“There’s a feeling that once you get older, employers don’t need you any more. We have the ability, but we’re just too old and too expensive.”
If there’s a hint of bitterness in 55-year-old Roswitha Kerbel’s voice, it is easy to understand. For a woman with a wide range of qualifications who has spent much of her life pursuing a high-powered career in publishing, suddenly finding yourself unemployable when you know you want to work is deeply frustrating. In her early 50s, she spent four years hunting for a job in Vienna, Austria, without a suitable offer. “I got a lot of refusals,” she recalls. “I got very discouraged. You start to feel old and worthless.”
Finally, her job centre suggested she should contact Initiative 50, a scheme funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund and designed to put older workers in touch with employers who recognise their value. In January 2008 they suggested she should send her CV to Licht ins Dunkel (Light in the Darkness), a popular Vienna-based charity organisation that works with Austrian TV and celebrities to raise money for needy families. The organisation called her to interview, and within an hour Roswitha was offered a job.
Dedicated to books
Roswitha was born in Graz in Austria, but moved to Stuttgart in Germany at the age of six, where she grew up and studied. She qualified in librarianship before obtaining extra skills in economics and information technology and moving into publishing.
“I have always concentrated on my career. I love books,” she explains, pointing to the rows of volumes which line her sitting room walls from floor to ceiling. “I held senior posts in marketing with some major publishing companies. I used to work 60 to 70 hours a week, and did a lot of travelling, with responsibility for organising book fairs and launches. It was a very hard job.”
When her first marriage ended in divorce, she moved back to Austria in 1993, where she met her second husband Michael Estl. Roswitha felt the time had come for a change in her life. “My first marriage broke down because I was so busy in my job,” she recalls. “I was away from home for too long and it was too tiring. I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.”
A house in the country
Roswitha and Michael married in 2000. They bought a house in the village of Königstetten, on the edge of the beautiful Vienna Woods outside the Austrian capital. Eating breakfast on their terrace, they look out over their garden to rolling hills and fields of vivid yellow rape. Michael works at home as a computer programmer, in the company of the couple’s two enormous dogs, Benny and Teddy, and cats Mimi and Pepper.
At that time, Roswitha also needed flexibility to care for her elderly father – every two or three weeks she travelled back to Stuttgart where her parents still lived – and for her mother-in-law in Vienna. She gave up her job in publishing and started to look around for a new career direction. The garden seemed to hold the key: “I have always loved gardening, but I had no idea about plants,” she says. She took a one-year training course in landscape gardening, followed by employment in the Vienna Woods nature park. She was responsible for planning events and excursions for groups of visitors, as well as accounting and administration, but the post did not last. “I would have loved to get a permanent job, but I was too old.”
Roswitha says she started to become aware of the age discrimination problem some 10 years ago. She puts it down to the higher cost of social insurance that employers pay for older staff. “There’s a lot of pressure, because there are not that many jobs on the market, so companies offer work to the cheaper staff,” she argues.
Yet Initiative 50 has given Roswitha another new start. She has been working full-time for Licht ins Dunkel since February 2008. The scheme pays participants’ salaries for the first three months, giving employers an additional incentive to hire. She admits that office administration is not her ‘dream’ job, and it could be more interesting. “But at my age I don’t want to have all that responsibility any more,” she explains. “I want to take life easier. It’s a difficult situation, and I appreciate the opportunity to have a job again. I’m not a typical housewife. I like working very much, and I enjoy being with my colleagues. And I’m glad to be able to earn my own income because I like to be financially independent.
“Initiative 50 is a very good scheme because it helps older people to find suitable jobs, and that’s not easy. Now I have time for my garden, my husband and my dogs. I don’t want the stress I had before. The project has helped me to achieve that.”