Several middle-aged military spouses have made numerous and frustratingly futile attempts to reenter the workforce after having been stay-at-home moms and/or dedicated volunteers for a decade or more. Their experiences are fundamentally the same as those of their civilian counterparts who are also trying to get jobs after years of child rearing. Many of these women, civilian and military spouses alike, have degrees, many of them advanced, and they’ve no shortage of experience. Having never before come up against the kinds of women they themselves used to be, they’re ill-prepared to face the piranhas who have spent years sharpening their teeth and who now make up today’s employer market.
I empathize. I’m 50 years old with a letter from the Social Security Administration that says I qualify for $103 a month should I file for benefits at age 62. Yea, I’ll be rolling in the Juicy Fruit. Ten, 20, and 30 years ago I was being told by women my age and older that I really wasn’t X material or a good fit for X, nor did I have a degree in X or X number of years’ experience with X. This came from women who, after establishing themselves in the workforce, would later put their careers on hold to raise children and who are, now, trying to get back into an antagonistic workforce that had previously held them near and dear.
Again, I empathize. As a 20-, 30- and 40-year-old who had very little education and a lot of experience in a variety of jobs (both paid and volunteer), I was used to being escorted to the door by wide smiles and ridiculous platitudes. That I was a woman didn’t help (even when being interviewed by women) and it somehow made things worse when I said I wasn’t going to have any more children: it was as if I’d pegged myself as lacking foresight, or worse – a liar. Then there was the issue of being married to a U.S. Marine, which in the eyes of many civilian employers was akin to having leprosy.
At a time when both jobs and applicants were readily available, the best job I qualified for was a waitressing position on base at the Staff NCO club. This indeed opened doors for me: teeny tiny doors that led to bartending; dishwashing; coordinating banquets and Mess nights; and filling in for the club system manager’s administrative assistant when, predictably, her husband was assigned to a different base and she vacated the post. Unbeknownst to me, every new duty station’s club system would turn a blind eye to my previous experience and put me right back on the bottom rung.
I suppose there are worse ways to be put through the unemployment ringer. I’m not standing on a street corner hoping a job drives by and stops in front of me (which hilariously means one thing if you’re a woman and an entirely different thing if you’re a man, regardless of the time of day). The difficult thing for me is to hear women my age complain about how difficult it is to get back into the workforce. They feel as if their very own peers (who never left the workforce) are putting them out to pasture. And yes, that’s disconcerting as hell, but a whole other level of disconcerting awaits them should they lower their standards even the tiniest bit and find themselves alongside 20-somethings whose mothers didn’t teach them not to ask, “Aren’t you too old for this job?”
The most difficult part of hearing these middle-aged laments is knowing some of these women are the same ones who, ten, 20 and 30 years ago, told me I wasn’t their choice for the job they were filling for a variety of reasons, none of which were relevant to the duties of the job itself. The same women who told me I wasn’t “mature,” educated, or experienced enough are now hearing the same thing, but with the twist that their education and experience is too dated to take into consideration and that the “mature” they themselves were looking for many years ago is now the very reason they’re being shuffled to the bottom of the pile.
The irony grows when we get to the issue of revitalizing one’s education. While I struggled with plates of food to save money so my children could go to college, these women were in college. Like me, they have kids in college while tuition is at an all time high and minimum wage jobs are at an all time low. Unlike me, they know they either have to share a seat next to their kids in the lecture hall (and bear the added expense) or tap out their woes on their laptop while I pour them yet another cup of coffee and bring them yet another lemon cake.
Forgive my generalizations. There is of course the distinct possibility these women weren’t the higher-ups leading me out of so many interviews so many years ago with so many false hopes and empty encouragements. But I’m willing to bet these women were somewhere around – “filing away” my application, answering the phone, directing their assistant, typing, making lunch plans, negotiating terms, finalizing loans, faxing, banging on the copy machine, pouring coffee, and meeting with the higher-ups. They were there somewhere, all the while thinking they’d never be the poor, misguided waif being escorted out of the office unencumbered by employment.
And still I empathize. It sucks to have put in so much work for so many years only to find it somehow doesn’t count. It sucks to have educated oneself in whatever way, only to have it pointed out that the paper upon which that degree or certification is printed is faded – and they look directly at you when they say “faded.” It sucks to be treated as if not being in an office for ten or 20 years means you must have been under a rock without a computer or a clock. It sucks to be talked to as if the Internet, email, and indoor plumbing must be new things for you. It sucks to realize you’re being afforded little more regard than an ex-con applying for the same position. And all this assumes you even got your foot in the door for an interview.
I won’t tell you what some of you told me years ago: “It gets better.” For some it’s true and for some it’s not, so it would’ve been best if you’d just kept that little gem to yourself. But now you’re out there, trying to do your thing and it’s not working. You already know it’s frustrating and mind-numbing and makes you want to punch walls in every office in which you do manage an interview. I will tell you this: It gets different. It also gets stupid – ever more stupid the longer you pursue it. Take it in stride. Take it all with a grain of salt. Occasionally and in the evening, take it with whatever beverage suits your fancy.
At the end of the day, take the advice you yourself gave out so many years ago: Take a job, any job. Employers today think brains become stagnant after being unemployed for ten days, much less ten years. Keep looking for work when you’re not at work. Take the bus or the train. Take your lunch. Take walks. Take a day to decide on that new blouse and then don’t buy it. Take that money to the bank. Take your spouse on at least one date a month. And if you still have children at home, don’t forget to take them to school. The last thing you’re going to want in this life is your nursing home picked out by someone you left stranded on the side of the road.