by Mary Kingsley
At the tender age of 53, I was laid off from a full-time job that I really loved, through no fault of my own. There is a lot of talk about the difficulties of finding work right out of college, but it seems there is little discussion of what people do in mid-life or later when they are trying to make a living.
For the first time in my life I went on unemployment. It was a real shock to my system. Most of my life I’d equated unemployment with things like factory lay-offs. It never occurred to me that I’d face it.
Somehow I learned to deal with all of the bureaucracy and hoop-jumping that goes along with that. If you’ve never gone through it, imagine something like having to do your taxes a few times, on top of rewriting your resume several times, and then maybe writing an essay or two for a midterm exam. It felt a lot like that.
Part of the process of “re-employment,” as they call it, is having to take a bunch of workshops and classes with titles like “Creative Job Exploration” and “The Hidden Job Market,” along with standard resume-writing and interviewing workshops, and then the specialized classes that I fit into, such as: “The Mature Job Search” and “Job Seeking over 40.”
In all of these classes I found a pretty motley assortment of job seekers, even when you separated them by “maturity,” and very few of us had much in common besides a whiff of discouragement and even desperation in some cases. Everyone came from a different kind of background, and we were all looking for very different kinds of jobs.
Many of the workshops focused on how to present ourselves, whether on paper/online, or in person – getting the right wardrobe, hairdo, etc. for a job interview. It made me feel extremely self-conscious. And worried I didn’t have enough money to afford good enough clothes to interview in, much less a new hairdo and manicure!
Some of us in these workshops, myself included, had a very confused idea of what to do with ourselves. In my case, my background is so varied and unorthodox that I knew it would take more than a deft resume rewrite to make myself seem employable.
If people asked me what type of job I was looking for, I always had to pause and think hard about how to answer. The job I’d just left was unique, and I knew there was nothing else out there quite like it.
The “Creative Job Exploration” class was fun, in a way, acting as if we were all fresh out of the hopper and just beginning to figure out what we wanted out of life. Take a skill and aptitude assessment! Why not? Figure out your personality type! Sure, as if I don’t know myself pretty well by now!
Imagine all the different careers you could possibly have! Yeah, why can’t I start all over?
With all the talk of “transferable job skills,” I was starting to sense that if my resume didn’t fit what the employer was looking for, they were not going to review my pithy list of abstract skills and hope I was trainable. It also seemed late in my life to seek another degree or lots of further training (not to mention the cost of doing so). Even the counselors and experts I spoke to did not seem to know what to do with me.
Is ageism a real thing? Absolutely. I could tell even from some job descriptions that if they wanted someone for an “entry-level” position, they meant fresh out of college, not a 50-something who had just never done that kind of work before. Some job descriptions even said things like “perfect for a recent graduate,” which seems discriminatory from the outset. And the jobs on the higher experience level seemed to expect fairly cookie-cutter types of experience or education, which my background did not fit.
Workshop leaders told us not to mention any jobs older than 10 years ago on our resume, and to leave off our college graduation date, so as not to date ourselves. I was pretty sure that anyone meeting me would know that I wasn’t under 30. It also seemed unfair to my experiences 20 years ago, which I know were valuable and had shaped me as a potentially employable person. But I did as I was told.
I was also asked in an interview if I would mind working with people as peers who had less experience than I had (in other words, would I resent youngsters doing the same work, earning the same money as me?) – to which I of course said no.
It did feel, in some interviews I went through, that the interviewer had a very set idea of the type of person, with a certain sort of background, they were looking for. And nothing I said was going to convince them that I would be just as good, if not better, than that person.
Even when I had good contacts to recommend me and even influence my hiring in an organization, things did not pan out. I started to feel completely, utterly, and permanently unemployable.
What was I going to do to make a living? Try to return to the types of work I’d done years ago, with no further experience in those fields, little energy, and accept low pay? Try to train for something completely new? I was having a hard time convincing people to interview me, despite all my expertise in resume re-writing by this time.
I began to think about starting my own business, doing writing, editing, proofreading and teaching/coaching. This would combine most of the things I’d been doing in recent jobs anyway. The problem was, of course, I had no idea how to drum up business. I took workshops on self-employment and small business start-ups.
Most of the content seemed to be about businesses that had nothing to do with what I planned – they sold products, needed a storefront, and/or needed a lot of capital or overhead to get going. Very little of the content was about a service-oriented business like mine, based on work I had already been doing, albeit on a very part-time, temporary contract kind of basis.
So I did what I thought I should do, based on the little I’d learned. I launched a website. I started a blog. I told some friends and acquaintances what I was up to.
But I didn’t really start a marketing campaign or know how to begin doing that. Selling myself is something I’m not great at, and instead I take whatever seems to come my way. For now it’s fine; I’m earning enough to stay afloat, but I don’t really know how much I’ll be working from one month to the next, or how much I’ll be making. And of course there’s no sign of PTO (paid time off) or benefits in sight.
I quickly tired of applying to things and being ignored and rejected. Working for myself feels more self-affirming, even if I’m a bit insecure financially. The next step will be saving up enough to hire someone to help me with the marketing piece, since I’m not that great at tooting my own horn. I think it’s hard for us, as women, to do that. Perhaps more so for women “of a certain age.” Many of us also took a few years off (or more) to raise children, and that left a few rungs off the career ladder. Ambition was not something I spent much time thinking about.
Now all I want are opportunities to use some of the skills and talent I’ve got, and the chance to help others with my abilities. It wouldn’t hurt to help keep enough money coming on to live on, while I’m at it.
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