Ask The Work Buzz! Handling Age and an Employment Gap

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questionSteve Shoemaker comes to us with a double dilemma: I am a 50 year old man who for the last 3 years has been caring full time for my father with dementia. How do I overcome the twin hurdles of age and a long stretch of “unemployment” during my job search?


First off, I think most people would agree that your decision to care for your father is admirable and worthy of recognition. So we send you our kudos.

Second, we addressed the employment gap situation yesterday, so that might help you some. But, as with any situation, your predicament wasn’t necessarily conducive to taking a class or volunteering since you were caring for your father. But the overall goal of staying plugged in to current events in an industry remains the same. If you fell behind on your reading, then now’s the time to catch up. Have enough knowledge of what’s going on in today’s industry, whatever that may be, so that you can use the same vocabulary as the interviewer. Offering your opinions or views on current affairs says, “I might not have been on the payroll for three years, but I’ve been paying attention.”

Explaining the gap itself isn’t that difficult: You had personal responsibilities that outweighed your professional life at the time. You didn’t one day quit because work was too hard and you wanted to sit at home doing a word jumble. I’m sure your primary concern is that the employer will think this might happen again and you’re a flight risk or that you’ll always be distracted with your personal matters. In a cover letter or the interview (or both), use your own words to say, “When my father fell ill three years ago, I decided to devote my attention to his needs. Rather than allow my performance to suffer, I left the work force. Now that I’m once again in a position to focus on my work, I am ready to re-enter the [XX] industry.”

As for the age issue, keep in mind that those magazine covers aren’t lying: 50 is the new…something. What I mean is that 50 isn’t old, and unless you’re trying out for American Idol, age can work in your favor. You’re not a fresh-faced worker ready to enter the work force for the first time. You have experience, and employers get that when they hire you. After all, what is the biggest hurdle for young job seekers? They need a job to earn experience, but they need experience to get the job. You have it. In fact, many companies are hanging on to their would-be retirees because they don’t want to lose all of that knowledge. In the interview, play up your experience. You’ve had other jobs, you’ve probably dealt with a variety of circumstances that a newcomer hasn’t, so mention it.

Heck, I’m guessing providing full-time care to your father taught you a world of lessons that no degree ever did. If it’s relevant, maybe you can draw upon that experience, too.

Don’t forget that whether you’re 18 or 60, employers want to hire someone who plans to stick around. Reiterate that you’re not taking this job to kill time and that you won’t be out the door in six months. The bottom line for all of this is that you probably have fears about what they’re thinking–so address them before they do. Don’t be defensive. Don’t make a huge issue of it. Say your piece and let them respond. Every job seeker is dealing with a special set of circumstances–Do they think I’m too young? Is my experience irrelevant? Are they concerned about the fact that I have two young children?–and the best you can do is be honest.

We’ve said in various other Ask The Work Buzz! posts that if an employer strongly objects to life events such as these, will you ever feel comfortable working there? Probably not.

Good luck, Steve!

Work Buzz readers, as always, we’d like to know if you’ve been in a similar situation and if you have any advice for Steve.

15 Comments
  1. Age related question. How come no company would every ask a candidate their age or birth date but almost all of them ask the year you graduated from college. Duh. This year minus that year plus 20 gives a pretty good approximation of my age.

    How about limiting the period of interest to the last 20 years or “I graduated before then.” If they are not really interested in my age, that should give them the information they need to judge my experience since college. Beyond that I think they are going where EEOC doesn’t want them to go.

    Thoughts?

  2. With how bad the job search is, have you thought of going with a home-based business? It is a great way to beat the layoffs! It is working for me.

  3. I have been an at home mom for most of the past 23 years. I have had several parttime jobs over the course of that time although most of them were short-lived due to job length or sometimes I just didn’t like the work.
    As an at home mom of four for many years, I feel that I have learned many things that are transferable skills but am still wary if anyone will hire me.
    Please comment on how to handle a job interview and resume and job application.

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  10. RE: 50 being in a good position to be hired.

    Not so much. Unless you are at a level that really does require that many years of experience – EVP, CIO, CTO, CEO, you are def competing w/ 25 – 30 y/o MBA’s, 35 y/o managers, 35-45 y/o directors – at least in high tech. Specialists,Analysts, Coordinators, Admins, Desk support – most employers want someone younger. (cheaper, trainable) One of the questions is – why aren’t you further along than this now? (other form of this question might be, why would you want this job at this time?)

    RE: employers wanting employees to stay – new reality is not more than about 7-10 years. At that point the new employer wants to know why no one else snapped you up. Or why you didn’t want other opportunities. Or why you didn’t move up in old company. 3-5 years considered more the norm esp in jobs below director. Employers def don’t want you to stick around for 15-20 years ‘coz they perceive you get too expensive. They are not real amenable to your taking less pay ‘coz they perceive you will either be unhappy or leave at the first opportunity. They def don’t want you to retire from this job. There’s that nasty Age Discrimination Act thing and well, it just gets riskier to have a worker around after about 10 years – for one thing they know where all the bodies are buried. Customers even discriminate – they want your A Team to be “fresh” or at least balanced between wise and fresh.

    Best you can do is to make the case for balance of the wisdom of age and the energy/fresh ideas of the young. (e.g. mentoring) Some companies do this as part of their branding and it’s very cool – Proctor and Gamble as well as Price Waterhouse have a pretty good system for doing this but it’s increasinbly rare.

    Not saying it’s hopeless but it is better to deal with what’s happening out there in literally millions of baby boomer searches and interviews. Why else is it that something like 75% of people over 50 are unemployed 1 year after layoff and it’s the reverse for people under 30?

  11. At 55 my job was changing. My new boss who I helped hire and train, had no interest in helping me with training, excluded me from new projects, reassigned many of my duties to others and it goes on. I took an early retirement as opposed to a pink slip. She then hired someone she knew to take my place. Looking for work now to pay the bills.

  12. I am in the 50′s group. Accepted an executive position in Fl. Move was over 1000 mi with no relocation monies I came with 16 years experience in this area. Job perfect, staff were the best, morale over the top and performance was top notch. 30 days after I began my boss just walked in and said my job is over No reason (at will employ) just that. I am crushed and don’t know how to move forward on my resume and next interview could you give me insight?

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