A temporary service career counselor once said if I was younger I may find a job quicker.
I had no idea how harsh the job market would be until after I was downsized from a career I spent more than 15 years cultivating. It took me over three years to find another job and when I did, it was at half the salary of my former job.
I’m not alone.
Many women over the age of 40 are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed at a time when they are at the top of their professional game.
They have spent their professional careers successfully pursuing their goals and passions. Why are Gen X women on the edge of teetering on a career cliff when they are supposed to be poised to shatter the glass ceiling?
Shrinking Numbers of Gen X Women in the Workplace
There is a glaring absence of Gen X women in the workplace.
Since the start of the 2008 recession, the number of working women ages 45 to 54 has dropped by more than 3.5 percent. There are now about one million fewer women of that age in the labor force than at their peak at the end of 2009.
One of the reasons for the shrinking numbers of Gen X women in the workplace is that major life transitions such as caregiving for a loved one, a company downsizing, or a personal medical/emotionally emergency including burnout, can derail the career trajectory of mid-career women.
For example, after her husband’s lengthy illness, Amy, a veteran journalist with a major media organization, had to make some tough career decisions. Initially, the company allowed Amy to work remotely while caring for her husband.
“They (employers) told me I would have to start coming into the office eight hours a day, regardless of his health issues,” Amy said. “I chose to resign my position so I could stay home and care for him and run our small art studio.”
“This was the start of the period I call ‘the dark years’” Amy continued, “It was also known as ‘the years of tears and beers’ because both flowed freely”.
Moving Through Care-giving
No matter how dim or fearful there is always light and hope.
“Understand that everything you have done up until this point is preparing you for your next steps,” Amy said. “Also, try to be prepared for a rainy-day emergency by having resources set aside.
The money Amy saved in her 401k, for example, allowed her to operate her art studio during low cash-flow months. She has also accepted the realities of living in a gig economy, in which there are “no job guarantees, no pensions and, frequently, very few tangible benefits.”
“Embrace the idea that job security is a quaint notion of the past,” Amy said. “The resulting change in your mindset will keep you attuned to opportunities when they cross your path, as well as the need to preserve the resources you are currently earning just in case the unexpected occurs.”
Thirty-six percent of women cite caregiving as the primary reason for not formally working, compared to just 3 percent of men. Even further, the responsibility to care for aging parents disproportionately falls on women than men.
The gap isn’t easily explained merely by cultural preference, much less “tradition”, since many women seem to be forgoing paid work to provide services to children, elders, or relatives with disabilities. The cost of employing professional home health aides or home care is out of range for many middle and lower-income families.
Downsizing and Underemployment
Karen became the unwitting victim of downsizing and outsourcing when she transitioned out of a law career to work for a non-profit.
As the nonprofit experienced multiple re-organizations over a six-year period, Karen’s job in human resources was outsourced.
“I was already grossly underpaid and under-titled for the work I was doing,” she said. “So when another organization called wanting to hire me in the same role, it was a lifeline. But it was a lateral to another underpaid, under-titled role.”
Karen eventually looked inward towards her own skills to explore her next and perhaps more lucrative move.
“I’m currently between jobs and actually considering going back to work in the field of law–but in employment now that I have the added experience in Human Resources,” Karen said. “I recently passed the New York bar exam and am applying to become licensed.”
Getting older also costs money.
Teresa Ghilarducci with The Federal Reserve Study has shown that wages stop increasing at about the age of 45.
For workers ages 45 to 55, wages decrease by 9 percent. From 55 to 65, wages drop another 9 percent. Just at the time when female workers are in peak career and facing a multitude of life transitions is when their wages stagnate and fall. That means if you don’t get a raise at your current job around the age of 45, you probably will never get one at that job.
Now, to get a raise, many people will say, “Well, you’re going to have to go get another job.”
But, it turns out, that if you lose your job at 45 to 50, and you go out and get another one, your wage will probably be 20 percent or 25 percent less.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common rite of passage question.
But what do you do when a chosen career is no longer a passion, or a career path is frozen due to burn out?
“Figuring out what to do with my vast combination of talents and abilities after completing a master’s degree in 2015 has been a challenge,” said Linda, who experienced workplace burnout and fatigue. “It was especially difficult while continuing to age in a university town where so much of the economy caters to 18-22 year old students.”
The question of aging and mid-life career and personal goals can also arise during this time of burnout and workplace fatigue. For example, women over 40 with long histories of career success sometimes see their responsibilities assigned to younger workers. In addition, women may question whether climbing the career ladder is worth it.
“An older friend suddenly got sick and died that same year, before being able to enjoy a moment of her long-anticipated retirement,” Linda said. “Between her death and my younger brother’s the year before, it became clear that life is too short to stay in a secure, but soul-killing job.”
A recent study by economist Alan Kruger focused on labor force “leavers” and draws a bleak picture of the rupture and decline of aging workers’ life trajectories.
The many so-called “discouraged” workers, who gave up job searching after many rejections, experience extraordinary rates of stress, social isolation and emotional misery—a collective pathology that experts often term “despair”.
There are now signs that this long-term mental-health crisis is becoming a public health epidemic, as a new normal of prime-age adults, once considered the basis of the middle class, slide into frustration and social isolation.
Linda spent more than a year searching for a job that matched her 20 years of experience. She finally accepted a low-paying, part-time position.
“When I was running through my savings and desperately looking for work, my father told me I should literally knock on doors,” Linda said. “But I’m shy and there really isn’t that many actual doors to knock on.”
Linda survived her career transition by practicing self-care.
She walked, meditated, practiced rituals, and focused on her overall health, while seeking support from family and friends.
Career Crisis Resources
You don’t have to fall off the career cliff.
Remember, Generation X lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Internet, the tech bubble, economic recessions, September 11, and the convulsing of social and political structures. We have the strength to endure a career crisis.
“An effective job search strategy must include both an authentic narrative and a powerful set of tools,” said Anita Stockmans, a career coach and human resources guru at Après. The consortium helps women with college and advanced degrees re-enter the workplace.
Nonprofit Path Forward partners with companies like Walmart, Netflix, Apple, SAP, NBCUniversal, Verizon, PayPal, Intuit, and others to provide returnships for women returning after caregiving. More than 80% of the participants in their programs have been hired by the companies where they completed their returnships. These companies are recognizing that the experience, gravitas and loyalty that comes with older workers is an asset to their business.
Several large employers have recognized the need to bring valuable talent back into the workforce after they’ve being away for extended periods. Dell, JP Morgan Chase and GM list programs to support a return to employment on their career pages. Back to Work 50+, an initiative of the American Association for Retired Professionals (AARP) , connects struggling Americans ages 50 and up with the information, support, training, and employer access they need to regain employment.
Women over the age of 40 offer depth and breadth of work experience. Any business owner or executive should want managers who have gained wisdom through the crucible of fiery trials.
There’s an almost limitless supply of that kind of talent in unemployed or underemployed people over 40. Such experience can be used to recognize patterns and solve problems, as well as mentor younger colleagues. Since many employers already invest time and money in training career employees, retaining Gen X women will save them time and money.
“At this stage, it can be easy to feel like you don’t have a lot to offer,” Karen said. “But there’s no way you could spend as long as you have in your field, at your age, and not be bringing a lot to the table. Convince yourself first of what you have to offer, and others will see it.”