April 13, 2024
Finance

Older and unemployed? Here’s how to overcome the stigma and move forward


Layoffs have been all over the news. More than 150 tech companies alone have said farewell to nearly 40,000 employees, per layoffs.fyi. It’s bad, of course, to be one of those heading out the door.

It may be especially hard if you are a highly educated worker, between ages 40 and 65, who has been out of work for more than six months.

According to Ofer Sharone, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the deck is stacked against the most experienced job seekers.

“Many employers prefer job applicants who are already working, even though unemployed job seekers are most often laid off for reasons that have nothing to do with their performance,” Sharone, author of the new book, “The Stigma Trap: College-Educated, Experienced, and Long-Term Unemployed,” told me. The sense is that “if someone is good, they would be working.”

In preparation for his book, Sharone interviewed job seekers, recruiters, and career coaches to expose how the bleak stigma of unemployment batters workers’ personal finances, relationships, and mental health.

Here’s what Sharone had to say about the stigma of unemployment and what strategies can help those looking for work. Edited excerpts:

Kerry Hannon: Why is unemployment so precarious for college-educated folks at mid-life?

Ofer Sharone: That’s the puzzle of the book. The stigma of unemployment means that as soon as someone loses their job, they’re viewed through a different lens, a more skeptical lens. And that can make it harder to get a job. And as the length of unemployment gets longer, the stigma increases. And it stubbornly persists.

Ofer SharoneOfer Sharone

The stigma of unemployment means that as soon as someone loses their job, they’re viewed through a different lens, a more skeptical lens. And that can make it harder to get a job. (Photo courtesy of Ofer Sharone) (Ofer Sharone)

What nags at you the most?

I started thinking about this as only an employer stigma against someone who is unemployed. But then I learned about the network stigma. … It’s a much deeper thing. It may be mostly unconscious, but there is a desire to see the world as working in a way that if you do the right things, if you go to a good school, get a college degree, your career will be fine. We tell ourselves that story. And we encourage each other to have that story. And we tell our kids this story, the flip side of it is the stigmatizing of anybody who becomes unemployed.

So they’re “less than” in some way because they’re unemployed?

Yes. It makes us think it must be something wrong that they’re doing because, otherwise, I could be just like them. They are making mistakes. They’re not searching for a job in the right way or networking hard enough.

I always tell people that networking is the key to getting a job — it’s who you know or who they know — but you say not so fast. What’s the downside of networking?

Networking is the path around the stigma of unemployment because it means, in the best case, you get someone to vouch for you. You get someone to walk into the hiring manager at his office and say, look, this person would be good.

About half the people I studied eventually got back to good professional jobs, and, in every case, networking had something to do with it. The disconnect is there’s no recognition of just how hard networking is, especially when you’re unemployed for more than six months. It’s extremely difficult. And the job seekers themselves don’t quite get how challenging it is.

Networking most easily happens organically when you’re working. So people who are currently in their professional lives have networking opportunities pop up all the time — when they’re talking with clients, going to conferences through their work. The unemployed person has no organic opportunities to network. It’s only through very proactive means … It requires trying to find new contacts, new leads, going to networking events.

Photo of an out-of-work businessman, sitting outside his office building with his box of meager belongings as he gets rained on.  Photo of an out-of-work businessman, sitting outside his office building with his box of meager belongings as he gets rained on.

“Many employers prefer job applicants who are already working, even though unemployed job seekers are most often laid off for reasons that have nothing to do with their performance,” according to Ofer Sharone. (Getty Creative) (jhorrocks via Getty Images)

The thing that makes it super hard is to effectively network, you need to appear to be very confident about your skills and abilities and what you bring. And there’s no way someone six months unemployed is feeling that. By then, you have experienced a series of rejections.

You studied why applicants get rejected for being too qualified. Can you elaborate?

Typically job seekers at first apply for the kind of jobs that they just recently had. So people climb up the career ladder. They achieve certain levels of success, and they lose their job. They try to get back to the job that they most recently had, but if they had achieved success, that means there’s only a few of those jobs. It’s like a pyramid. There [are] less and less of those high-level jobs the higher you go up.

And [because] they’re unemployed, they’re facing the stigma. Over time, they realize that it’s very difficult to get back to the position they held. So they say, all right, I’m going to take a step back and apply for the kind of job that is much more plentiful, but maybe it’s a position I held five years ago.

And that’s when employers come back with “you are overqualified.”

Recruiters told me they think the job seeker will not be happy because they have already attained a higher level and are looking to leave right away. Even if the job seeker says to me, “No, I really, at this point in my life, I am fine taking that position.” There is no chance to rebut it in most cases because you’re not invited for an interview. This is where it’s so frustrating for the job seeker. … They want to rebut it, but they’re just screened out.

Isn’t saying overqualified often also lingo for age bias?

Yes. The people who tend to be falling into the overqualified category also tend to be older workers because, you know, it takes many years to get to this high level position where you have a lot of qualifications. And you’re more likely to get trapped in overqualification. When I talked to the recruiters, they distinguished between their age concerns and their overqualification concerns. The age concerns are that the person is going to be difficult to manage because they’re older and less flexible. They may not have as much energy. They may not fit culturally as well with my younger workers. They may not have kept up with technology. They may leave soon because they want to retire.

These things are rebutted by research. And we know these are myths, and older workers actually stick around longer than younger workers who are trying to job hop to strategically move in their career. The thing that is most cruel about the overqualified moment is the thing that people are most proud of — their achievements, their advanced degrees, and their successes in their career — now are coming back to bite them.

Read more: How much money should I have saved by 50?

The Stigma TrapThe Stigma Trap

Oxford University Press (Oxford University Press)

Ofer, I love your take on the myth of the self-help approach. Could you just riff on that for a little bit?

The self-help approach is all about telling people it is in their control. [If] you put more effort and skill into networking, and you revamp your resume, then it’s all going to be good. If you go to any career center, that’s the focus. All of these workshops for unemployed people are [about] how to use LinkedIn, how to network, how to write a resume and cover letter.

The message explicitly and implicitly is this is just a matter of mastering some job search skills. And when you master these skills, you’ll be in control of your career, and you’ll be able to get the job. … It’s a myth, right? The self-help ignores the stigma against someone unemployed, age discrimination, and many other forms of discrimination. It makes it a taboo to discuss. Job seekers may get an initial boost and come out thinking, OK, I’ve just been doing LinkedIn wrong, and now I can fix it, and everything will be okay. Then they’re still not getting a job … and they begin to internalize the stigma.

There are some strategies that help that we discussed when I interviewed you years ago about the Institute for Career Transitions, a not-for-profit organization that you founded in 2013. What have you found?

The support of being with a group of others who are going through the same thing normalizes the experience, and you realize that this is not something pathological or wrong with you. That can help you keep going and brace for what’s likely not going to be a sprint but a marathon to get back to a professional job. But it’s also not impossible. It just takes a ton of resilience.

Second, working with a career coach. At its best, the coaching can hold up a mirror to the job seekers so they can see themselves in a less distorted way. Coaches who are aware of this can counteract this process by holding up a different mirror, a mirror that says, look, here are actually the things you’ve achieved, the skills you’ve attained. Here are all the accomplishments that cannot be taken away, no matter what kind of stigmatizing reactions you’re getting. You need to remember this about you.

Good coaching and a good support group allows people to have a place to talk about all the hardships. With that kind of support, then people are able to go out and network. What I learned from the research is the kind of well-being boost from good support enables that sort of networking necessary to get back.

We’re undergoing some pretty major population shifts in terms of global aging, and there are just not as many younger workers coming up through the pipeline. I’m finding that employers are actually getting the idea that they do have to have older workers on the job longer. Are you seeing any of that?

Employers ultimately adjust when they have to. We can put out all the research about older workers and their productivity and the value of experience and wisdom and mentoring. That doesn’t seem to make a difference. But what does make a difference is a shortage of workers. And if that makes employers take a second look, great. The workforce is aging, and the supply of the ideal younger worker is in shorter and shorter supply. Employers have no choice. This is a structural change that then may lead to a cultural reevaluation of what older workers can bring. And finally, all the research showing that the value of older workers will just be proven.

Kerry Hannon is a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a career and retirement strategist, and the author of 14 books, including “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work” and “Never Too Old To Get Rich.” Follow her on X @kerryhannon.

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