There are many ways to end your career. The best way is to retire when you are ready financially and emotionally. The worst way is to be forced out of your job prematurely by a layoff, downsizing or reorganization. That's a harsh experience at any age, but it is particularly severe for workers who are too young for Social Security and too old to start new careers.

What is it like to be downsized? I talked with several people who have been through it. They included a $100,000-a-year corporate executive, an $11.22-an-hour clothing-factory worker and a pair of former infantry officers who feel they were squeezed out of a shrinking U.S. Army. None of them really wanted to leave their jobs.

After hearing their stories and many others, I feel fortunate that I was able to retire from The Washington Post at a time of my own choosing. Similarly, my wife, Sara, retired from General Electric Co. when she was ready to slow down. Many people we know did not have that choice.

As I collected my downsizing stories, I also came across several important statistics about the American job scene. For instance, the U.S. unemployment rate is now 4.2 percent, a 29-year low. Help-wanted signs are everywhere. But at the same time, more than 1 million people each year lose their jobs in layoffs because corporations want to cut costs and boost productivity to remain competitive.

In fact, mass layoffs claimed the jobs of 3.3 million people from 1996 through 1998, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS counts only layoffs of 50 or more people that last 30 days or more.

Of those 3.3 million people, about 501,000 of them were 55 years and older. Although older workers make up 12.4 percent of the labor force, they were hit with 15.6 percent of the layoffs. Older workers are often vulnerable to corporate job reductions because of their higher salaries and benefits.

Unless they have saved enough money so they don't have to work, older workers try to find new jobs that will take them to retirement age--usually between 62 and 65. But job searches by older workers can be difficult and frustrating.

The mass-layoff figures contain several messages. One is that few people can expect to spend their careers at one company any longer. Multiple jobs are the order of the day. In the future, I suspect, few people will do what I was able to do--spend 19 years at one company and 23 years at another.

The other message for American workers is this: Keep your briefcases packed, your resumes updated and your skills sharpened so you'll be ready to head for your next job when a downsizing comes to your neighborhood.

The layoffs sweeping through the corporate world are only one part of the story of career dislocation in America. The other part is the huge downsizing of the U.S. military during the past decade--an event prompted in large part by the end of the Cold War.

U.S. military forces were cut from 2.1 million to 1.4 million--a 33 percent reduction--between fiscal years 1989 and 1998. To be more precise, the cuts affected 723,399 people and their families. Many men and women who wanted to make military service a career were forced out because there was simply no room for them in a much smaller military establishment.

The departures were accomplished in many ways--both voluntary and involuntary. The most controversial cuts were made by Selective Early Retirement Boards, which in the case of the Air Force abruptly ended the careers of almost 4,500 high-quality officers.

While the drawdown is largely over, the shrinkage has intensified the competition for fewer slots and promotion opportunities within the military. Officers who see signs they're not going to make it to a higher rank often get discouraged and quit. There's also a long-standing policy that people who don't get promoted within a certain time period have to leave the service.

Those who serve for 20 years can retire with a pension and other benefits. But that's not retirement in the civilian sense. The average age of military retirees in fiscal 1998 was about 46 years for officers and about 41 years for enlisted personnel. So, in essence, most of these "retirees" must begin a second career.

The Department of Defense and veterans organizations such as the Retired Officers Association sponsor frequent seminars and workshops to teach prospective retirees how to conduct a job search and how to adapt to civilian life.

In an effort to learn more about the impact of downsizing in America--both corporate and military--I sought out people who had been through the experience. Here are some of their stories:

The Merger

At the age of 52, after working for Prudential Insurance Co. of America for more than 30 years, Jon P. May of Gaithersburg lost his job in a downsizing. He left his $100,000-a-year job as a human resources executive in 1996, started looking for a new job and began doing occasional consulting work.

Three years later, he is still looking.

May said he sends out a dozen resumes a week. But few of them are even acknowledged, and so far he has had only two face-to-face interviews. Neither resulted in a job.

May, who is now 55, is convinced that his age has a lot to do with his difficulty in getting a job. "I have 30 years of experience and gray hair and, I hope, the wisdom to go with it," he said. But he also says he can almost hear the interviewers saying to themselves "I wonder how long he would stay here" or "He must want a lot of money" or "Can't we find somebody younger who wouldn't cost as much?"

"Somewhere, there is a place where I can make a contribution," May said. "But it has taken longer to find than I expected."

Fortunately, May said, he is not in dire financial straits. He got a year's severance pay when he left his job, and he gets a pension of $3,000 a month. But he has started to dip into his savings for living expenses and he is uneasy about the length of time he has been out of work.

May joined Prudential in 1964 and moved to personnel work in 1975. In 1987, he moved to Gaithersburg to work in the newly formed Prudential Home Mortgage Co. That unit was sold to Norwest Mortgage Co. in 1996 and about 700 jobs in the accounting and human resources departments were eliminated because Norwest had duplicate personnel at its Des Moines headquarters.

Ironically, as a human resources vice president, May helped write the downsizing plan that did away with his own job.

May does not quarrel with the downsizing. He said he tells himself what he told others: "This is not a love-you, hate-you situation. This is a business deal." Even so, May is unhappy that he was unable to get Prudential Home Mortgage to give him health benefits when he left the company. He now pays $350 a month for health coverage for himself and his wife, Diane. "I'm still very upset about that," he said.

Although he is an optimist by nature, May said, he is disappointed that his job search has gone on so long. "It's unfortunate that I haven't been able to make a connection," he said. "But nobody promised me a rose garden."

The Plant Closing

"I feel cheated," said Patricia Bell, 57, one of the 4,000 workers who lost their jobs when Fruit of the Loom Inc. closed its plant in Campbellsville, Ky., about a year ago.

"I gave them 25 years of hard work," Bell said, noting that she was rarely absent. Bell said she is getting a company retirement check of $198.50 a month.

Bell, who was an inspector of finished garments, earned $11.22 an hour. After the plant closed, she applied for unemployment benefits, and she has been receiving $318 every two weeks. One of the toughest things about the layoff, she said, was that she lost her company health insurance, which covered her and her husband, David, a barber. He did not have health insurance.

The Bells continue to have medical coverage under the federal COBRA program. It lasts for 18 months and costs $308 a month, but there is now only six months of coverage left. Fortunately, Pat Bell recently found a new job at Cox's Interior Co. in Campbellsville, where she will be eligible for health insurance after 90 days.

At her new company, which makes moldings and doors, Bell operates a chop saw from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. "I think I'm going to like this job," she said.

Now that she is working again, Bell said she expects to drop her studies at Campbellsville University. She was among a group of former Fruit of the Loom workers who enrolled at the college under a federal program that paid their tuition and gave them $10 a day for commuting expenses.

Although Bell, who was enrolled in the law enforcement program, was a good enough student to make the dean's list, she found studying difficult. The college has been "wonderful to us," she said, but she added: "At this time in my life, I would rather be working."

The Drawdown

Former Maj. Ed McDaries, 35, spent 11 1/2 years in the Army as an infantry officer and would have stayed much longer if he thought he would eventually become a battalion commander.

But in 1996 he decided that wasn't likely to happen because he had been passed over twice for admission to the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), which is considered a critical gateway for an officer who wants to command an infantry battalion. Infantry battalions generally are commanded by lieutenant colonels.

Although many majors get promoted to lieutenant colonel, McDaries said, unless they attend CGSC they are unlikely to ever command a battalion and will wind up serving as staff officers.

That prospect wasn't good enough for McDaries, who served in the Persian Gulf and in Bosnia. "I'm a leader, he said. "Being a staff officer is not what I'm about."

During his years in the military, McDaries was sent to the Defense Language Institute to study French and served in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, a unit composed of officers who work on local government problems in troubled regions of the world.

When he was passed over the second time for CGSC, McDaries handed in his letter of resignation. His other option at that point, he said, was to wait six years to try to win promotion to lieutenant colonel. That would have meant spending long periods of time away from his wife, Chrisie, and their two children. McDaries was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"The Army said to me, 'You're okay to promote to major, but you're not okay enough to continue on with the full game plan,' " he said.

When he resigned from the Army, McDaries said, he left without a pension or any other benefits. He then went to work for Pfizer Inc. as a "detail" man who makes the round of doctors' offices promoting the company's latest drugs. He didn't care much for the work. So he sought out an old friend.

McDaries had met a fellow Fort Bragg infantry officer, Maj. Clarence Briggs, who also had been passed over for CGSC and was ready to leave the Army.

"My chances for making lieutenant colonel were substantially reduced by the drawdown," Briggs recalled. As the number of openings decreased, he added, the grading of the candidates became tougher and tougher until only the "water walkers"--or flawless candidates--could pass the test.

Briggs, working out the bedroom of his home, set up a hosting business on the World Wide Web that has grown into a $10 million-a-year company called Advanced Internet Technologies Inc. Briggs is the president and chief executive of the Fayetteville, N.C., company, and McDaries is the marketing chief. The firm has a staff of 50, most of whom served in the military.

Thus, it's no surprise to learn that AIT is organized along the lines of an infantry battalion--with Briggs and McDaries clearly in command.

CAPTION: Patricia Bell lost her job when Fruit of the Loom closed its plant in Campbellsville, Ky., last year.

CAPTION: LOOKING AT LAYOFFS (This chart was not available)