- By Kerry Hannon
All I can ask is, "What were they thinking?"
When I read Judith Warner’s much-discussed article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," I shrugged.
Warner wrote about a cohort of well-heeled, highly educated women with six-figure incomes who married men in that same rarified strata and then, in the early 2000s, decided to step out of the workforce, stay home and raise their kids.
(MORE: Does Being a Mom Help or Hurt Your Career?)
The 'Opt-Out' Women Today
They’re known as the "opt-out" women, taken from the headline of Lisa Belkin’s 2003 New York Times Magazine article, "The Opt-Out Revolution." Belkin profiled a group of high-achievers who were able to leave the workplace thanks to their cushy financial positions and were steadfast in their decisions to do so.
A decade hence, Warner finds, women like them are now rapping at the office door to get back in — and they’re numbed by what they’re discovering: Doors aren’t swinging open for them.
They’re shocked, dismayed and disappointed that they aren’t being welcomed back with open arms at the same lofty salaries and titles they once enjoyed.
My opinion: Get over it.
The world simply doesn’t work that way. Not for anyone, male or female.
I know a few men who quit their jobs to become stay-at-home dads and are now itching to rejoin the workforce, too. It has been an ego-crushing experience for them as well. One friend, a 56-year-old former investment banker, has been hitting the interview circuit for nearly two years. The only offers he has received are for positions far below what he thinks he deserves. So he has declined them. That’s his prerogative, though his breadwinning spouse may not totally agree with his decisions.
(MORE: 7 Tips for Breadwinner Wives Feeling the Strain)
Why Re-entering the Workforce Is Hard
Let me offer a reality check to women and men who’ve opted out and explain why you can’t just expect to pick up where you left off.
For one thing, technology has changed radically in the past decade. Odds are the job you had is handled a lot differently these days.
For another, there’s the state of the U.S. economy. We’re still enmeshed in a tight job market lingering from the 2008 recession. It now takes a 55-year-old worker almost a year to land a job after losing one, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And have I mentioned age discrimination in the workplace? Like it or not, this ugly phenomenon is a fact at many companies. A recent AARP survey found that nearly 1 in 5 people age 45 to 74 believe they didn't get hired because of their age. Laurie McCann, a senior attorney and age discrimination expert for AARP, says some hiring managers dismiss job hunters’ applications based on their college graduation date or other tipoffs to their age.
“Too many older Americans trying to get or keep their jobs continue to face the significant barrier of age discrimination,” said Joyce A. Rogers, AARP senior vice president for government affairs, in response to reintroduced legislation known as "The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act." The bill would overturn two Supreme Court decisions that toughened the burden of proof for employees bringing age-discrimination claims.
Living With the Choices We Make
All I could think when I read Warner’s story was what a sense of entitlement these women seemed to have. To me, they’ve deluded themselves into believing they were “special” in some way and would be immune to the nuances of the ever-changing working world.
We all make choices in life. And as Deborah Jacobs just wrote in her smart, if blunt, Forbes blog about the opt-out moms, “so be it.”
Jacobs said: “The corporate world values work experience, and no matter how you spin the story about your PTA service and volunteer work, staying home with the kids is not work experience.”
The women I know who have managed to find satisfying work after stepping away have sometimes had to go down the corporate ladder before they can go up. Sometimes, they’ve gone sideways.
Jungle Gyms and Ladders
But "ladder" isn’t the best metaphor in today’s work world. I agree with what Sheryl Sandberg said in her bestseller, Lean In: You need to think of your career as a jungle gym.
It’s a great image of the 21st-century career path. “Ladders are limiting,” Sandberg wrote. “Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”
In truth, the women I know in their 50s who’ve managed to get back to duties and salaries near what they once commanded never left the workforce entirely, even if they were on the proverbial mommy track.
They did contract and consulting work. Some set up flex arrangements with their bosses for shorter workweeks or job sharing. They never got out of the game.
You really can't expect to be valued by employers in the same way as when you were a hotshot Princeton graduate if you haven't been honing your experience, sharpening skills and adding accolades. It’s simply too competitive out there for these crème de la crème positions.
I suspect that the women Warner revisited were high-achieving enough that for most of their lives when they wanted something, they got it through hard work and smarts.
But it takes more than that to turn back the clock. You need creativity, humility and perhaps the understanding that a job with purpose can mean more than an enormous paycheck.
7 Career Tips for Opting Back In
OK, now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, let me offer seven moves that can help you push the door back open:
1. Pump up your networking. Yes, this really works. Networking isn’t necessarily going to land you a job tomorrow; it’s a process of developing contacts gradually.
Remember to show interest in what other people are up to and learn from them. When I’m at a networking event, I spend twice as much time listening as talking, with a goal of meeting at least three new people and getting their contact information.
(MORE: Why Women Should Join Networking Groups)
Here’s an example of how networking paid off for one opt-out married mom, Sandy Shaw, 55, now the vice president of corporate partnerships at the nonprofit Points of Light. (I interviewed her for an article in AARP Bulletin.)
Shaw had a successful finance career but called it quits at 40, spending the next 15 years raising her two sons and volunteering in their schools. When her eldest son went off to college last year, she decided to look for a job with meaning and began networking with friends and former colleagues, widening that circle daily. She pledged never to end a phone call or leave a meeting without a new person to get in touch with. Six months later, Shaw landed her current job. It pays less than what she once made, but she loves it.
2. Start your own business (or freelance) to get back up to speed. Gwenn Rosener, now 49, a former $160,000-a-year Ernst & Young senior manager with a Harvard MBA, couldn’t land even a quality part-time job in 2010 when she decided to stop being a stay-at-home mom. So she and two other women launched a company to help people like them find work.
“I was shocked, somewhat naively, to discover that there were few options for someone like me,” Rosener told me. The part-time opportunities she found were mostly entry-level temp work and short-term consulting projects. When one of the top-paying jobs she she fielded was selling her reproductive eggs to a clinic for a fertility study, Rosener knew she needed to go out on her own.
Her anxiety was in sync with two other fortysomething moms, Sheila Murphy and Ellen Grealish, who faced a similar dilemma. The three women ultimately created FlexProfessionals, a recruiting and staffing company specializing in part-time professionals in the Washington, D.C., area.
3. Add skills and certificates. Not up on the latest technology or changes in your former field? Sign up for classes and make an investment in your future. A specialized professional certificate from a community college or trade association (with classes that you can take in person or online) might be the card you need to punch.
4. Dive into the social media pool. That means you need to get comfortable with, and use LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Employers expect it.
While you’re at it, spend time searching online for news stories about places where you want to work then visit their websites. Use your social media skills to tweet, post on Facebook and comment on LinkedIn about what you’ve learned to show others that you’re up to speed.
5. Look for jobs at small companies. They can't always afford to lure top-level talent with sweet benefits like stock options, 401(k) plans and generous health insurance. So they may be thrilled to snag someone as sharp as you.
6. Volunteer. With due respect to Deborah Jacobs, I think that meaningful volunteering can be an excellent way to eventually land a job. You can demonstrate your skills helping out at a nonprofit and then tout your accomplishments when applying for a paid position. You might even wind up getting hired at the organization where you volunteer. A few recent surveys have shown that volunteering helps job candidates find work.
7. Check out the “best employers for workers over 50.” AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management complied a list of what they consider to be the Top 50 Employers who recognize the value of older workers and tend to recruit mature workers.
The National Institutes of Health topped the ranking, followed by Scripps Health of Southern California. Others include: Atlantic Health System (of Morristown, N.J.), the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Cornell University and Michelin North America.
My 'Opt-Out' Mom
A parting thought: I often think of what an amazing public relations pro my mom would have been if she hadn’t stepped out of the workforce in the late 1950s to raise her four children. Now in her 80s, she does an incredible job of spreading the word about my latest books and articles.
I’m grateful that she does it all pro bono; I can’t imagine what her retainer fee would be.