Marcus Buckingham
Personal strength expert Marcus Buckingham answers questions on finding happiness, pursuing your passion in your 50s, changing careers and more. Ask Marcus your career question
Q: I am a stay-at-home mom. My son is graduating, and I am now trying to get back into the workforce. Money is limited, so school is out of the question right now. I was thinking maybe just get any job for now and then get bills caught up and try to go back to school. Finding anything other than a minimum wage job around here with my qualifications will be hard to do. It is so frustrating nowadays to find any job. What steps should I take for my future? I am now single, so it's all up to me.

— Kelly, age 46

A: Kelly, I think your instincts are correct and you shouldn't feel bad about taking a job to make ends meet. You have to plug the hole in the boat before you can raise the sails. Allow yourself to see the job you get as a stepping stone, not a stopping point. Take it on knowing that you are using it as a platform from which to build the bridge to your true career. You write that "it's all up to me." I admire your self-reliance, and you have raised your son to the point of graduation, so you are clearly a resourceful person. But even though it is ultimately up to you to create the life you want, that doesn't mean that you have to do it alone. Never be ashamed or reluctant to tap into your network of friends for help. Be willing to learn from the experiences of other people who have gone through the same thing you have. If you know other single moms who have found success getting back into the workforce, ask them their secrets.

Also, although you say that school is out of the question because money is limited, don't let your assumptions on that point prevent you from following your passion if more education is what it takes to create the life you want to have. Every college has needs-based scholarships and financial assistance programs to help people in exactly your situation, and their administrative staff will be very happy to answer any questions you have about what financial assistance is available and how to apply for it.
Q: I'm a young African-American mother of 1-year-old twin girls. I'm a single parent. I have been a hair stylist for years, and now its time for me to have a stable life for my girls. I'm in school for culinary arts because I want to open a soul food restaurant. My long-term goal is to open a training salon, which I tried and the deal didn't go through. Now I just want stability. I don't like the regular 9-to-5 jobs, but I'm starting to feel like that's what I have to do. I want to know, should I keep investing time and money into this culinary school with hopes of opening a restaurant or just go get a job? I'm confused and stressed out; I need some guidance.

— Deresa, age 28

A: Deresa, the question to start with is this: What does stability really mean for you? Although you may equate stability with a rigid 9-to-5 job, the truth is that it comes in many forms. Stability is whatever allows you to create the life you want for you and your children. As I mentioned in Find Your Strongest Life, a recent national survey of 3rd- through 12th-graders yielded some surprising results when it asked kids what they would choose if they were granted one wish to change how their mothers' work affected their lives. Only 10 percent of children wished for more time with their mothers; but 34 percent of children wanted their moms to be less stressed and tired. In and of itself, this data doesn't answer your question of whether you should continue pursuing your culinary career, hairdressing or something altogether different, but it should point you in the right direction. Which decision will make you feel the least stress? Which decision will provide you with a career that energizes you, makes you feel strong and gives you a sense of accomplishment? As your girls grow up, seeing you as their mother modeling the kind of strength-filled life you want for them will be one of the best gifts you can give them.
Q: I have worked the last 19 years as a caregiver. I can no longer physically do the job. I have also had four years' experience as a guest service representative at a Hollywood Video store. I am trying to get a job as a bank teller or customer service person in a call center, but it seems that either I can't do the job, or I am too old to learn something new. I am reliable and honest. I am just not getting any calls from my online applications. What should I do next? My unemployment and food stamps are not enough to pay my rent, car insurance, electric bill, and other necessaries. If something doesn't happen soon, I will be homeless. My family cannot help me.

— Carol, age 61

A: Carol, first of all, you're never too old to learn something new. If your potential employers don't seem to know that, then there are things you can do to battle the odds. Highlight your advantages. Focus not on what you don't have, but on what you do offer to any employer. Be clear and specific about exactly where you offer experience, skills and strengths that other candidates may not have. Frame your experience as an asset and be ready to talk about how it has helped you and the lessons you have learned. Also, ask yourself whether there is room to explore other options in the field you mastered over 19 years. Although you are no longer physically capable of doing the exact same caregiving work you did before, if caring for others is a strength of yours and you have a passion for it, you may be able to find different ways to channel that strength. What opportunities are there in your community for helping people and caring for them that don't involve physical labor? Get creative about finding where those opportunities might be.

While online applications are a crucial part of any job search today, don't stop there. Consult the contacts and connections you built up over your 20-year career. And don't forget to take advantage of resources available for older workers through organizations such as the AARP. Their website features tips, strategies and information about free job fairs for people in your situation in cities (including yours) across the country. 

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