How to recover from job loss when you're over 50

By Neil Patrick

Almost everything the baby boomers learned about how to get a job when we were younger is now redundant.

There’s a secret army of people who have fallen off the radar for government help with unemployment. It’s the over 50’s. If you are a specialist skilled worker over 50, the support available is really scant.

For older workers who lose their jobs, the statistics are truly horrific. Though the unemployment rate for people over 55 is just 5.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the overall rate of 7.3%, when older workers lose their jobs they are out of work for a long time, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

In August 2013, 47% of job seekers over 55 had been looking for 27 weeks or more. According to the Institute, on average, unemployed people over 55 have been jobless for nearly a year: 50 weeks, versus 34 weeks for those under 55.

Until now, Western governments have never had to address the problem of highly educated professional people being unemployed. In the past it was always semi-skilled and unskilled workers who would find themselves without work, if an employer or industry sector went through hard times.

And so government support agencies were set up to provide help for workers of this type. They developed simple programmes to support people like this. Help with writing their resumes. Advice on how to seek out potential employers. Help with interview tips.

These sorts of programmes were reasonably effective too because unskilled and semi-skilled labour is highly transferable – for example if you are a truck driver, you can work for a mining company, or a grocery delivery business or a healthcare provider.

So the unemployed of previous recessions were manageable by and large.

Fast forward to today. The economic crisis hasn’t just affected semi-skilled and unskilled workers, it has hit hard into the skilled professional classes too. This is a whole different problem. And because compared to the young unemployed, the 'grey' unemployed are less numerous and less likely to cause trouble, they remain a low priority for government help.

Let’s say you used to be a mortgage credit risk analyst. You probably had more job opportunities between the late 1990’s and the 2008 crash than you’d ever have thought possible. Mortgage lending was through the roof as banks and borrowers got drunk on the crazy credit boom merry-go-round. And the job market reflected this situation.

Then we had the financial collapse of 2008. Almost overnight, the lending stopped. And even now, more than five years later, banks are still lending nowhere near the amounts they were before the crash. No-one wants to hire a credit risk analyst.

An old colleague of mine was a seriously clever mathematical guy, who had spent 20 years of his career becoming an expert in the development of credit risk scorecards. In 2008, he lost his job with many others in the lending industry. And he’s been unemployed ever since.

Government help is virtually non-existent for the highly skilled professional who’s become unemployed, especially if they are over 50.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. You’re smart and you have a good mind. So use it!

Yes the job that you used to have may be gone forever. Your industry may be in meltdown. You may feel that you’ll never get back the career you once had.

These things may all be true. But it’s not the end, if you take on board some simple alternative truths.

The first fact to take on board is that almost everything we learned about how to get a job when we were younger is now redundant. We have to completely recalibrate how we think about our jobs and our futures.

And you can do it. Here’s the good news:

1. Do not define yourself by what you used to do

Instead think of all the skills and competencies you acquired in your decades of work. Think broadly about these. You might for example be a really great at organisation, leading teams, researching, writing reports, complicated mathematical evaluations. Forget the application of these skills and isolate them as part of your personal asset value.

Being really clear about this personal asset value is the foundation of your next career step.

2. Create your strategy before you start the search

Do not rush into sending your resume off and asking people if they know about a job opening. Instead, in the weeks and first few months after losing your job, you should start the re-evaluation process. Think of it as an opportunity rather than a problem. You suddenly have the chance to become who you always wanted to be, instead of the person your old job defined you as.

By all means have discussions within your network about what they are doing, but remember you are looking for a problem you can help solve, not necessarily a job someone wants to fill.

3. Get focussed and forensic in your search

Don’t hunker down behind your computer. Do not spend hours hunting jobs boards for possible job vacancies. Do not mass mail or email your resume to every opening you think looks like a possibility. You only need one job. Instead of the splatter gun approach, sit down do your homework and focus on your targets like a sniper.

If you combine this forensic approach with extensive networking and intelligence gathering, you’ll uncover pathways into what is called the hidden jobs market. These are the jobs that are never advertised. And some estimates suggest that this is now as high as 80% of all skilled hirings.

4. Tap into the real intel

Get out and network with all your old contacts. Read the local business press to see what problems businesses are having that you might be able to help them solve. This is where you’ll discover real opportunities.

5. Get your networking amplifiers working for you

This where to invest your time online. Sharpen up your LinkedIn profile. Increase your connections – not because they will necessarily have a job for you, but because as LinkedIn sees you are more active on the site, it will improve your search ranking. So when a recruiter does a search for your skill set in your location, you’ll be higher on the returns and they’ll find you.

6. Use social media to help

As I’ve written about here, and in many other posts on this blog, there are a ton of ways you can use social media to help you with your job search. Again the secret is to be smart and to have a strategy.

Having a blog is really powerful too. And if you do this, you’ll destroy at a single stroke the idea that many employers have that older workers are just not up to speed with today’s technologies. See my post about this here

And finally remember this. The economy isn't going to improve dramatically anytime soon. There’s not going to be a sudden surge of new jobs coming over the horizon. The number of people going after each job is only going to increase. And we cannot rely on the government to help us.

The way you will win isn't by getting lucky. It’s because you will make sure you are a better hunter and a perceived as a better candidate than the competition. Fortunately that’s not too hard, if you hunt smarter not harder.


  1. Neil,

    Valuable advice for 50+ job applicants.

    Considering that their average job search takes 50 weeks, the process requires both patience and maintaining a positive, action-oriented state of mind.

    These individuals may also wish to consider freelance and consulting opportunities to generate some extra income and support their self-esteem during the job campaign.


    1. Hi Diana,

      I couldn't agree more. Self-esteem is critical and can crumble surprisingly quickly if positive activity isn't maintained. You are absolutely right I think that the freelancing option is very valuable and has no downsides. Even if it doesn't lead to a permanent full-time job, it's a gateway to a whole new world of self-employed opportunities.

  2. Nice article Neil. I'm running a small company and looking to recruit people. But I very rarely get approached by our see cvs from the 50+ age group. I'm open to their approaches to reapply their skill and experience.

  3. Nice article Neil. I agree with your points.

    I run a small firm and would like to recruit or hire part time expertise of the 50+ age group. But I am almost never approached nor do I see many cvs from this group. I think part of the problem is that it must be a major mind challenge to find the energy to tout your individual potential.

    Imho there are plenty of opportunities for those you can find the energy and also develop the entrepreneurial approach. Maybe the 50+ group, of which I am a member! need some mentoring or coaching to help deal with those challenges.

    1. Thank you John for posting here. I am sure your comment about wishing to see CVs from the over 50's will be a welcome piece of news for many. You are in the right place and I hope that your comments prompts some response from site visitors here...

  4. Neil, excellent post! Right on point. I would also recommend that for the over-50 job seeker, especially whose job search skills are outdated, look into hiring an outplacement firm or a career coach. These people can shorten one's time on the market, a very good ROI.

    1. Thank you James. I agree it's a very good ROI. The sad thing is that employers laying people off used to pay for this...and I think job seekers are so terrified of their financial position, they lock down all spending regardless of ROI :-(

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