 36 years. A popular Denver anchorman, he has interviewed presidents and rode on Air Force One.
"I loved what I did," he said. "We've been so blessed. We've had the money to be able to have two homes and to go out to a beautiful dinner on a Friday night and not worry about it." To be sure, the Bjorkmans have lived the good life, from expensive clothes to vacations around the globe.
For years, he and his wife, Susan, have been sought after hosts for the black tie charity events of upper crust Denver society, a celebrity role that came with being a well-paid local anchorman.
But that's all about to change. Last month, Bjorkman, like millions of Americans, became a victim of the economic downturn when he was laid off. The 57-year-old was fired from KWGN, his $250,000 salary soon to be gone. He has already applied for unemployment benefits.
"It's a lifetime that's sort of over," Susan Bjorkman said, holding back tears. "It's a new chapter in our lives, and we'll get over this. We will."
In the last year most Americans, regardless of their socio-economic standing, have suffered a serious -- in some cases, devastating -- financial blow to their wallets and psyche. Because money is society's scorecard, a lost job or home, or an eviscerated pension, can trigger intense feelings of embarrassment, shame, anxiety, depression and anger.
"The biggest issue is anxiety and depression," said Santa Clara University professor Dr. Gerrold Shapiro, who has been studying the effect of income loss among baby boomers. "Most of it comes from the discrepancy between what people expect and what they actually have. How much we have, how much we make is in many ways, by many people, tied to their self-worth."
In the midst of this doom and gloom, some are trying to turn a negative into a positive, which is why Ernie Bjorkman's story is so different.
"I didn't take it that I was fired. And I should, I guess, take it like I was fired, because I was," Bjorkman told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas. "I firmly believe that when one door closes, several others open."
Bjorkman had planned to anchor for five or six more years and then quietly retire, but when his station merged with another local station, he was the odd man out and the ax came down. He was forced, along with others, to try to convince the new general manager why he should keep his job, an ordeal he described as demoralizing, both for himself and for the others who were eventually let go.
Preparing for a Second Career
If Bjorkman's ego took a hit, he didn't show it.
When asked what it was like to have the job that defined him suddenly taken away, Bjorkman admitted he would miss his celebrity status and the instant recognition and adulation he typically received around town.
But for his wife, the humiliation cut deeper.
"I just think that the way it was handled, was just lack of respect," she said angrily.
"It's very difficult when you get laid off, and it's not only difficult for the person that got laid off, in some ways it's even more difficult for their family," said Shapiro.
Three years ago, sensing that his days as a well-compensated anchorman were numbered, Bjorkman went back to college to prepare for a second career. Growing up, he'd always loved animals and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but at his age, it didn't seem realistic to take on eight years of study. Instead, he enrolled at a nearby community college and decided to become a veterinary technician.
"It's been a big change coming to this profession not knowing anything," Bjorkman said as he cared for a dog bitten by a coyote at a local animal clinic on the last day of his internship. "I'm at the bottom of the totem pole. Kinda like a rookie, whereas in the TV business I was up there after 36 years. It's a big power shift from being on top to being on the bottom. Very humbling."
Personal finance guru Suze Orman said Bjorkman's forethought and planning are what everyone should do in these precarious times. "When you are prepared, when you have all those things in order and you lose your job, you're not powerless," said Orman.
But taking on a new career will mean an enormous drop in salary. Next May, when his contract stops paying him a quarter of million dollars a year, his annual income will drop more than 80 percent to $30,000 a year or less, assuming he can actually find a job as a vet assistant.
But Bjorkman insisted he's ready to leave his ego and the limelight behind. His wife believes her husband is in denial. She's not sure either one of them is prepared for what lies ahead.
To survive on a dramatically reduced income, the Bjorkmans will have to downsize by paying off their credit cards and other debt while living a more simple life, like they did when they were first married 36 years ago.
"Get a cheap six-pack of beer and invite friends over to play cards instead of going out for the $400 steak dinner on Friday nights," said Bjorkman confidently.
"I think there's some naivete in thinking, oh we can go back to the way we were when we were 25 when we're 55. Once you've tasted something better it's hard to readjust," said Shapiro.
'I'm Under No Illusions'
The Bjorkman's two children are grown up and their college education has been paid for. But like millions of other families, their savings have taken a serious hit. Susan knows that she will probably have to go back to work to help Ernie make ends meet. They are currently carrying two mortgages: one on their Denver condo, which they are trying to sell for $450,000, and another on their mountain home, worth more than $800,000, which Ernie said they most likely would have to sell too.
"It is going to be hard. I'm under no illusions of, you know, sacrificing and I don't like to sacrifice," Susan Bjorkman said as her husband chuckled. "I mean, when you can go out and buy a pair of $300 boots, you go buy them, and I can't now."
After they both laughed, Ernie said, "I'm kind of the opposite. I think we're going to enjoy life better. We're going to have to get used to being together a lot more."
Now that he is no longer an anchorman, Bjorkman plans to donate most of his many suits and ties to an organization called Dress for Success, which donates clothing to low-income or homeless people who need professional outfits for job interviews. "They're going to be some well-dressed people on the streets of Denver," said Bjorkman.
Several weeks ago, during his final newscast, Bjorkman signed off for the last time, telling his viewers, "My departure is coming maybe a few years earlier than expected, but as I say when life throws a curve ball,you gotta swing and hopefully you're gonna hit it. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you and God bless each and every one of you. So that's it. If you got a sick animal, bring 'em to me."
It would be normal for the former anchor to believe his self-worth had been compromised now that he will earn so much less. But when asked what he's worth, Bjorkman said, "I think what I do now is going to be priceless. Nobody can take that away from me. I can do that until I die. Maybe not get paid a lot of money, but I think the profession I'm going into is a very great profession, an honored profession. And so I think my self-worth is way up there."
"All this exterior stuff defines us and the hardest question to ask and answer in life is, 'Who am I?'" said Orman. "If people can truly understand who they are, truly who they are, then they know the key to life."