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Work Advice: Qualified, experienced — yet somehow unhirable

A researcher explores how unemployment stigma keeps even experienced and highly qualified workers trapped in long-term joblessness

6 min

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

You’re a fairly successful midcareer professional. You lose your job in a layoff/reorganization/downsizing. You freshen up the résumé and start applying. Everyone around you is sympathetic but encouraging, confident you will be snapped up in no time.

At first, job openings seem plentiful — but you soon realize few are at your level of experience or offer anywhere near what you were making before. When you apply to those few, you either get no responses or interviews that go nowhere. You consult career experts and follow their advice on tweaking your résumé and your LinkedIn profile.

Work Advice: Unemployed, but hesitant to advertise it

As the months pass and your savings dwindle, so do the leads. You are networking like a game-show host, but it’s hard to keep your anxiety under wraps.

You consider changing tack. Should you get more training? Start a new business? Change careers? All of those cost money, and there’s no telling if they will bear fruit soon enough.

You broaden your search, trying to persuade employers to hire you for jobs you are clearly overqualified for. You omit hard-earned credentials from your résumé just to get a foot in the door. You look for any gig just to get by, debating whether the meager pay is worth the time and energy it takes from your job search.

After six months, nine months, a year of unemployment, you can hear recruiters and employers thinking (maybe even saying): “Why hasn’t anyone hired you yet? You have all these qualifications and experience. Is something wrong with you?” The worst part is when the voice asking those questions is coming from inside your own head.

As you have probably guessed, there’s no punchline coming. It’s not a joke, but a tragic tale of our times, one I have heard from readers, friends and colleagues. I had a front-row seat to it in my marriage.

What keeps skilled, educated professionals locked in this demoralizing cycle of long-term unemployment? Ofer Sharone, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who researches career transitions and trends, sums it up in one word: stigma.

In our bootstrap-happy capitalist society, success is viewed as the direct result of one’s own wit, grit and gumption — which means anyone who fails is deemed to be lacking those qualities. In his book “The Stigma Trap: College-educated, Experienced, and Long-Term Unemployed,” Sharone identifies and explains the external forces beyond job seekers’ control: fluctuating markets, competition, age bias and, above all, stigma. He describes stigma as a “cruel and circular” trap in which “unemployed workers are often viewed with … suspicion by potential employers, network contacts, coaches, friends, and spouses.”

In researching this concept, Sharone interviewed 139 long-term unemployed workers — mostly college-educated, over age 50 and highly experienced — participating in the Institute for Career Transitions, a program he founded to pair long-term job seekers with volunteer counselors.

Using data from those interviews, Sharone lays out in detail how job loss becomes long-term unemployment; how the resulting stigma progressively damages job seekers’ mental health, self-worth and relationships; and how that damage further hampers the job search. In particular, Sharone says, “being over 50 — regardless of education and skills — is the best predictor of getting trapped in long-term unemployment.”

Sharone cites a 2018 study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute showing that 56 percent of workers between age 50 and retirement will suffer at least one “involuntary job separation”; of those, only 10 percent will again earn a salary comparable with what they were making.

Older workers are a growing share of the workforce

In one baffling example, Sharone quotes recruiters confirming that, all other things being equal, employers prefer currently employed or “passive” candidates over unemployed ones actively looking for work. The longer job seekers stay out of work, the more “unemployed” seems to equate to “unemployable.”

Naturally, solving the stigma trap is trickier than identifying it. Sharone’s interviewees discuss how the most common and well-meaning advice they receive — Network! Believe in yourself! — often compounds the stigma. Maintaining a confident facade for networking leaves them feeling like phonies; unalloyed optimism is not only unattainable but unrealistic, because it suggests positive thinking will put the outcome entirely in their control.

Sharone told me a better approach is to acknowledge the economic and social challenges long-term unemployed workers, especially those over 50, face, “inoculating people to what they’re going to experience.” Another key is for these workers to find a community of fellow job seekers who understand firsthand what they’re going through and can show them they’re not alone. As Sharone notes in his book, even professional counselors can be judgmental, while spouses or other family members may not be in a position to offer emotional support because they themselves are struggling with the situation.

Sharone also discusses broad policy changes that could help disable the unemployment stigma trap, such as strengthening social safety nets and doing more to decouple health care and other means of support from employment. He points to the generous benefits and income support U.S. workers received in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when “the stigma of unemployment was temporarily lifted and those without work were seen without distortion as people without work through no fault of their own.”

Sharone’s book is a stomach-churning read — but it’s essential to understanding how much of our identity is tied to employment, and how fragile that connection is. Granted, his sample demographic is limited — but it hits all the harder for that. Seeing competent professionals with networks, connections and impressive credentials struggle to regain their footing undermines what Sharone calls “the comforting myth of meritocracy.”

While we like to believe our choices will protect us from such a fate, he notes, “the unemployed workers described in this book could be any one of us.”

Resources for experienced job seekers

The following resources were provided by Amy Mazur, a career development specialist and collaborator of Sharone’s.

For service providers

  • The Work Intervention Network (WIN), affiliated with Boston College, provides free training for career professionals, workforce development agencies, educational institutions and human service organizations to run workshops, similar to Sharone’s ICT program, to support long-term unemployed professionals and those undergoing career transitions.

For job seekers

  • A networking and professional development organization for life planners working with people over 50. Use the “Find a Consultant” feature to find counselors for career, health care, retirement, legal and other issues.
  • AARP Foundation’s “Back to Work 50+” program offers career workshops, coaching and resources to workers over 50.
  • Some educational alumni offices and state employment agencies offer specialized services for experienced workers, such as Massachusetts’ 50 Plus Job Seekers network.