The Millennials Balancing Their Parents’ Job Searches With Their Own

Young adults have a reputation for leaning heavily on their mothers and fathers. For some families, though, the support flows the other way.

Marcelo Del Pozo / Reuters

It’s a worn narrative that Millennials are a jobless generation content to live with, and off, their parents. But that’s only one side of it: Today, there are a number of employed and financially independent Millennials who are instead helping their parents find a job.

This represents a generational role reversal, prodded perhaps by labor-market forces that favor younger workers over older ones. Although the jobless rate dropped below 5 percent last month, figures specific to older workers tell a different story. A recent study found that 55 percent of Americans over 50 plan to work past the age of 65, primarily because they cannot afford to retire sooner. And, as of December 2014, job-seekers over the age of 55 had been unemployed for an average of 54.3 weeks, nearly twice as long as their younger counterparts.

To me, all of these statistics are a bit personal: Over the past year, I’ve been trying to help my mom figure out the next step in her career. At 60 years old, she is learning what it means to find a job in 2016, attempting to master the ever-elusive task of converting a PDF into a Word document and to keep track of different passwords for various job sites. So I teach her the basics: résumé rebuilding, cover-letter drafting, mock interviewing. Through all that, though, it’s hard to forget that to employers, she is an applicant who appears past her working prime and costly in terms of health-care benefits.

Considering the current labor market, it does not seem so outlandish that other Millennials are giving their parents a hand too. “I've been getting a lot of calls over the past couple of years from sons and daughters looking for help for their mom or dad,” says Renée Rosenberg, the author of Achieving the Good Life After 50 and a career counselor who specializes in working with over-50 job-seekers who were fired, laid off, or went in search of an alternative career path. For example, one man paid for his dad to take career sessions with Rosenberg. The father—who was, at the time, a lawyer—realized he wanted to teach, left his law firm, and found a job at a local college. “They'll say, ‘Just tell me how many sessions. I'll send the check, because I really want my dad or my mom to do this,’” Rosenberg says.

Not all of these later-in-life job switches have to do with changes of heart. Almost a decade ago, Ashley Buchly, a 25-year-old seventh-grade teacher in Houston, was living at home when her father, who had been working as a director of real estate at a university, received an ultimatum from his employer: work for half of his salary, or leave. He chose to leave, because he needed a higher income to support his family of six. To Buchly, the thought of her father having an MBA and a real-estate license was comforting—until he started getting rejected for jobs. “He was actually unemployed for almost three years. I remember he sent out 500 copies of his résumé,” Buchly says. “He even went to Walmart and applied to be an overnight stocker, and they told him he was too qualified for the job.”

Today, Buchly is financially independent and her father is employed as a real-estate agent. Still, he is on the lookout for a new job. When she meets someone new, Buchly sometimes hands out business cards on his behalf and recently she has taken to Facebook, asking her friends who might be hiring. Buchly’s story is common: According to a survey conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute, 45 percent of job-seekers between the ages of 45 and 70 sought assistance with some aspect of their job search, most often with preparing their résumé, but also with operating a computer and using social media. The most popular source of such help was family and friends.

Social-media proficiency represents one general divide between Baby Boomers and Millennials. It’s one that Amy Lindgren, a job-search advisor based in St. Paul, Minnesota, cautions younger generations about when teaching their parents—it’s not about the speed with which they learn, she advises, but how they feel as they learn a new technology. “For every job-seeker that I encounter, one of the things that I'm guarding very carefully is that person's morale and self-confidence,” Lindgren explains. “Because without that sense of hope and can-do attitude, it doesn't matter how great the tools are … they're not going to be able to implement [them].”

Lindgren has run her career-counseling firm since 1985, but only in the last five years has she noticed an uptick of (mostly thirtysomething) children calling on behalf of their parents. “The questions might be because their parents got laid off,” she said. “More frequently, these days, it's related to a divorce.”

Indeed, for Baby Boomers, increased rates of divorce are making for more penurious retirements, especially for women. Based on today’s gender-based disparities in pay, a woman who worked full-time over a period of 40 years would make roughly $430,480 less than a man working for that same period—meaning a woman would have to work nearly 11 years longer than a man to reach pay parity, according to the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit. And one study found that, after the recession, among all unemployed Americans, women over 50 were the group most likely to be unemployed for extended periods of time. (Men above 50 were not far behind.)

Joyce Russell, the senior associate dean of learning at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says she is often asked by students how their parents should best maneuver through the current job climate. One MBA student, for example, asked Russell for advice on how her mom should approach seeking a promotion in her organization. “I've had [students] tell me, ‘Okay, so I'm trying to educate my parents on negotiating their offer,’ whether that's the pay, or just job scope, responsibility, time off,” Russell says.

Russell says that one of the biggest obstacles that many over-50 job-seekers must confront is ageism. “I think it's coming really from an old belief that people are going to be retiring soon, so why would you hire somebody who’s over 50 if you can hire someone who's 40?” Russell asked. “But that's really a fallacy, because there's research that shows older workers are highly dependable. They don't have as much absenteeism and sick days, and [they have] stronger loyalty.”

However, for some Baby Boomers (mostly those with sturdy financial foundations), an uncertain professional future can be liberating. A lack of obligations sometimes leads to what is often called an “encore career”—a more meaningful job, usually with more flexibility. Take, for example, that lawyer-turned-educator from before. Or a woman like Eileen Bergman, who, after being laid off from her corporate job in 2012, found herself at a crossroads. “When I lost my job, the world started kind of turning upside-down for me as far as possibilities,” she says.

Two years and a few jobs later, Eileen developed a case of vertigo that made working difficult for her. While recovering at home, she read an article in AARP’s magazine about professional organizers, and was inspired to become one herself. But where to start? “I said to my son, Jason, ‘I need to put together a marketing plan. I have to put together a website,’” Eileen says. “And I need photos." At the time, Jason was a 26-year-old freelance photographer, well-versed, like many Millennials, in the ways of self-employment. And so, their partnership began: Jason got Eileen her own website; she wrote the copy; he designed the page; she wanted a company email address; he set one up, and planned a photoshoot for the website.

“I've never seen her this happy,” Jason said. “She's meeting people. She's out there, and more satisfied with the work that she's doing.” Eileen agrees that it’s been a success. “I knew I came to a very good place when my accountant is telling me, ‘You need to start paying your son for his services,’” she said.

Helping my mom sort out her career has produced similar feelings of solidarity between us, as well as worry. Even though my mom is college-educated and has an extensive work history at a top airline, she is nearing retirement age, which isn’t exactly what most companies look for in a recruit. Recently, she submitted yet another job application, and made it to the second online interview. We went over possible questions, and I showed her the salaries and gossip on Glassdoor. We discussed the oddities of video interviews and the importance of a reliable wi-fi connection. Now, we’re waiting for a callback.