Age of Innocence

For older women suddenly out of work, retooling themselves for the New Economy and the Internet Age is a double challenge.

It’s true that all boats recede in a receding tide, but those who offer vocational support through Jewish agencies say they’re seeing something new: the people who are coming to them for help in significant numbers are members of the middle class they would not have seen before — “people,” notes Meryl Kordower, associate vice president for Career and Employment Services at FEGS Health and Human Services System in New York City, “who had supported UJA-Federation but who had never needed its help before.”

And within this middle class, they say the untold story is the employment crisis among those over 50, for whom changing jobs frequently and updating technological skills — hallmarks of the new economy — might not come so easy. Kordower oversees a recession-era project of the UJA-Federation called Connect-to-Care, which was designed to meet needs emerging in the Jewish community as a result of the economic downturn. She estimates that of the approximately 2,000 people who have received personalized career counseling from them, about 65 percent were older than 50 (with many over 60); 95 percent had a B.A. or higher degree, and most were coming from professional and managerial positions.

For women over 50, these experts say, searching for work can be doubly hard for a variety of reasons. Some have been in the same administrative jobs for two decades, and never expected to be out in the job market again. Many have been providing what they considered “second” incomes in their families; as the recession took jobs and income from their spouses, these women have found themselves needing to make up more of the household income. Still others had crafted careers in flexible fields — say, opening a private practice in social work, or doing communications work from home — to accommodate a family schedule; as that contract work has dried up, they too are looking for full-time work. And some have been homemakers by choice, and are looking for paid employment for the first time in decades.

“There is so much more pressure on women right now to help do their part with the family income,” says Abby Snay, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services in San Francisco. “We’re working with younger women and older women who say that they wouldn’t be working or that they wouldn’t be working full time.” She also notes the added pressures of taking care of both of kids and of older family members, because there simply isn’t money to hire the extra help they might need.

Esther-Ann Asch is a vice president at FEGS. She meets with clients who are looking for work, mostly older professionals who have been laid off, many from jobs in the Jewish communal world. For women who “haven’t worked for a while, they have to account on their resumes for the years when they haven’t worked.”

And for these people, the basic mechanisms of looking for work have changed dramatically. They may lack up-to-date computer skills, familiarity with social networking tools, and even the experience of finding job listings online. These women struggle to use now-common sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, and need to learn how to build a profile for themselves.

Kordower says she helps coach older women in how to deal with ageism while searching for a job. “Some of these women have been in high level positions, and never had to do a job search. This is a new experience and in doing so, many face what they view as ‘age discrimination’,” she says. These workers “need to be comfortable being interviewed by individuals much younger than themselves, and to talk about their ability to learn new skills and the desire to work for many more years.”

Fabianne Gershon was on Wall Street and had her own business before she was brought in by FEGS to run the Thypin Oltchick Institute, a project to help women start their own businesses. The program began near the end 2006, and Gershon says at that point the women who came to her mostly wanted to be entrepreneurs — in the arts, crafts, clothing design, accounting, counseling––so they could work out of their homes and have control over their schedules. These days, however, women are simply trying to make a living, adapting whatever skills they had before in ways that will be most profitable.

“Not to work, to me, is an affront.”
by Benita Gayle-Almeleh, 55, New York, NY

Sounds like you’ve worked most of your adult life.

I have worked in the Jewish community for 26 or 27 years professionally, and I’ve been pretty much unemployed for a number of years now. Mostly I have been in community relations and advocacy. And right now I am not employed at all and in an active job search.

Do you spend all day looking for work?

That would be hard to do. I probably spend a good concentrated two to three hours a day, and when I say concentrated I mean uninterrupted going from one thing to the next, writing cover letters, retooling for the eighty-ninth time my resume. It’s like furniture in a small room. There are a number of things you can do with it, but after a while you’re still moving the furniture in the small room.

Aside from the financial changes, what challenges has unemployment offered for you?

I have teenage daughter, a freshman in college, who thank God still sees me as a very strong model. I’ve really had to think about how to balance any messages I’m sending off about really long term unemployment with how she sees me as a professional role model and as a feminist role model. We’ve talked about it. When she was a couple of years younger, she said ‘I know, mommy, this hasn’t been easy for you or good for you, but I have to tell you that having you around has been good for me.’ Which you want to hear, but by the same token, you want to give off all sorts of positive messages about responsibility and working and things like that, and without a job that’s been a challenge.

What alternatives do you see for yourself?

I wish I had a crystal ball. I wake up every morning wishing I had a crystal ball, because if I had a little indication of what was at the end, it would make the getting there a little easier. Of all the things I ever wanted to be when I grew up, unemployed was not one of them. That’s just the bottom line. Most days I’m okay about it, okay there’s another day, I have to do this, but there’s that day every once in a while that you hate the world. I’m 55, so I was really at the beginning of the second feminist wave. For me to not work, to me, is an affront. Because I believe that I am really able to make serious contributions and I want to, and instead I’m sitting at the dining room table with my laptop.

Hoping for Work at Starbucks
by Lenore Shapiro, 49, San Francisco region, CA

What are you doing now?

I’d been doing non-profit management and fundraising for over 10 years. I had just gotten a new job doing development at a medical nonprofit. I’d been there only 11 months when they fired me because they said I hadn’t raised enough money during that period. Of course no one had raised any money during that period, and they never adjusted their budget. I’ve actually been working [at a temporary job] for five months, and my contract ends next Friday, and then I’m back to pounding the pavement.

What happened when you first lost your job?

The first time I was fired with no warning. I mean literally. I came in on a Friday morning and I was gone an hour later. I was really so shell shocked. There’s a lot out there when all of a sudden you’re unemployed or low income, but no one tells you how to maneuver.

This time around I know how to apply for unemployment, but when you think how little I’ve worked in 10 months, I’m very aware that the unemployment I’ll get is going to be minimal. So I’ve been applying for jobs nonstop. I’m looking into seasonal work at Starbucks or Target or whatever in my community and continuing to apply to other more full-time positions. What I realized is the salaries of two years ago, they don’t exist any more. I will apply for anything remotely possible to be able to have food on the table while I look for something more substantial.

Any thoughts about new directions, if jobs in the non-profit sector don’t turn up?

This past year-plus … I unexpectedly had to have rotator cuff surgery and have had a very difficult recovery. I sort of resurrected an interest I’ve had for a long time in hypnotherapy. I would eventually like to become a clinical, medical hypnotherapist working with people with chronic pain. I actually just started my coursework.

Now that work has become more elusive, what’s the meaning of work to you?

I think that at the moment, it is a means to an end, a means to keep a roof over our heads, pay the bills, but now I’m very clear what I want to do eventually, so I have a goal that I’ll bring up when I’m depressed or if I’m in a seasonal job or a temporary job doing God knows what just to remind myself why I’m doing it. And also to show my daughter that this is what you do, “this is how you keep a family together.”