After being unemployed for two years, I am working again. But before you start jumping up and down with joy on my behalf, let me add: instead of being one of the nearly 14 million Americans who are unemployed, I am now one of the 8.5 million Americans who are under-employed. That is, I am working part time, earning about a third of what I was making before I was laid off in early 2009.
Nevertheless, I beat the odds. All indications are that those who have been out of work longest are least likely to find work. But not only that. I am fifty-two years old. Both experts and anecdotal evidence indicate that those of us over the age of fifty are at an even bigger disadvantage.
I was laid off from my job as in-house counsel for a title insurance carrier in January 2009. In the two years after that, I wasn't one of those mythical unemployed people who sit around on the couch while collecting unemployment. In fact, I was probably busier during those two years than when I had a full-time job.
I searched for work in all the standard ways: scanning online job boards, attending job fairs, contacting everyone I remembered knowing since high school, and making liberal use of social networking.
I took up volunteering with gusto -- as an arbitrator in small claims court, providing legal advice to low-income litigants, performing research and writing for a judge, and working in the General Counsel's office of a city agency. Before working for the insurance carrier, I had done some litigation, but it had been years since I had stepped foot in a courtroom. Now, as a volunteer, I also represented litigants in court.
My reasons for volunteering were the usual ones. I hoped to make connections and gain experience in new areas of law. I also found satisfaction in helping others. However, after a while I realized that the volunteer work was not leading to anything. Most of the people I met were other unemployed lawyers of all ages who were volunteering along with me. The city and state entities I volunteered for were laying people off, not hiring. In the meantime, I had to pay the subway fare, coffee money, and costs of looking presentable. Ultimately, I found it humiliating to continue to work for free while others around me were being paid. I stopped volunteering.
As the months wore on, I continued to apply for jobs. I also began to write about unemployment. My work was published in The Guardian and the New York Post. The writing I am most proud of, however, is my column for Examiner.com, where I invited those who are unemployed to write in and tell their stories. I published excerpts from their letters in my column. At one point I had over 200,000 readers in one month.
Like my readers, despite my persistence, I could not find a job. In all that time, I had about half a dozen interviews. Most of them were conducted by men who were significantly younger than me. Some of my interviewers asked questions that revealed their possibly unconscious age discrimination. One, for example, asked nonchalantly, "so, how old are your kids?" It was clear in most of the interviews that they were looking for someone with whom they would feel comfortable socially -- and a fifty-two-year-old woman was not that person.
My frustration was compounded by other potential employers who seemed to be relentlessly cruel, but in actuality were probably just lazy and clueless. I was offered a temporary document review job that I was told would last two months -- but after five days, I was let go, along with many others. I was accepted for training with a city agency. After three days of unpaid training, I was told that I would not be hired.
At the end of two years, I finally began to run out of steam. I did, in fact, lose hope of ever working again. Worst of all, I was no longer confident that I could perform as an attorney.
How was it that I actually got work? One day four months ago, I was sitting at home desultorily scanning job boards and e-mailing resumes, when the phone rang. It was a woman I had been acquainted with years ago when I practiced in court. Honestly, she hadn't crossed my mind when I had been networking. She told me that I had unknowingly sent her my resume in response to an anonymous ad she had placed, and she was going to use me to cover cases for her in court on a per diem basis. And that was it.
I walked into the courtroom and stepped up to the attorneys' table opposite the judge.
"Your appearance please, counselor," the court officer said. I clearly stated my name and that of the firm. I was back in my element.
I love this work. Just entering the large old courthouses across the city is exhilarating. I represent New Yorkers in all kinds of cases -- landlord/tenant, custody, child support, consumer debt, and others. I have handled a wider variety of cases in the past four months than many lawyers see in a lifetime. I get more appreciation from my clients in a week than I did in years working for the insurance carrier.
I consider myself lucky, and I am very grateful to the woman who provides me with work. But I also have a message for all those employers who discriminate against those of us who are over fifty and/or have been out of work a while: your loss.