Baby Boomer Job Search – A Year in Limbo

Post By Kay McMahon, professional leadership coach

The seam on the smart, tailored gray linen slacks, the pair I bought for the first job interview at the start of 2012, is pulling apart. It is the butt seam, strained by months of added pounds, inches.  Along with the daily horoscope I’ve read blogs on how to thrive when looking for work, tips on exercise, rest, healthy eating, sharpening of skills, developing new ones, spending quality time with family, friends, volunteering, and the mantra of them all, networking.  Some mornings I greet these recommendations with optimistic determination, born again faith, hope.  Other days I punctuate each tidbit of advice with a sharp tap of the delete button, cynicism turning the coffee in my cup cold.  The year ends in a downpour of Northern California rain and I have not found work, a source of income, a viable lifeline.

During a job search the word unemployed is for the most part taboo. It implies that the seeker, for an indeterminate period of time and space, is in limbo.  The process of looking for work risks reinforcing this zombie-like state, snaring the unemployed into believing her reality is lost between roles. It is a nasty mindset, one that interferes with living life as it is, to its fullest.

While there is much to do when living in the in-between, looking for work, it is a bit like stepping onto a moving walkway at an airport. There is constant motion but on a long stretch the end point gets hazy. The doing involves looking, researching, networking, contacting, preparing. Scoring a first interview is occasionally followed by the relief tension of moving to the next round. There is waiting for the outcome, days to weeks of feeling excited, anxious, and then irritated.  Throughout there is the A strategy of charting a selective course, one focused on career direction, aims, interests, values, locale, money. This approach derails when panic sets off a free for all of applying for anything, everything. Jobs with requirements under, over, or in no way resembling known skills sets suddenly hold some semblance of plausibility, fit.

And there’s the message on the answering machine, potentially a new start or end.  I can tell from the tone of voice of the he or she recruiter or search firm executive, the moment they speak, that the answer for this one is no. Perhaps it is a hint of empathy, sympathy in the voice, or the tenor one lends to an unpleasant talking chore. The message, seemingly kind, efficient, technically safe for a candidate and presumably holding some grain of truth, relays that it was a pleasure talking, meeting, however there was not enough corporate, specific industry, right blend of experience or simply, the chemistry with another candidate was a better fit for the group, good luck.

I’ve looked in the bathroom mirror for a reflection of my chemistry.  I see the face of a woman I’ve been told by others is independent, adventurous, smart, competent, engaging, a survivor.  I try to see the spunky spirit underlying so many years of experience.  On bad days what I see resembles failure, a woman close to giving up, losing the stamina to reinvent herself.

During the year when in the finalist stage for several positions, my mind jumped ahead into the world of the new job. Energized by its priorities, I gave thought to the first ninety days and the logistics of living arrangements, commute and routine. When the calls came, I let each message remain on the answering machine for weeks before erasing them.  Bittersweet, the validation of being a finalist was coupled with rejection. Later I looked up the bios of the victors.  As a professional I respected the choices, viewing them more as colleagues than competitors.  For the most part, all were younger.

On the cusp of turning sixty I was one of several on a management team dismissed by incoming leadership.  There was the safety net of a well deserved package, allowing time to breathe, regroup, but then the tap on savings started to run. When asked by neighbors if I had retired, I joked with them, or talked about ramping up a side business, or being between projects.  Losing a job, a primary role, must be akin to being knocked over by a Semi-trailer. Survival requires getting up, wiping off the muck and not wasting precious effort looking back. Retaining a sense of self-worth is essential.  You cannot disclose to everyone that you are involuntarily unemployed. Instead you practice what is called the “elevator pitch,” what it is the world needs to believe in order for you to make it.

Toward the end of the year dedicated to finding work, I tell friends that it may be time to get out the accordion.   They look relieved by my humor.  For friends who have rallied round for months on end are showing signs of job search fatigue, tired of my perennial looking without landing. In their once confident-of-my-success expressions I now detect doubt.

I relay my plan, they laugh. Dressed professionally I will head into the financial district of The City (SF),  not the tourist zone, prop an IPad to display my Linked In profile or resume, and then commence playing the one polka I know by ear over and over again.  My sign will read ‘Hire Me and I’ll Stop’.

When I was a child my dad bought me an accordion.  He told me that if I practiced I could be another Myron Floren.  Myron smiled nonstop while his fingers danced across the keyboard and buttons. I watched him play every week for years on the Lawrence Welk show.  Although he looked happy with his vocation, I stopped playing at age twelve, believing the instrument blocked the development of my breasts.  While playing the accordion is not viable now as a gig to support myself, it may be a way out of this life in limbo.

Instead of applying for one position after the next, I’ll play one polka over and over again. Doing, being, one missed note, the next one spot on.

Kay McMahon is a professional leadership coach, who loves to travel, write and take photos. She can be contacted directly at kay.mcmahon6@gmail.com.

6 thoughts on “Baby Boomer Job Search – A Year in Limbo

  1. Thank you Kay for writing a great piece about the emotional toll that unemployment takes. As a career counselor and retirement life coach, my first reaction is to offer suggestions. I also see another side because my daughter is struggling to find employment and it breaks my heart to see this intelligent, gifted person not be valued. I wish you well. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you Cathy
      It is ironic to be quite good at what you do professionally and then find yourself on the other side of the equation. To speak out is risky as people may judge your ability based on the challenge of a search. Being well versed in coaching, job search strategies, etc., I found an absence of writing in between the excellent advise of career coaches/counselors and the dire stats of main stream news. I wanted to basically get real from a personal perspective on the actual experience.

    • Hello there Ryan – glad to see you again. I agree that Kay tells an all too common story that many baby boomers are experiencing later in their careers. It ain’t easy out there but it helps to try to be as positive as you can along the journey as Kay relates.

  2. Kay, thank you for writing a poignant and funny article on the emotional toll that job seeking takes – deeply affecting at any age.

    • Hi Sabrina
      Thank you for commenting on the article/blog. I felt it was important to stop and allow myself to write about the experience while feeling somewhat ravaged by the search process. Regards, Kay