Patricia Daly, 56, was a managing director at Credit Suisse in June, 2008 when her department was reorganized, and she was out of a job. "Retirement crossed my mind, but when I looked at our investments and at the economic uncertainties, retiring when I still had earning potential didn't seem smart," she recalls. After six months of traveling and enjoying time with her husband, who is retired, she started consulting from home. Her new career, however, did not produce a "livable wage."
Recently Daly accepted a job to be regional director of a science-education nonprofit. She knows she's lucky. She has friends who also worked in financial technology and are still unemployed. "They're not even getting interviews," she says. "There are a lot of younger people out there who are probably more current and have more of a future in front of them."
The great economic downturn has thrown a curve ball--or worse--to many people, but perhaps none so much as women in their 50s and 60s. They were the vanguard, breaking into professional jobs in corporate America when they were young. Now many have to cope not only with the necessity of finding a new job or working longer--and often at lower pay--but also with doing so in a youth-oriented culture.
Psychologically, "some [women] are OK, but some are in very bad shape," says career coach Carole Hyatt. "Many never married or squirreled away any money. They are very unrooted." It's been particularly tough for women in the financial sector, she says, many of whom were "living at a high level. They've had to go back to work at half-pay, sometimes," she notes.
Janice Johnson, 55, left the corporate world seven years ago because of family demands and has since developed a sizable consulting clientele. As president of The Transition Network, a nonprofit group of more than 2,500 members, she tries to help professional women over 50 adjust either to retirement or to a second career. In a recent member survey 23% of the respondents said they had gone back to work or had delayed retirement because of the economy.
"This pool of talent should be marketable," Johnson says. But, she adds, many will have to work on a contract or part-time basis.
The women who've scored work in this tough economy are those who adjusted their plans and their expectations. "I never just wanted to play golf," says Carol Gamm, who once held executive positions in companies such as American Express and Equitable Life (now AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co.). "But I never imagined that we'd undergo the economic uncertainty that we've gone through either."
At 61, Gamm is trying to move from full-time consulting to a full-time job. Though armed with an M.B.A. and a master's in urban planning, she has also set her sights on the nonprofit arena. "It's unrealistic to think I could go back to corporate America, given my age," she says.
While Daly worked as a consultant, she took night classes in fundraising. She also networked and volunteered--for the group that turned into her future employer.
Johnson works with a lot of young people, so she adjusted to their culture. "I wear a lot of jeans and jean jackets," she says. "You make certain steps into their world, but you also say to yourself, 'I don't have to spend two hours a day on Twitter.'"
Keeping up with technology is also a common theme among those who do have jobs. Johnson has gotten used to instant messaging, for example, and others have learned how to network on professional Web sites such as LinkedIn.
Hyatt adds that you may have to go further. "You may even have to change your résumé. No one will give you a $100,000 job if you've been earning three or four times that." More than ever, she says, it's important to stress qualities and accomplishments relevant to the job opening and to minimize mentions of anything that would work against you, such as making a high salary in your previous position.
As at many life junctures, women should assess their finances and act proactively. "The smartest thing I did was go to a financial planner," Daly says. "I said, 'This is what I have from the three places I've worked. Assume I will never work again, and tell me what I will have.' "
Amy Fisher, a 30-year veteran of Wall Street, mostly in investment management, likewise took stock. At 54, she is a single mother of two adopted girls, ages 10 and 12. "Coming into this debacle, there was such a transition in the financial industry--the entire landscape was changing," she says. "I want to work into my 70s. I do not want to be on the unemployment line when I am 57."
Fisher decided to become a financial advisor as a way of controlling her own destiny. She got a job at Merrill Lynch, where she is building her own practice. She has flexibility--she sometimes works from home--and she is focused. "I know how many contacts I have to make per day, and how many meetings I have to have per week," she says.
"The hardest part," she continues, "is that the man working next to me does not know that I had another career, that I was president of a division. He only knows me as a junior financial advisor." But Fisher lets that queasy feeling pass. "I get over it. For me to sustain my lifestyle and to earn what I want to provide for my children, this position will allow me to do that. When I am discouraged, I remind myself of what I am creating."
Gamm has similar advice for women past 50. "We are at a point where we still want to work, but we want something different, like an 'encore' career," she says. "I want to work and need to work, but I know myself better now. And now that my children are grown, I can look around and figure out what I really want to do."