KEEP IT SHORT
In 2015, the Federal Reserve Board of St. Louis released a study247 that looked at unemployed women by age group. It revealed that women in their fifties were disproportionately affected by the Great Recession of 2008. This cohort was taking longer to find jobs and were much more likely to fall into the “long-term unemployed” category used to describe those who have been out of the paid workforce for more than six months. Specifically, the research showed, before the 2008 recession, less than a quarter of the unemployed women over the age of fifty were members of the long-term unemployed. But by 2012, nearly half of older jobless women were in that category.
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Why? According to study co-author, Alexander Monge-Naranjo, taking an extended career break was at the top of the list. The New York Times wrote about the study, saying, “When it comes to women over 50, one theory that makes sense to Mr. Monge-Naranjo is that those who dropped out of the labor force to take care of children when they were younger can’t easily get back in. ‘They did not see that the labor market was going to be so tough and it’s taking quite some time to go back to normal,’ he said.” 248
My research both one-on-one and via the Women on the Rise survey corroborates this observation. Women who had paused their careers for extended periods of time and who, as a result, were older when they tried to re-enter the workforce faced the double whammy of caregiver bias and age bias. When we asked respondents what their primary concern was about re-entering, the vast majority said, “Age discrimination.”
While 78 percent of our survey respondents who had paused their careers had no regrets, the longer they were out, the more they regretted their decision to pause. Nearly 50 percent of those who had been out for eleven years or more did regret their decision to leave. One key reason was the challenge they faced when trying to re-enter. In fact, 68 percent of those women who were out of the paid workforce for more than eleven years indicated the reentry was very difficult. On the inverse, 63 percent of women who had paused for two years or less considered the reentry very easy.
Those who had a shorter pause (fewer than five years) were also more likely to say they did not make any compromises when they re-entered, whereas those that were out of the paid workforce for more than five years were more likely to say they compromised by taking lower compensation and a lower status position so they could get back in.
Without a doubt, there are women who truly do want to be full-time mothers and housewives. No judgment here. In a world that values paid work above all else, it takes courage to be true to your values. It also takes courage to trust your financial security to someone else.
Unless you truly do want to be out of the paid workforce for the remainder of your life or are willing to risk the myriad of challenges the long-term unemployed face, keep the time you pause your career short. Some would argue six months is too long. Our research indicates pausing no more than two years is optimal and five years is doable, but six or more and you’ll likely need to rethink your options. It’s definitely not impossible to re-enter, as I have shown repeated examples of women who paused seven, ten, even fifteen years and still managed to relaunch to great success. But you’re rolling the dice at that point, and gambling is not a great way to manage a career.
Unless you truly do want to be out of the paid workforce for the remainder of your life or are willing to risk the myriad of challenges the long-term unemployed face, keep the time you pause your career short.