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