By Stephanie Wood
“You just go, ‘Okay, where do I go from here for the next 20 years, what does that look like?’ ” says one 40-something retrenched CEO of the challenge of finding the right role “in a world that is changing so much”.Credit:Getty Images
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Late last year, I applied for a job. I did things the old-fashioned way: an alert for a NSW government role landed in my inbox. It looked interesting, a communications position in a department dedicated to challenging human issues. I crafted a cover letter, updated my CV, filled in the required online form and hit “send”.
I was shortlisted. I did my hair and put on a nice top and lipstick for an online interview with three panellists. One had positioned himself in front of his computer in such a way that I spent the half-hour troubled by his nostril hair; another spent the time staring at my left ear. I did the best I could under the circumstances. I didn’t get the job, one of only a handful I have applied for since 2017 when I made a terrifying leap, choosing to take a redundancy from my role as a staff writer on this magazine.
But for two years or more, my working life has not been working for me. I am a woman in her mid-50s (there, I said it) who let her grey hair grow out during the pandemic (was that a mistake?) and I’m starting to feel as though I’m waving and running frantically after a bus vanishing into the distance. I catastrophise about my working and financial future, fear that sunset is upon me.
Six years ago, as I agonised over the decision to stay with Good Weekend or take a redundancy to free up time to write a book, I knew the chances of ever again getting such a great job were slim: digital disruption has upended traditional media’s business model and, globally, newspaper and magazine staff feature writers are almost an extinct species. But I also knew that, at some point, I would need to become less institutionalised, more agile, refashion my career to suit the constantly shifting new media landscape. I thought that, after the book was published, I would freelance as a writer, learn new skills, explore interesting side options, see what unfolded.
I have done all of that. Since my book was released in 2019, I have written for Australian and international publications and had a number of contract roles, one as a researcher for a television documentary series. I have taken courses to update my digital skills and launched an email newsletter for smart, curious and creative women. I have also run myself into the ground, mostly working from home in a lonely, multitasking, all-hours hustle – exhausting, unsustainable and a road to despair and penury. While I have always had plenty of work, even the highest freelance per-word rates of pay have not increased in two decades and, out of diminished incomings, I need to allocate money for outgoings including tax and superannuation (don’t start me on the cost of printer ink).
That is my story. But in the course of researching this article about the challenges of midlife career transition and job-hunting in a world changing at warp speed, I have heard multiple other similar stories, all with their own set of circumstances, their own shades of anxiety, stress, fear, plummeting self-esteem and existential dread.
Your CV might be a seriously impressive document; it might include the weasel words of corporate-speak and show you have effectively driven business-strategy objectives, outcomes or synergy benefits, or delivered growth by transforming customer experiences, or simply that you’ve excelled over decades in your area of expertise. But it’s the numbers underlying your CV that might become an issue: if you have 20, 30 or more years of experience in your field you’re likely to have firmly landed in middle-age and, if you need a new job, find yourself in a drastically changed employment landscape. A terrain tripwired by the lurking spectre of ageism and strewn with pitfalls, rejections and new rules of engagement (time to learn to love LinkedIn, abbreviate and refocus your CV and polish your networking skills).
If you’re a woman who has taken time away from paid work to have children, or had to deal with life’s curveballs – the body blow of retrenchment, a business collapse, a health emergency, caring commitments, relationship breakdown or family violence – finding a suitable role is likely to be even harder.
Take 51-year-old Susie*, who has worked in a range of policy and cultural development roles with interruptions to have and raise her two kids. Before she got her current half-year contract with a state government, Susie submitted about 80 job applications in six months. She got only two interviews, neither of which led to employment. “I was staring down the barrel of homelessness while going through an acrimonious divorce,” says Susie, who asked that I not use her real name or identify where she lives. She’s not sure what will happen when her contract expires. She’s selling her house, downsizing. “I need to be able to ride a recession out.”
For former corporate lawyer David Kelly, “ageism has certainly reared its head to thwart my chances at roles”.Credit:John Doutch
Since leaving his job as a corporate lawyer in 2007 to become the primary carer for his two children after a family breakdown, 61-year-old Melburnian David Kelly has not been able to find a long-term role to match his experience. “Ageism has certainly reared its head to thwart my chances at roles, plus all this has rather dented my confidence,” Kelly says. Over the years he has taken part-time roles including working as a driving-test assessor, sorting parcels for Australia Post, and working at election polling booths. He applies for a couple of senior jobs a week but knows his lack of confidence comes through in interviews. He’s also been flummoxed when he’s had to verbally answer questions flashed on screens during video interviews driven by AI.
‘Often as people get older, they’re opting out. Sadly, the opting out is often more as a consequence of people not knowing how to crack a job.’
Meanwhile, Jason Chaffey, 48, has built a strong consultancy business since he became redundant as the CEO of an ag-tech company after its ownership changed in 2021 – his second retrenchment – but has not yet managed to find the full-time role he wants. He has his low days. “It’s the sense that you’re just by yourself,” says Chaffey, who works from home. “You just go, ‘Okay, where do I go from here for the next 20 years, what does that look like?’ And … having to compete in a world that is changing so much.” While he knows men in similar situations whose mental health has collapsed, he tries to remain optimistic.
Chaffey is one of an increasing army of isolated work-from-homers – consultants, contractors, freelancers – either worrying about the future, failing to get sufficient work or sufficiently well-paid work, or scrambling, like me, to keep on top of the juggle. Income insecurity, anxiety and poor sleep guaranteed. “More and more clients don’t want to pay for what they want,” a 55-year-old graphic designer who has “been relegated to scratching it out” in the white-collar gig economy tells me. “Inflation is hitting hard.”
Another set of people stop job-hunting before they’re ready, even though they have skills and experience and want to work. “Often as people get older, they’re opting out,” says Jannine Fraser, group CEO of career transition and coaching specialist Directioneering. “Sadly, the opting out is often more as a consequence of people not knowing how to crack a job, or not knowing how to position themselves. And confidence plays a big part in that.”
But it’s not just individuals losing out in this employment churn; society loses too. I think of the collective wisdom, the institutional memories and the innate talents of the people who have stepped away from the employment market or continue to struggle in vain to find positions to suit their abilities and experiences. A great stockpile of value going to waste. We can build systems of artificial intelligence that conduct job interviews but we can’t work out how to get highly skilled and experienced people into jobs. Just how clever are we?
Career transition specialist Jannine Fraser says confidence plays a big part in older people deciding whether to continue looking for work.
Whatever the nature of your work, whether you’re a public servant, general manager of a small business or chief financial officer of an ASX-listed company, the reasons you might find yourself making a midlife career transition and/or searching for a job are innumerable. Maybe, as I did, you choose to take a retrenchment, which might give you some head-start in the practical and emotional adjustments needed to navigate an altered life landscape. Or, if it wasn’t your choice, you might be lucky and get forewarning of how things are about to change.
Josephine* is a 50-something corporate communications expert who has been retrenched three times. But as she knows, prior warning can be insufficient armour against the experience of becoming surplus to requirements. “I still think I’m scarred now,” she says of the first time it happened, several years ago, even though she knew it was coming. Josephine had to tell people on her team that they were being shown the door, then come to terms with what she felt at the time was her own humiliation. “I was devastated and took it incredibly personally, you just feel like a failure.”
‘I still think I’m scarred now. I was devastated and took it incredibly personally, you just feel like a failure.’
When there’s no warning at all, the experience can be even more shattering. The second time Josephine was retrenched, she felt ambushed. She had been on the company’s high-performers program and had recently helped guide it through a crisis. “It was a circumstantial thing, I knew it wasn’t anything about my performance, but I said to my boss, ‘Are you f—ing joking?!’ I was exhausted and couldn’t believe there was no loyalty back.”
It’s on occasions like this that you can only hope that Jannine Fraser or one of her colleagues is sitting in the next room. Major organisations contract companies like hers to help executives and managers navigate the often shock-filled hours and days immediately after a retrenchment and, ultimately, through the process towards securing new roles. Advisers are often on-site when the employee receives the news. “It’s all about dignity preservation and no loose cannons in the way people communicate,” says Fraser.
To be sure, economists point to a bullish employment market. Australia’s unemployment rate – about 3.5 per cent – is the lowest in nearly half a century. Meanwhile, reports from the recruitment frontline are of an employees’ market, of job candidates presenting ambitious wish-lists to employers. “So [they’ll say], ‘By the way, I’ve moved to Queensland and I still want to be on the group exec in Sydney,’ ” says Anna Whitlam, the Asia-Pacific CEO People Advisory, of the corporate advisory firm Teneo.
Corporate advisory expert Anna Whitlam says high-flying candidates have ambitious wish-lists.
But today’s statistics showing a strong employment market do not tell the story of tomorrow’s possible recession. “Our industry is the canary in the coalmine,” says Jannine Fraser. “Corporates are planning for really significant numbers of retrenchments – some firms in the hundreds of people – and I think we’re going to see an avalanche of change. It’s starting to feel a lot like it did before the GFC.”
Nor do today’s statistics tell the story of a rapidly changing work landscape, including the potential for artificial intelligence to turn some professions upside down. In January, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told The Australian Financial Review that rapid developments in AI capacity would cause white-collar job losses. In March, a new study conducted in part by OpenAI, the research laboratory behind the AI-based virtual assistant ChatGPT and its latest model, GPT-4, was released. It found that about 20 per cent of workers might see at least half their tasks impacted by such technologies with “higher-income jobs potentially facing greater exposure”. (ChatGPT, write a 5000-word article for Good Weekend about the challenges of career transition in midlife.)
And strong employment statistics say nothing about people’s individual struggles with midlife job change. They don’t tell the stories of people in insecure contract roles, or counted by the ABS as “under-employed” (people who would like to work more hours than they do – about 6 per cent), or of those who have opted out of looking for work.
“When a young person loses their job, they look for work, and they keep on looking; when an older person loses their job, they realise they’re not going to get another job often or they might look for a short time but give up, and so they disappear from the unemployment statistics,” says David Peetz, professor of employment relations at Griffith University in Brisbane. Adds Jannine Fraser: “I think women bow out at a certain age more readily; they give up even though they don’t want to.”
‘I would say to every recruiter: One day you might be looking for a job, and the culture you’ve set will be the culture that you inherit.’
It is against the law to discriminate on the basis of age when advertising jobs and during recruitment and selection processes, but nevertheless ageism remains an insidious, usually subliminal presence. “It rears its ugly head in recruiting,” says Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson. “It’s pervasive.”
Patterson points to research first conducted in 2014 by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian HR Institute. Organisations were asked at what age they classified someone as an “older worker”. In 2014, only 12.5 per cent of respondents considered an older worker to be someone aged between 51 and 55. When the research was repeated in 2021, that had jumped to 17 per cent. Additionally, nearly half the organisations said they would be reluctant to recruit workers above a certain age (12.6 per cent said they would be unlikely to hire someone over 50; 13.3 per cent said they wouldn’t hire someone over 55).
A few days after I learnt that I’d been rejected for the NSW government role, I went back to check something that had been niggling at me: I seemed to recall that the standard online form I had been required to fill in had asked for my date of birth. To check, I started the online process to apply for another job – it did indeed ask for my date of birth. I couldn’t help but wonder about the age of the person who was appointed to the position.
A friend, a senior public servant in his late 50s, admits with some sheepishness to his own bias towards younger people when hiring. I relay his comments to Patterson. Her reply: “I would say to every recruiter, ‘One day you might be looking for a job, and the culture you’ve set will be the culture that you inherit.’ ”
I ask my social media followers to tell me about their experiences. Maggie*, 56, who works in financial services, writes to say she has been told she is “too experienced”. When she made the second round for one job, two men in their 30s interviewed her – she later heard that a bloke in his 20s was hired. Katherine*, a 53-year-old teacher, tells me she’s been applying for jobs in other areas for more than five years. “I have not even made it to interview level, even though I’ve applied for ‘lower-level’ jobs than I’m currently doing. When I ask for feedback, it’s simply ‘didn’t meet criteria’.”
‘I had my performance development review and my manager didn’t ask a single question about where I hoped to head with my career.’
Felicity* went back to university to study public health when her children were small and, when she graduated at 40, found work in the sector. But in the decade since, she has found it impossible to get into management, despite being put in leadership programs by two different organisations. “My opinion is that people find it hard to see potential in you once you’re past a certain age,” says Felicity, who is now in her early 50s. “I had my performance development review last week and my own manager didn’t ask a single question about where I hoped to head with my career. I’m sure that never happens with a younger person.”
Mary*, who in late 2022 reached a separation agreement with the co-owner of the food business she bought into a decade ago, tells me she hasn’t even had acknowledgements that the applications she’s submitted for various roles have been received. Worse still: she was invited to pitch for a role with a start-up and spent a fortnight putting together a proposal. She heard nothing in response. Mary is in her late 50s and finds herself pondering, “What’s going on here? Is it the female thing? Is it the age thing?” (Recently, she found a role in hospitality recruitment.)
I feel Mary’s pain. From time to time, when I’ve decided it’s time to quit freelancing and have applied for permanent roles, I’ve had the same experience: deafening silence, not even AI-generated “we confirm receipt of your application” emails. I look at the few media jobs advertised and their lists of required tasks, many of which I have only a passing acquaintance with and are the type often learnt on the job – say, audience analytics and growth, social media content leverage, or SEO (search engine optimisation) strategy – and don’t apply. I think of the frequently repeated line – men apply for jobs when they think they meet about half of the required qualifications, but women only apply if they meet almost all of them. My sense of self droops; I love my work and it has always been central to how I define myself.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. “People say, ‘Don’t take it personally’ but it is personal, it’s very personal,” says Mary. “It’s your livelihood, it’s your identity that’s wrapped around this.”
Former CEO Jason Chaffey felt a deep sense of loss after his role as commercial director for a Singapore-based company developing electric motors was made redundant in 2018. Chaffey had spent his life travelling for work, turned the business around, sacrificed family time with his wife and two children. He says he created the environment for the redundancy himself – he refocused the business and found a market for the product in the United States, where the company established new headquarters – but nevertheless, “I felt like someone had taken away my child.”
Former CEO Jason Chaffey experienced a deep sense of loss after being retrenched. “I felt like someone had taken away my child.”
It’s widely accepted that having satisfying employment increases a sense of wellbeing and mental health. Conversely, job loss, insecure employment and underemployment can send mental health spiralling downwards. New research from the not-for-profit E61 economic research institute, for example, found that job loss has the same impact on mental health as a serious illness or injury. Clinical psychologist and Relationships Australia NSW chief executive Elisabeth Shaw talks about the shame that can accompany a retrenchment and its paralysing effect. “There can be a bit of panic … ‘How am I going to narrate what’s happened, how do I hold my head up?’ ”
Shaw has seen people deeply distressed about retrenchments, including people in their mid- to late 50s who lost jobs during the pandemic and feared they might not work again. Some she knows have picked up roles, perhaps part-time doing something different. Others have reluctantly retired. “I’ve spoken to people who have plenty of money, and it’s not about that, but they were robbed of their choice and [that has] a different impact. Well-meaning friends will say, ‘Well, you’ll be fine, you’ve got your house …’ It’s actually for some not about that at all. It’s actually about, ‘Where do I stack up in the world now, what is my identity?’ ”
Once, Shaw says, it was people in their 70s and 80s who talked about “relevance deprivation”. Now she is increasingly hearing those in their late 50s, particularly women, use the expression. “[They] can struggle to shift careers even more than men.” For women in midlife emerging from a relationship breakdown and who might not have been the primary income-earner, things can be even tougher. “They can feel really kind of skill-less or floundering.”
Clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw says the issue for some is not financial security but identity.Credit:Peter Rae
With identities and egos so inextricably tied to work, it’s not surprising that Jannine Fraser says people feel enormously vulnerable during the search: “Everybody has a wooden leg when they’re looking for a job.”
There’s something else we need to talk about: if it’s a while since you applied for a new role, buckle in. Job hunting isn’t what it used to be.
Searching for the right new role takes time. The more senior you are and the higher your salary expectations, the longer it will take. And, says Teneo’s Anna Whitlam, the process to get any big job “is hugely time-consuming”. (If you are older but lower on the corporate ladder, it’s likely to take longer, be far more difficult, and you might be forced to accept a lower salary.) Fortunate, then, the senior executive who gets a substantial redundancy payout, so they have a cushioning period to think strategically.
“That is really important money because you don’t want to grab the next job and find it doesn’t work out,” says Jannine Fraser. “Then you’re giving an awkward series of messages that can look like career derailment.” Never, she advises, should anyone apply for a job they don’t want.
Fortunate, too, is the person whose former employer forks out for the services of a career-transition company. For example, a Directioneering coach helped Josephine peer through the fog, see her situation differently and accept that redundancy is almost a rite of passage in white-collar life. “I think the process they go through helps you articulate your strengths and recognise there are lots of things you can do,” Josephine says.
Sometimes that might mean a shift away from a serious corporate career. “It really starts from what gets you out of bed in the morning,” says Fraser. “Some people might say, ‘I loved working for the bank,’ or wherever, ‘but I really love the idea of contributing in a different way’ … Sometimes they can achieve that and other times they’ll get it from a portfolio career or a board they do on the side.”
If you’re not an executive, if you’ve never had a corner office and an eye-watering salary and don’t have the luxury of a hefty payout, you might need to move more swiftly in your search but career experts still offer the same advice: networking is everything. That technique I used – waiting for a job alert for something interesting to arrive in my inbox before sending off a cover letter and CV and standing by hopefully – is about as state-of-the-art as shoulder pads, floppy disks and fax machines.
Networking is the only way you’ll gain admission to what’s called the “hidden job market” and learn about often desirable roles that aren’t advertised. According to data from Directioneering, up to 66 per cent of executives on their program find a new role via their networks. “It’s been the case for decades that connections have been … arguably more important in getting a job than other factors like the formal process,” says David Peetz of Griffith University. He also points to the value of “weak ties”, people outside your immediate network with whom you have infrequent, arms-length relationships. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and LinkedIn recently found that these types of weaker connections within social media networks “have a greater beneficial effect on job mobility than stronger ties”.
But for many people, the systematic networking required to maintain and build weak ties is about as appealing as tooth extraction. “One of the most excruciating things for me was learning how to reach out to people I’d never met without feeling humiliated that I was asking them for something,” says Josephine. She’s now in a new role she loves (it wasn’t advertised) but thinks she has made a hundred or more such approaches via her LinkedIn and historical networks. She learnt to frame the contacts using questions such as “I’m interested in moving into this sector and know you’re an expert – would you be willing to have a coffee with me and share your experiences?”
‘Unless people are willing to embrace things like their LinkedIn profile, they’re potentially going to get overlooked by less talented but more digitally savvy extroverts who self-promote.’
Which brings us to LinkedIn, the hot social-media platform for the middle-aged job-seeker set. “I have a whole lot of people that come to it kicking and screaming,” says Karen Hollenbach, a LinkedIn specialist and educator who has found many people in midlife are uncomfortable with the performative nature of social media. “But unless people are willing to embrace things like their LinkedIn profile, they’re potentially going to get overlooked by less talented but more digitally savvy extroverts who self-promote.” Hollenbach suggests people agonising over their profile should ask themselves if it’s written “‘for the people I want to influence, is it telling the story I want them to know?’ LinkedIn is symbolic of someone’s ability to be able to tell their story in a way that attracts employment, that’s all it is.”
At a micro level, in your job-site profiles, CVs and cover letters, any career-search expert will stress one housekeeping matter – the importance of inserting keywords at every opportunity. Recruiters are increasingly using AI screening software for the initial filtering of applications, so those which have most frequently and effectively used keywords will rise to the top. If you’re responding to an advertisement, for example, comb it for the words or phrases the employer has used to describe the non-negotiable skills and experiences they want and include them in your application.
“I speak to numerous senior people and they say, ‘I apply for all these jobs and I don’t even get a call,’ ” says Anna Whitlam, “and I say to them, ‘Well, how have you tailored your résumé to the key criteria in the advertisement?’ and they’re dumbfounded.”
In the course of my research for this story, a theme comes up repeatedly – a sense of middle-aged hubris, especially in men, verging on entitlement: “I’m the best in the business”; “Don’t they know what I’ve done?“; “Why should I have to do that?” But resistance to change and reinvention and the often gritty, detail-oriented, ego-reducing graft needed to re-establish or shift a career can sentence someone to employment oblivion.
“The climate and the world have changed so much that the demand for differing skills, soft and hard skills, has changed considerably,” says Anna Whitlam. “What that means is that the ability for an executive who may have been in one company for a long time to come out of that company and rework their own mindset and perspective to fit within what is actually now in demand is hit-and-miss, there’s no doubt about that.”
Whitlam says that, especially at the C-suite level, the emphasis on technical capability has lessened. “We’re actually assessing people on their resilience, their agility, their grit, their empathy, their creativity to solve problems.” She disagrees with me when I put it to her that it’s hard for people who are in midlife to get new roles. “I think it’s about – do those individuals want to change themselves to be fit for purpose for this world that is unfolding?”
The lesson equally applies to those who will never be close to the corridors of power. Not long after my interview with Whitlam, I spot a LinkedIn post about an AI-powered scanner claiming to give free “tailored feedback on your résumé and LinkedIn profile”. It will, it boasts, help me land five times more interviews, opportunities and offers. Out of curiosity, I upload my CV to the site. It doesn’t take long for it to return its opinion: “Your résumé scored 51 out of 100,” the automated program tells me. “This is a decent start, but there’s room for improvement; your résumé scored low on some key criteria hiring managers and résumé screening software look for.” Clearly, I have some work to do.
* Names have been changed
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