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EP 285: The Stigma of Long Term Unemployment and What to Do About It, with sociologist Ofer Sharone

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Episode Description

Today we welcome Ofer Sharone, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research focuses on career transitions, unemployment, and aspirations. His new book, The Stigma Trap: College-Educated, Experienced, and Long-Term Unemployed shows how the stigma of unemployment renders all workers, including those who are highly experienced and hold advanced degrees from elite universities, precarious and vulnerable to being trapped in long-term unemployment. Recognized as a leading expert on unemployment, Ofer has been invited to the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor to participate in policy discussions on addressing unemployment. We discuss long term unemployment as it pertains to relaunchers and get his advice on how make progress in the face of it.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and Co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to the iRelaunch Job Board.

This is where we go to share relauncher's profiles with our employers who are hiring for their career reentry jobs and programs. It's important that your profile and resume are in there. Today, we welcome Ofer Sharone, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose research focuses on career transitions, unemployment, and aspirations.

His new book, The Stigma Trap, College Educated, Experienced, and Long Term Unemployed, shows how the stigma of unemployment renders all workers, including those who are highly experienced and hold advanced degrees from elite universities, precarious and vulnerable to being trapped in long term unemployment.

Recognized as a leading expert on unemployment, Ofer has been invited to the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor to participate in policy discussions on addressing unemployment. Ofer, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Ofer Sharone: Thank you so much, Carol. I'm really happy to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, we really appreciate your time, and I haven't had a chance to read your book yet. We're going to be very interested in reading that, but as soon as we heard about your research, we knew that we wanted to have this conversation. So, we greatly appreciate the opportunity. And I want to repeat this from your bio, because it is so on point with the kinds of conversations that we have with relaunchers, and here I quote, "The stigma of unemployment renders all workers, including those who are highly experienced and hold advanced degrees from elite universities, precarious and vulnerable to being trapped in long term unemployment." So our population and our audience are primarily, is primarily people who are educated and have work experience and are typically mid career before they take their career breaks.

We call them relaunchers, because after their career breaks, they relaunch their careers and those career breaks can be anywhere from one to over 20 years. And one more thing, the career breaks are for a whole range of reasons that have to usually nothing to do with work performance. It could be child care, elder care, or a health issue, or an expat experience, or a military spouse, unretiring, full range of issues.

So we are intensely interested in your thoughts, and we'd like to start by understanding, how do you define unemployment? And how long is long term?

Ofer Sharone: Unemployment is officially defined by the government as anyone who is out of work and actively looking for work. That yields a percent that is wildly misleading, and it's part of the problem of why we don't quite grasp the crisis in employment we have.

So, for example, under this definition, someone who's working an hour a week or, someone who's working at, a few hours at a poverty level job, it's just not in the numbers. So there is a vast number of people who are not counted in the unemployment number, but who are struggling to find meaningful and you know, well paying jobs.

So I, I think we really need to take that number with a big grain of salt. For your question about long term unemployment in the US, it's typically defined as more than six months. In Europe, it's more than a year or two years. So we tend to link it to the length of unemployment compensation, which is typically six months, it varies by states, but after six months, compensation usually runs out, and that's when people are categorized as long term unemployed.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, because when we're talking about the relaunching population, we talk about this definition and how obviously we're not employed if we're relaunching, but we're not counted in the unemployed either until we start actively looking for work. So that's why relaunchers are often refer to as the hidden population, because we fall in between those two groups. But, this additional point about, if you're working, even a very short amount of time and you're an unbelievable, like you're significantly underemployed, then you don't, you count in the unemployed.

Is that what you're saying? You do count.

Ofer Sharone: Yes, that's right, yeah. So we need to see it as, it's not a binary of employed versus unemployed. There's a whole spectrum in between someone having a good job that pays a middle class salary, versus someone wholly unemployed. There's a lot in the middle, and tons of people fall into the close to unemployment, functionally unemployed in terms of being able to support themselves, but which we don't capture in the numbers, and your population is included in that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, absolutely, and the way you're defining long term, certainly because most of our relaunchers have a minimum of a one year career break, and it could go all the way until over 20 years.

I myself took an 11 year career break, so people, we're really talking about long term career breaks in our population. So, Ofer, one of the mini series that we have of this podcast is devoted to the prolonged job search because we are always in conversation with groups, subsets of our population.

We have about 125,000 people in all stages of relaunching. We have a very active group on Facebook with about, it's a private Facebook group with about 15, 000 of our community in there, and the conversation is very frank, and we often get into this discussion about the emotional and psychological toll that a prolonged unemployment, a prolonged job search leads to, and that's what we focus on in this mini series. But, I'd like to hear from your perspective, what does your research show?

How do you think about it? And what are the elements that sort of, that contribute to this terrible state of mind that can be so damaging over time?

Ofer Sharone: The emotional toll of a prolonged job search cannot be overstated. It is, after interviewing hundreds of people in this position, I would say that no one escapes a very bruising experience.

And I think this experience is not often well understood, even by the people themselves experiencing it at first, or they were not expecting it. So, the thing that people encounter is a stigma, a bias, a perception among employers to begin with, but not only employers, that there's some question mark around you because you've been out of work.

And it's, you know, whether it's due to unemployment, whether taking a break to raise children or to take care of an elderly parent, whatever it is, being out of the workforce and then trying to re enter it, leads to skeptical reactions. So we, I think we're most aware of employers and their reactions, and there is a lot of research here showing that someone out of work compared to someone currently working is going to face obstacles.

But my research shows it's not just with the employers. It's also when people try to network. It's also when they seek support from friends, spouses, coaches even. There are a lot of negative judgments, skeptical judgments. Inevitably, this takes a toll, right? So you're as the job seeker engaging in this, are experiencing a society that is mirroring back questions and skepticism and judgments, and why have you been out this long?

Are you really committed to work? Are you really a good worker? Then, so inevitably, people feel negatively, of course. It's a human reaction to being stigmatized, that you feel a negative reaction. And then we're judged for having that negative reaction, right? So people then who have, of course everyone does, have negative feelings as a result of their experience in the job market.

Any sharing of that, any leaking of that in a networking setting, in an interview setting, is a huge red flag. It becomes another reason to exclude. And often the stigma that people had attached because you're out at work is now reinforced, see, look, you are, you don't have it together, right? So people are excluded, they become upset for being excluded, and that leads to even more exclusion, right? That's the trap. That, that I see where people who are out of the market for a while get, get into.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And then it like feeds on itself. Because the more that happens to you, then the longer you're unemployed and the longer you're unemployed, the more you worry about that length of time that's continuing to expand.

And it gets into this, very destructive cycle.

Ofer Sharone: Absolutely. So yeah, the longer it goes, the more people become, of course distraught, but then, the longer it goes also, the more skeptical questions come from employers and from network contacts and from others. So it, it is a very, difficult cycle to get into and I think it's one of the most challenging experiences anyone can have.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Do you have ideas about how people should combat this or is the research more focused on the situation itself or are there ways to overcome getting caught up in that cycle?

Ofer Sharone: Yeah, the research is about both and my key piece of advice for how to address this is not to try to do it alone, don't do it alone.

It's probably the number one thing that I see as helpful, is when people find some kind of support structure, particularly with peers, with like, other people going through the same thing tend to be the people who best understand what you're going through, who, you know, even as much as friends and family want to be there, there are all kinds of challenges with friendships and spouses and family, partly because it's so hard for other people outside of the situation to imagine what it's like. You know, with friends, they may not even get why you have a college degree from sometimes a very elite place, you have all this work experience, you shouldn't be having problems, what's, so what's going on that you are having problems?

Maybe you're doing something wrong. Maybe you're not searching correctly. Have you tried networking? Have you tried LinkedIn? All this advice that's kind of absurd that people know. But it's a way of deflecting or putting the blame subtly on the job seeker. I think as a way for the friend to feel less terrified about the situation because they want to find some reason why this will not happen to them. So we tell ourselves, oh, maybe, you know, the person's out of work, they're doing something wrong in their search. That comes up a lot in my research. And this is where, you know, it's helpful to talk to friends very openly, tell them what you need, seek the support you need from them, but there's nothing, I think, as good in this situation as a peer group of other people in a similar situation that can provide mutual support.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, you know, the underscored by our own experience that iRelaunch community, that's one of the reasons we stress our community and we have groups like the private Facebook group specifically for that reason. So people know that they're not alone. There's a piece of job search advice that people often get about networking, but this idea that you can't just spend a day researching companies online and applying for jobs without having interaction and networking with other people. We, a), we tell them you have to expect to have many, many conversations that go nowhere in order to yield the few that do.

But the other piece that we find that goes counter is to that networking advice, and this is what I like to get your thoughts on, is that people who are job searching feel like it's risky to go public with their job search because then more people know and more people are going to ask them. Any comments on the contrast between the advice and trying to execute on it?

Ofer Sharone: Yes, that's a great question. The, my biggest problem with the advice is that it tends to pretend as if networking is easy in this situation and it's anything but easy. It's incredibly hard. The reason it's hard is that effective networking, say with former colleagues, people in your professional world, requires bringing out your most confident professional self, someone who you're essentially selling yourself as someone who is ready and capable right now to get back into a job.

When you might actually be feeling the opposite inside, the situation leads to often a crushing of one's confidence. It's an, like we talked about, it's an emotionally bruising experience. Networking often requires the opposite, presenting the opposite. Often, you also have tough experiences in networking.

Like you said, you, most conversations will not lead anywhere. So unlike sending an application online, the rejection that happens in the wake of networking is more personal, right? This is someone, this is a human being that you reached out to and for whatever reason they didn't help you, they didn't respond to you, so that is a more emotionally bruising piece of the job search than the application for jobs, where it's like mostly a black hole and you never hear anything but you don't have as much of an expectation.

Having said all that, I also want to say networking there is truth in the advice that networking is critical. So, it's not easy. It can't, should not be glibly given as oh, that's the easy solution. It's not easy. But if we think about the biggest obstacle facing somebody who's had a long career break, it's this automatic assumption or question mark that an employer has about, are you really committed to work? Are you, is there some reason, is there something wrong with you as a worker? Is there some, something about your motivation and commitment? I don't know. It's a question mark. I've got these other applicants who are currently working.

I don't have any question marks about them. So I'm going to pick the currently working person. That's the big obstacle. Networking is key because it's maybe the best way to break through that bias and assumption, right? This is the network that if it works as we hope, the networking leads to a person going to the hiring manager in person or by email and saying, Hey, I know this applicant and they're really good.

I've worked with them in the past. I know what they're capable of doing. They would be good for this position, right? That defeats or it trumps the default assumption of a question mark of why has this person been out of work? It's the main strategy, but it's not easy. And I think this is why, the kind of getting support, not doing it alone, is key to developing the resilience, the bandwidth, the emotional

capacity to effectively network, which, yeah, absolutely has to be at the heart of the job search.

Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. Let me just take a step back for a minute. And can you tell us how you got into this research in the first place and whether there were assumptions that you had going in where you got realities that felt counterintuitive to maybe what you were assuming?

Ofer Sharone: The way I got into this research was I was a graduate student in search of something interesting to study, and I came across a puzzle. I was living in, in, I was in Berkeley, in the Silicon Valley close to Silicon Valley when the tech bubble burst in the early two thousands. . And so I was talking to a lot of laid off tech workers there, but I also, I have roots in Israel, and I was on visits in Israel, and was talking, same thing was happening there, same tech bubble also devastated the tech industry in Israel.

And what I heard that was so different on the two sides, even though they're really similar types of workers, is that in Israel, the workers were really mad at the employers and at the state for how is there such an unfair hiring system that doesn't recognize my talents and capacities and leaves me out of work where I have all this experience and education.

In the United States, it was really different. It was very hush. It was difficult to talk about. And there was some, sense of, a lot of shame, a lot of sense of shame. And, so I realized there's some thing that's not inherent to the job loss and being in between jobs, not inherent because it's different in the two places, but In some cases it can lead to a lot of shame, in other cases it can lead to a lot of anger.

And so I started comparing the two countries, and my first book was a comparison of the unemployment experience in Israel and the United States. And then the more recent book that you mentioned is really taking a deeper dive into the long term unemployed, being out of work in the US, and trying to understand the stigma. But, ultimately what I find through all this comparison is that in the United States, it's, we're a special case, and not in a good way. We, the stigma of being out of work is stronger than in other countries. And I think beneath that is that we really hold on strongly to this myth of meritocracy. So the myth of meritocracy is a myth that one's position reflects their merit. So, if you're like, a superstar CEO, it's because you're really good, but if you're out of work, it's the opposite.

Right? So, that, that myth, we have it deeply in us, even if another part of our brain is aware of structural forces that create obstacles, and the same person who's very worried about the way that, say, race and gender and class can lead to unequal opportunities, that same person who's, when they themselves are unemployed, I can hear that deeply internalized myth of meritocracy and the feeling of, is there something wrong with me, right?

I also see and in everyone else around them, when I share a story, I have a story from my research, like, for example, this, you know, person who's working in the tech industry, very successful for decades, graduate of MIT. I talked to a lot of MIT grads cause I used to be at MIT. So this person got laid off in, this is in the, after the great recession, for two years could not get a job in tech, like with all that, with an MIT degree and with like decades of work experience.

When I tell that story to others, like to my friends and people in my life, their first reaction inevitably is, tell me more about this person. Like, I need to understand more about their case. Like, what are, you know, like, they're looking for, what did they do wrong? There must be something this person did wrong.

It can't be that someone with an MIT degree and decades of experience, I never get the question of. My god, what's wrong with the hiring system? Someone with this much qualification and experience is excluded. So I came to understand, so why is it that we have this initial reaction of, what, tell me more about this particular person?

I think it's because we live in a country that has tremendous inequality and precarity. We're all very much caught up in the stress of living in a country where we can fall, there's no bottom to how far any of us can fall. So as a psychological mechanism to, to deal with this anxiety, we tend to tell ourselves, if I do all the right things, if I play by the rules, if I get a good education, if I get some work experience, I'll be okay.

And we tell our kids that, and we perpetuate this, this myth that's as in the short term may alleviate our anxiety, but it really backfires. So it backfires because we tend to then stigmatize everyone else who is, say, out of work, but then it also backfires on ourselves. Like anytime we have a setback, we have no way to interpret that except for some individual level failing.

We buy into, if we buy into the individual level story about success and failure, we are not equipped to really understand in a accurate and in a emotionally viable way, what happens when we experience setbacks. It's become self blame, right? And self blame, internalized stigma, feeling like something is wrong with me,

is at the heart of the emotional crisis we were talking about when you're on the job search. It makes it harder and harder to actually be an effective job seeker.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. You know, we talk about how in the US so much of, and maybe it's beyond, but, so much of our identity in terms of who we are as a person is attached to what we do for work.

So when we are professionally disconnected for an extended period of time, and I can talk about this firsthand, we can experience a diminished sense of self, which is what you're describing with the self blame, the shame. It's interesting to think about it as a US centric phenomenon, but this reflection of society, I guess I'm interested in, this probably has to do more with your first book, but that contrast with what you were seeing about people who are unemployed in Israel, have it being angry more at the employers in the system.

Did, so are you saying that approach led to, there wasn't self blame, there wasn't shame that was in the mix there, and did people approach their, job search differently as a result?

Ofer Sharone: Yeah. So let me be clear. It's not a good time in either place to be unemployed. But there is a difference between anger and understanding the obstacles as largely external versus shame and internalization and thinking that the obstacles are largely internal. When you see the obstacles as internal, it tends to lead to discouragement, depression. There's, it feels like, it's about me, and so I'm not sure there's anything I can do about it. It's, it's different if you see an external obstacle, you, you may be upset about it, but you also are open to thinking more strategically, and okay, this is stacked against me, but what are the ways in anyway? What are, it may take longer, it may require some different forms of strategies, and it may be, you know, frustrating, but, I see, the Israeli job seekers were more resilient.

There less of them became discouraged, and, the rate of job surge, like how often they were still going out there looking, stayed more steady than in the American case, where more often, I saw people over time really just feeling more and more defeated, discouraged, and slowing down in the search process.

Right, so, so part of, what I hope through this book and talking with you is to help people take a second look at their situation and to check this self blame and internalization tendency that we have in the United States because, it's debilitating, it's inaccurate. And yet, to check that is very hard in isolation.

This goes back to my earlier point about what is so helpful about a group. One of the best things about a group of peers in your same situation is that you see other people who, it's much easier to see the qualification and merits of others than of yourself. So, you're confronted with, Wow, these six people in the room with me, they're all highly educated, they all have great they're clearly very valuable workers, and yet, like me, they're not getting anywhere in the job market.

That means something is wrong about the system out there, and maybe I'm also, like them, a very qualified person who's being shut out by a system, and it's not really that there's anything wrong with me. That's one of the most helpful things about being in a group like that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So it's really powerful, and so you're being in a group, you get that mutual support, and peer interaction.

That piece is super helpful, and you're, are you also saying, if you can sort of reframe this to focus on, there's something systemic about the recruiting process that is, is flawed, and that's part of the issue, and this is not all on me and I'm okay and I just have to figure out different ways to get at it.

Is that?

Ofer Sharone: Yes. If I can say something about looking at the systemic issues. So as a sociologist, I think looking at the systemic issues obviously is very beneficial. So the best kind of research we have that exposes what people are up against are called audit studies. I don't know if it's something you talk about in your,

Carol Fishman Cohen: no, I don't know about this.

Ofer Sharone: Alright, so audit studies are a form of research where the researchers create fictitious resumes but send them to real job openings.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh yeah, okay, yeah.

Ofer Sharone: And so in this kind of research you can hold study, you can control for lots of things, you can basically have identical, functionally identical applicants.

And the only thing that's different about them is I'm currently employed versus six months unemployed. You can also vary the reason why you have, you're out of the workforce. So it can be, there's a very interesting study I thought I'd bring up to you where the researchers compared a job break due to unemployment versus a job break to care for family versus someone currently working.

And in every other respect, the applications, the resume is identical, like, similar education, similar level of experience, similar skills. Everything is the same. They sent out these three types of resumes to thousands of real job openings. And then they saw how many invitations they get back.

I have to say, surprising to me, but maybe not to you or your audience, the people who were most penalized were those who took time off to take care of family. They were even more penalized than people who were unemployed. But both of those groups were definitely in a, facing a much lower callback rate, about half the callback rate, than people who are currently employed.

So, alright, so now, these studies, they tell us a couple of things. They tell us it's not you, this is, it's clear that there is an obstacle for anyone in this position. Anyone who's on a career break, and it could be even worse when you're taking it to care for a family. I think, by the way, my understanding, how I interpret this is that there's a slightly different stigma attached to taking time out to care for your family than a stigma of being unemployed and laid off. And that taking the career break to care for family raises question marks about commitment to work, whereas the laid off and unemployed raises question marks about how good a worker are you. And, you know, this study suggests that the question marks around are you committed to work weigh more heavily on the minds of a, an employer than the unemployment stigmA.

Surprising to me, but, but either case, it shows this obstacle, but it also shows the rate of getting invited to interviews is about half. So it's not zero. It's not zero. It's not, people do get interviews with career breaks for whatever reason. They just need. To apply to twice as many jobs the same number of interviews.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I see.

Ofer Sharone: So this is the where someone looking at the research and the systemic forces can see that, okay, it's not hopeless.

It's not, it may feel hopeless because the first hundred applications go nowhere. But this data shows it's not hopeless. Like the jobs, people do get jobs. I see it in my research too. It's just harder. It's just requires more time and it's under conditions of a lot of emotional duress. That is not simple, right?

But when you're looking kind of at it in a sort of cold, analytical, just research perspective, you can see, yes, it's possible to get jobs, like it's just half the rate about. And we can understand why networking makes more of a difference in this case than in the typical job search case, right? Because it's the way to question the bias that the employer might have.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I see. Well, first of all, I guess I should say I didn't know this was called audit studies, but now that you describe it, I'm certainly aware of them. You know, this is sort of focusing on our mission at iRelaunch is to normalize career breaks and normalize career paths that include the career break.

And the primary work that we do is to work with employees to create programs that are career reentry programs that are specifically focused on this population and to point out the attributes of this population and what we're, we have a lot of data on now in terms of retention and conversion rates of a program, career reentry programs that might be like internship like based. So, there's a lot of great supporting data now. So, we are seeing reframing of the career break and an institutional shift around it on the employer side. Of course, it comes down to manager by manager in terms of what normalized really means, but it leads me to the question around COVID and the pandemic.

You know, I think at the height of the pandemic, over like 4. 3 million people had withdrawn from the labor force, and the career breaks on resumes becoming much more common. So, I want to get your thoughts on whether you thought having gone through the pandemic when more people took career breaks lessened the stigma to any


Ofer Sharone: Yeah, COVID was an amazing moment for someone studying this, like me. What happened during the height of COVID is that the stigma was temporarily, at least, lifted from being out of work. And the way we could see that so clearly was through policy. The US government, bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats, something never happens, agreed to extend unemployment, to make unemployment compensation more generous, and to have it apply to workers, categories of workers that had never received it before, like gig workers, etc.

So this was clearly a moment where we did not see the people out of work as at fault for being out of work. We saw people out of work because of a external reason. In this case, it was really clear there was a pandemIc. Now, I think the external reason for being people being out of work is there also in non pandemic times, there are so many obstacles and difficulties that are external to the individual, like we talked about.

Even just this audit study is showing barriers. But, sadly, the policies of peak COVID, supporting people unemployed or out of work, are gone. I mean, as far as I know, 100 percent gone. Like, even, you know, things like the child tax credit that halved our poverty rates could not get re approved after one year.

So, to the extent, you know, I don't want to be pessimistic. Looking at it from, if policy is the barometer or the reflection of societal attitudes about someone out of work, then that it's not very promising. Like, it seems like we're back to pre COVID. I, there may be cultural shifts underway as a result of COVID that were more understanding and more forgiving and more open minded about why someone may have been out of work.

I certainly hope that's the case. I think we're too soon to really see that in research, so I can't tell you. But you know, the kind of programs and things you just mentioned about relaunch programs and finding more and more employers open to that, I think that is a promising sign. It's a very helpful direction.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, for sure. And, the other thing that we noted during COVID was, in the country's time of need, they actually completely changed their view of people coming out of retirement or having career breaks, if you were in the medical field and they need you on the front lines in the hospitals, they were fine if you were coming out of retirement or a career break.

And I remember, I think I actually wrote an, I know, I actually wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about this saying that, capture this moment, because understand how we just completely relaxed or reframed how we thought about people on career break or who were retired when we needed them and they came in and they performed.

And so the idea was, can we keep that mindset going forward? But, as you're saying, we may not be doing that longer term, but we'll see. Ofer, boy, I'm, I could talk to you about this forever. There's so much interesting material and dynamic and just the thoughts and that, ideas that you have.

I have one more question before I ask you our final question. And then I want to also make sure that people know, about your book and where they can find it, your new book. Question for you is the role of subject matter expertise. And, when people are out of work for an extended period of time, and they have to get back in and they have to start having conversations, not only in interviews, but maybe in some of these networking situations, they have to get back up to speed in their field. And we think that's a key element of successful relaunching. And I was just wondering in your research, whether it was for the initial research, when what were you seeing in US versus Israel, or the more recent research that you're capturing in your new book, whether there, this has comes into play at all.

Ofer Sharone: Yeah, I think it re, it varies by fields. So for example, in tech, very much the, there's very fast pace of change in tech, and so even just being able to talk about the work, it requires constant upkeep. In other fields, the pace of change is a lot slower, I think it does vary field by field.

I think it, either way, it's always going to be helpful to stay engaged and involved in whatever your field is. I know that the people who do things like, before they found the ultimate full time job, do things like volunteer work, work in professional associations, are engaged in some way.

It not only helps with this aspect of keeping up with the latest changes in the field, but, it's also very helpful for dealing with the emotional, some of the emotional components, which are related to isolation and related to a sense of no contribution, like people, we have a need as humans to contribute to others.

So finding ways to make a contribution, even if it's not for pay in your field has all kinds of benefits. Of course there's potential networking benefits as well, but, even putting aside these instrumental things just for one's well being, I think it's important. And then of course, it's also a way to keep up with changes in, in any field or industry.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, we actually have a mini series of our podcasts on the longest career breaks and a number of those are people who were returning to highly technical roles. So, we think some of these very specific success stories that deal with people returning to technical careers who have been away for years can be some of the most powerful, not only to inspire other individuals who are in that situation, but to be multiple examples to employers of what's possible.

All right, Ofer, this is, this has been amazing. Thank you so much. I want to know if we can maybe wrap up by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we have already talked about today?

Ofer Sharone: My biggest piece of advice is something I have already talked about, but I want to re emphasize it, and that's the importance of finding peer support. As a sociologist, I want to share our theory of how people get their sense of selves, sense of identity, in sociology comes from a theory of looking glass self.

What the looking glass self means that society is like a mirror, and it's mirroring back to us who we are. At least we perceive how others think of us, then shapes our sense of self. So when you are someone who's on a career break, been out of work for a while, you're getting a lot of very distorted images reflected back to you.

Images of, is there something, like, how motivated are you? Are you serious, are you really a career person, etc., right? These, and it's very hard to not internalize it. Sociology says we will. So the key thing then is to surround yourself with other kinds of mirrors, others, other people who you have to be very consciously selecting to surround yourself with, who see the value, see the dedication, this, the desire to contribute, and all the skills and qualifications and valuable aspects of you, and can mirror that back to you.

That is so necessary for maintaining our sense of self, right? It's a myth that we can just buck up and do it ourselves, right? This like, idea that we all can just look inside and find some, you know, endless resilience, it's not true, right? We need others to have that resilience and we can support others in their journey.

So in any, the support of mirroring back to each other, the valuable things that we can bring and contribute to the world, and not the stigmatized images that we're getting from everywhere else, is absolutely key. And hopefully it eventually expands beyond, into the larger society, this, and leads to a broader cultural change of understanding the craziness of stigmatizing each other for taking career breaks.

What a prison we create in our society where we have to either lockstep stay in a career for life or else risk being stigmatized and excluded. I mean, that is really creating a rigid, you know, prison sentence that does not account for the millions of things that can come up in life and all the other important things besides continuous work.

So I think we need to take really seriously a cultural pushback to this expectation of lockstep, always staying in work full time that is just blind to the realities. And so I, I hope that it can start with a small support group, but then, it can, you know, expand and scale and lead to a bigger cultural change that we need.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's a very powerful place to leave off. So thank you for leaving us with that, Ofer. And to recap, the book is called The Stigma Trap, College Educated, Experienced, and Long Term Unemployed by Ofer Sharone. And before we end, Ofer, can you please tell our audience where they can find your book?

I know we're going to be very eager to find it ourselves and read it. So, how can people buy the book?

Ofer Sharone: Thank you, Carol, so it's really available anywhere. You can get books online, some, I've seen it in Barnes Noble as well. The University has a website for all the faculty, so you can look, see some of my other research. If you just Google my name, Ofer Sharone, you will see links to my other work as well as this book.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Perfect. All right. Ofer, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ofer Sharone: Thank you so much, Carol, and thank you for all the work you do.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, keep up all of your research. We're going to be following it closely.

And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co founder of iRelaunch and your host. Be sure to visit to access our many tools and resources, and to sign up for our mailing list so you can get our regular weekly return to work report, which features career re entry jobs and programs.

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