Gemma Harris speaks of her experience of jobseeking as an older worker in the context of Covid.
Workingwise.co.uk surveyed around 2,000 older workers for National Older Workers Week. We also spoke to a selection in depth about their experiences of jobseeking over the last few years.
Gemma Harris* thinks her age and a career gap have hampered her efforts to get her working life back on track.
She has worked in the public sector advising on sustainability strategy before moving into managing corporate social responsibility for a police force and a housing association.
Due to her husband’s job the family moved to the US in 2014 where Gemma found it impossible to get work in her field. In the event, a lot of her time was spent settling her two children, now aged 14 and 16, in the US and managing a flat rent in the UK, which turned into a legal quagmire when the tenants, who were serial non-payers, defaulted on the rent. Gemma says chasing them for payment and understanding the legal system was a full-time job, but she eventually got all the money that was owed to her.
When the family moved back to the UK after two years in 2016 Gemma tried to set up her own business working on infrastructure issues. It was different to what she had done before, although there was some business strategy involved – and she feels that this has made her return harder.
She started applying for jobs in 2019, but didn’t get anywhere and decided to go back to college to do a master’s in Law. She has managed to pick up some temporary work with the college working on strategic issues and is now embarking on a PhD in the law department, focused on policies related to social justice, in particular youth justice for disadvantaged young people. She hopes that this will complement her background in environmental justice policy.
She says she has almost given up on looking for jobs at the moment due to her experience. “I feel my break, my self employed work and my age have made me unemployable,” she says.
Gemma, who is 47, has never put her date of birth on her cv as she doesn’t see it as relevant. However, she says that, even if you avoid dates on your cv, application forms force you to put them and employment and qualification dates make it possible to estimate your age. Ironically, she says, the public sector embraced application forms to eliminate discrimination. “I’m realising now that the public sector almost seems less fair and more discriminatory when it comes to age,” she says.
She has been applying for lower level jobs or jobs at the same level of seniority as she was at before her career break, but feels that she doesn’t fit the age bracket that these are usually aimed at. “It feels as if they are looking for a certain type of person at a certain stage in their career and I just don’t fit,” she says, adding that she feels older women who have taken a career break face some of the biggest difficulties when it comes to getting back to work. Even finding informal job opportunities for project work is hard, she says.
She adds that there appears to be no real support or guidance at crucial points of career transition so people can understand the potential outcome of their decisions. She feels that, at each point, she has made the wrong decision and made herself “more unemployable”. She says: “I feel like I have fallen through the cracks.”
*Not her real name