How did I become unemployable in my mid-50s?

With so much experience, expertise and life-learned empathy to offer potential employers, Sue Lord finds it galling and frustrating that she can’t get a job.

Once upon a time, quite a long time ago, I graduated with a shiny new vocational degree in International Business and French (which I spoke fluently), and started a job with a French fashion and fragrance company that was the envy of my friends. I had beaten 450 candidates to the role with, according to my new boss, the best application letter she had ever seen.  A year or so later I got an even better job with one of the most popular brands in the country, which I loved.

I only mention these early career successes to highlight the stark difference in my job prospects now.

A couple of years later I started a family, and fully expected to be able to combine my wonderful job with my family’s caring responsibilities, the “having it all” birthright we young, ambitious feminists had been taught to expect.

Flexible working was a pipe dream

Except, a couple of decades pre-Covid, flexible working was a pipe dream and, so I was told at the time, utterly unworkable. There followed a couple of decades where I tried different ways of working, from long full-time hours, to short, full-time contracts with breaks in between to catch up with my family, to setting up and running my own small, profitable businesses in the flexible way I wanted to. Sometimes I also took short periods out of work when I felt my family needed my total focus.

During all these years, I made sure to keep my skill set up to date, to stay on top of my area of expertise, and also to maintain enthusiasm for the type of work I do. Working for the number of companies I have, and tackling a large number of different types of challenges in my field, running businesses and raising a family, has given me a rich and broad skillset. And although I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I do know a couple of market sectors well and have gained intangible skills such as empathy and people management from working in multiple environments.

Work came to me then. Not now

Over the years a lot of my work, particularly the contract jobs, has been obtained through recruitment agencies. In the past they have often approached me. But that rarely happens now.

Around ten years ago, when I was in my early forties, I suddenly noticed a sharp drop off in the quality of the work I was being offered: The companies that were being put forward were not household names any longer, and if I agreed to the contract, I often found the companies were not being run in a very professional way. However, I was still able to find work on my own with good companies, so I didn’t worry too much.

The stark reality

Fast forward to today and I now find myself now unable to get a professional job in my own area or by transferring my skills into associated areas in which I have experience.

This was brought home starkly to me recently when I applied for a job at a salary approximately half of what I have earned in the past, for a company in which (in another area), I already do volunteer work.

It is true that the application has come after a period of living abroad (during which I learnt fluent Spanish), and caring responsibilities in my own family during Covid, both of which took me out of the workplace, although I worked as a volunteer when I could and have written a novel during that time.

I was interviewed for the most recent post, and although the most senior interviewer responded enthusiastically to my answers to questions, it was clear that the much younger interviewer, who would have been my immediate boss, was uncomfortable. The feedback I received was that although I would be a great addition to the team, the role was not for me. Since I was overqualified for the role, I can only surmise that I was refused on age and experience.

How can this be?

I find this galling. It appears to me in that in trying to find the best solution for my family and career – taking challenging roles when I could, rather than continuous, lesser part-time roles – I have, it seems, scuppered my career completely.

How can this be? My maturity and life experience have given me empathy and a peripheral vision that I can, and do, bring to the workplace. I still have enthusiasm and energy for roles because I haven’t been working continuously in the same thing since I was young, and I have a wealth of experience, having watched the market change and evolve in my sectors over a couple of decades. What’s more, I have a strong commitment to work and loyalty.

Reluctantly, because I would rather not work on my own again at this stage in my career, it seems to me, that my only way forward now, may be to pull up a new spreadsheet and start planning my next small business.

By Sue Lord

One response to “How did I become unemployable in my mid-50s?”

  1. Catriona Gravatt says:

    Hi Sue, I simply COULD NOT AGREE MORE! I’m taken aback at how you are clearly leading a parallel life to mine, with a few subtle differences. My shiny degree was from Bristol University in English and German, I got a PR trainee job and a couple of years later moved over to a marketing role with a great service sector brand and proceeded through 15 to 20 years of solid work experience, working with and sometimes leading teams for well known brands until the finance sector crash put threw me out into the interim world. Back into a permanent roles for a period and then the same thing happened with the pandemic, and I have been reluctantly interimming ever since. I wish I had a more positive story for you but since mid life, and now edging over 60, it has been BRUTAL trying to get work. No contract has ever lasted the length originally promised, and this year, despite interviewing a few days after the death of my mother, and fairly traumatised at the time I secured a great role. After moving my planned holiday at the employers request to start on a date they preferred I was on my way to the airport 4 weeks later when they called to say they had “changed their mind” and withdrew the contract. A re-structure was blamed. Cut to 3 months later and I reluctantly accepted another interim role, really only because I came 2nd out of 200 for the permanent role I wanted, only to have that removed from me 2 weeks later! I was told this was because they were going in a different direction. But the next morning I was phoned and told that had all been a mistake – it was my job after all, some mix up of the candidates in HR. I was very very frustrated when I caught the flu the following week, and was unable to get out of bed for a high fever on my first day. That afternoon they cancelled the contract entirely as a result. I am writing this long response (sorry) to show how painful, depressing and upsetting the job search at our age has been for me, in the hope that you recognise and gain some strength from knowing that our experience is sadly a common one. I find it absolutely excruciatingly awful and have set up counselling and coaching to help me try and get through it. I feel I am being constantly tossed around on a very turbulent and unkind sea of ignorance and complete lack of empathy, as well as short sightedness, and no wisdom at all. I have even been contemplating instead taking a journalism course to fulfil some of my lifelong leanings towards writing, rather than continue through this job hunting abuse. I too have brought up a family, travelled adventures, studied for professional qualifications, and have so much to offer, and yet I seem to be unemployable, despite dropping my salary expectations. I won’t even mention the fact that my husband, who is older than me, and who lost his job as CFO in the summer, at a far more senior level than me even though we were peers when we met 35 years ago, has swanned into another similar role without much difficulty???. Your article has given me hope – if we can make together make our voices loud and strong and consistent enough maybe one day the message will get through. With our life and work skills and experience what on earth is that more junior person afraid of that makes them feel threatened instead of excited by everything we could possibly share? Thank goodness for the rays of hope and positivity that I find and enjoy in Noon, and from reading articles like yours. I really wish you well. xx

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