Unemployment is difficult at any age, but it can be especially difficult when you are over 50.
I recently wrote about the problems of planning to work in retirement. Surveys show that up to 80 percent of us hope to do so, but only 20 percent actually do. The reasons are many, but unexpected health problems and age discrimination are right up there.
But people age 50 and up who have left jobs — voluntarily or not — and successfully found their Second Act jobs or careers have something in common. Most developed a Plan B while they were still working — just in case.
“Workers do get terminated, and they do decide to leave voluntarily and think they are going to find something,” Sara Rix, an employment consultant, says. “If you are planning on working in retirement, having something lined up before you submit your papers to your employer is a good idea.”
Rix says older workers often underestimate the problems they will face trying to re-enter the workforce or finding something they like to do in retirement.
“That’s not easy to do,” she says. “People don’t think seriously about what they might like to do and what it may take to get to that particular job. They enter retirement thinking, ‘I’ve always wanted to open a nursery, or work in a TV studio.’ We all have dreams, but we need to back up those dreams with some sort of skills and abilities. Often that’s left too late for older workers.”
Adds Kerry Hannon, a career expert and author: “A lot of people quit before they are ready because they can’t take it anymore. The people who are most successful at moving to a new thing, and it doesn’t have to be full-time, work on it a couple of years ahead to prepare to make a career transition. You should get started early.”
Rene Syler lost her job as a co-anchor of CBS News’ “The Early Show” in 2006. Though she wasn’t expecting to be unemployed, she had started to prepare for life outside the network. She wrote a book, “Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting,” which had gone to the publisher just weeks before she was fired. She built that book into a brand, which includes TV appearances, speaking engagements and a successful website, goodenoughmother.com.
“When I was still at CBS, I did a lot of things wrong,” Syler, 53, says. “But some things I did right. I knew I needed to make myself a brand. I knew this wouldn’t last forever.
“When I left television, I remained a communicator,” she says. “Instead of sitting behind the desk and talking to people on the other side of the camera, I’m having a more intimate back-and-forth through the website and social media.”
Career experts say it is critical to figure out in advance what your skills are and how you can parlay them into a Second Act. If you have trouble figuring it out, ask the people around you, Hannon says.
“Sometimes people recognize things that you are good at and you don’t realize,” she says. “Ask family and colleagues what they think.”
Other tips for preparing for that encore career:
Keep an open mind. “What you had in salary and title in your job, don’t pigeonhole yourself into that,” says Jean Setzfand, senior vice president of programs at AARP. “Think about where you and your skills can be best utilized. It could widen your opportunities to a much greater extent than thinking about ‘I was a vice president in a bank.’ ”
Says Syler: “I feel like what is happening for me is nowhere near the end, but close to the beginning of something new and exciting. Those things are scary and exhausting, but also, if you are open to it, it can be exhilarating.”
If you can, keep the job you have. “People who expect to work in retirement should do a lot of things to keep the jobs they have,” Rix says. “There are things they may not be thinking of as they are approaching retirement age, like scaling back and phasing into retirement with your current employer. Most employers don’t offer a formal phase-in retirement, but it never hurts to ask if you can phase-in or work part-time.”
Have a nest egg and reduce debt. “Besides saving in your company retirement plan, your 401(k) or other qualified plan, it would be nice to save money outside of plan,” says Mary Mathias, financial adviser with RBC Wealth Management.
Mathias also recommends getting a financial planner to help you consider your options. “If you can work with an adviser who also has a Certified Financial Planner background, all the better.”
Self-employment may be an option, but it’s not easy. “Most of us don’t have what it takes to be self-employed,” Rix said. “It is tough to make a living as a self-employed individual unless you really have some high-demand skill or ability.”
“I’m working harder now than I ever have in my life,” Syler says. “When I was at CBS, I had tremendous support. I had an assistant, producers and all the things you take for granted. Now I have about 30 jobs. When you are doing everything yourself, you have to figure out a lot of things and be really guarded of your time.”
Marty Welch, chief executive of Legacy Franchise Group, says older workers are increasingly turning to franchise opportunities. “Franchising has a track record and is not as risky,” he says. “Depending on the skill set and what they want to do, it could be a good avenue for them in their twilight years.”
Be active. “Do not sit at home and send out resumes,” Hannon says. “Get out and meet people. Volunteer. You never know who you might meet. Getting out of the house is great for depression. At the very least, you are meeting people.”