How Long Can I Stay Unemployed?


Dear J.T. & Dale: I just got laid off. I’m actually glad. It’s been 15 years, and I’d like to take some time to focus on myself. I’ll be getting unemployment benefits, so why rush? I want to figure out how much time I can take off. My question is, How much time should I allow for finding a job? How long can I stay unemployed? - Alexa

J.T.: I get this kind of request several times a week from folks who want to use unemployment benefits as a sabbatical. I cringe each time, knowing that no one wants to hear the answer I have to give: If you delay a job search, the risk is that you’ll be unemployed for a very long time. Here’s why: An employee is like a house that’s for sale. If it sits on the market for too long, buyers assume that something is wrong. When you decide to take six to nine months off, employers start to wonder the same thing about you.

DALE: While the analogy to a house may seem like a stretch, let’s look at some numbers. If a company is going to hire a person for $40,000 a year, it’ll have to pay benefits and overhead, and the actual cost is more like $80,000 a year. If the company’s goal is to have employees who stay at least five years, that’s a $400,000 purchase decision, more than double the national median price of a house. So, wise hiring managers – the very people you most want to work for – are cautious when hiring – you could even say suspicious when hiring. If someone has been out of work for more than a few months, hiring managers can’t help but think: “I wonder what’s wrong? Why has everyone passed her over?”

J.T.: My experience with coaching job searchers suggests that you have about four months after a layoff before companies question why you can’t get hired. So, the time to start is now. I know that’s not the answer you want, but ask anyone who has been out of work for a year or more, and the idea of “taking time off to find myself” suddenly looks really silly as they watch their retirement savings dwindle, they lose their homes and, ultimately, end up in a job they are overqualified for.

DALE: Ouch. And while I can’t disagree, I can say that instead of taking a few months off to relax, you can organize a lively and adventuresome job search and create for yourself a pleasant break from your old work routine. Use the time to meet people, to reconnect with old colleagues and to add to your professional knowledge.

J.T.: It can be an enlivening break from your old routine, but never forget that you’re working at finding a great new job.

© 2012 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Feel free to send questions to J.T. and Dale at advice@jtanddale.com or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

J.T. & Dale

“JT & Dale Talk Jobs” is the largest nationally syndicated career advice column in the country. J.T. O’Donnell and Dale Dauten are both professional development experts.


  1. I know all too well what SandraG has said about being overqualified, age, being unemployed too long…I am 51 and quit an office job in 2013 not by choice. I got caught up in office politics, gossip and had a strained relationship with my supervisor. This led to my downfall and I was told to resign.
    I had a few retail jobs since then, but they didn’t last more than a month. I can’t elaborate on why I left. I can say that more needs to be done to support the employee, rather than the employer! You hit the nail on the head SandraG! I can’t even get a job at Walmart or McDonalds either!
    I am looking for a job again and am contemplating moving out of state and winging it.

  2. So I am a recent, in December, graduate with a degree in Biology. I am trying to work in research or some kind of lab job. I put in for every job I remotely qualify for even if it is low paying and only requires a high school diploma. I just want to get in the door. I had one interview in February and he asked me, “So what have you been doing since you graduated.” Wow…I JUST graduated so what should I be doing besides looking for work??!! The other issue is that my dad, who lived with us and I was extremely close to, passed away right after I graduated so I’ve been dealing with that. I just don’t know what to do. I am a little lost. I am looking for work, have only had one call-back/interview, and I don’t want to be “unemployed” for too much longer. I feel like an employer may understand why I haven’t been working, but I’m not sure. I just know I really need a job with two kids to take care of and the only person with an income is now deceased.

    • First and foremost, my condolences on your loss. I am actually in the same boat, as my mother recently passed. Looking for a job right now will be stressful enough, and dealing with the loss of a parent can make it even tougher and harder to handle. Just take both one day at a time and you can get through it.

      While you may not be able to find a paying opportunity, showing employers that you have been keeping busy (not that a job search isn’t) is one of the best ways. While looking for a job, see if there are any opportunities where you can use your degree on a volunteer basis. I have switched companies a couple of times where I met my future boss through volunteer work. Are there any special causes that you feel strongly about that are related to your career?

      Alternatively, there are skills you can improve or add to make you more attractive to employers. Being in the financial sector, I don’t know much about the specific skills needed in the career you want, but even with a degree, I can tell you that you are not a finished product. No one is when they get out of college. There are always skills that you can learn or improve upon to help your career along. You might also want to learn a skill that, while not directly related to research or lab work, can give you skills other candidates don’t.

      Another big one is to network. The advice on this site about networking is spot on.

      Long story short, while some hiring managers will understand that a job search in this economy is tough and time consuming, a lot either don’t understand/remember it or don’t care. Even with the loss of your dad, callus as this may sound, most hiring managers won’t care. If you can find anything related to the field that you want a job in outside of a paying job, take it. Staying current on your skills is a must, and showing motivation to do more than the average candidate goes a long way.

      Best of luck on your job search.

  3. Losing job/being laid off is a social taboo in Asian region.
    When you are laid off for no reason of yourselves, you also lose your social status.
    The scenario is bad in India, and getting an alternate job is also getting difficult ( which is based on age, experience, qualification e.t.c). There are enough cases of depression and suicide.

    Can someone tell, how to overcome these blues, as you need to run your family, cannot go down on your social standing overnight and cut all essential expenses?

  4. SandraG…

    You are right on! It’s about time that the employers begin to respect job seekers and respond with meaningful feedback. It seems that companies forget that they can only create more customers by employing people who have the income to buy products. Everything is cut, cut, cut expenses to make a profit… but no emphasis on creating more customers to sell more products.

    There are too many consultants out there who are making up the rules and philosophy about how job seekers should respond in the market. They should be focusing on admonishing employers who feel they have the upper hand to ignore common courtesy and communication prospective talent… as well prospective customers. I know that I am keeping a journal as to how companies respond to my job inquiries. The day will come that I will not buy any products or services from companies who treat me like second class trash, and I will also engage in a personal program to cite those companies as a case study in bad customer service during my training programs. There are plenty of them out there for material that I have collected.

    So, my message is to all the SandraG’s out there… keep a list, log what is happening, and publish it. Let the public know the unscrupulous practices that companies have resorted to in hiring people. They get away with it because the job seeker has no power to stop it.

    If you say you can’t respond to all the job seekers that contact you, then you are not doing the job of proper candidate intake and screening. As a company, you are lazy and want to do it the easy way by plugging in key words on a computer to spit out what you think are good candidates. Don’t insult you public like this… hire the people you need to do the right screening and response to candidates.

    And… All of these Taleo, Ceridian, and other computer application programs do not work… and you paid them big money to intake resumes! All these programs do is take in a resume and trash it… you then have to spend 2 hours to figure out how to correct the information these programs misplaced or distorted. Yet, companies seem to feel these programs work. They should ask the job seeker just what is happening out there.

    We as job seekers do not need any more “consultant rules, books, articles” and other pseudo -job seeking advice to follow. You people make up all that stuff just to sell job seeking workshops and job hunting books. There should be no “Secrets” to finding jobs… this is a society that needs to employ people to buy products and services. So why is the job hunting process prone to “secrets” all of a sudden? I cringe when I see these article and books… and that all you find from this pseudo-information is another consultant leech who wants to feed you job leads you can get publicly for yourself, or who wants to write you resume for $300.

    Consultant should get on the case of the employers to make their job screening process more “Talent Friendly,” or you will begin to see good talent pass up your company and become “Talent Unfriendly” just when you need them

  5. One thing that didn’t get mentioned is that it often takes quite a while to land the next job. Chances are high that you will be out of work for at least two months anyway. It takes 6-9 months in the current market for folks to find work (the longer it takes, the less motivated you are to continue looking… as you probably guessed from the above responses). You actually should be doing volunteer work while you are unemployed. It will give you motivation, it will change your attitude, and you will have people to network with. Take a week or two to let the past job go, and get rid of the attitude, but then get busy! Good luck!

  6. I agree with JT and Dale here, as a career coach myself, part-time, any lag in starting your search makes you seem suspect to potential hiring managers. If you lead with that in any way, you’ll drop into the black list category. Always keep your irons in the fire. You may use some time to relax and enjoy a few activities, but do not look at unemployment as a paid vacation. If you’re lucky enough to have a severance package from your former employer, then you do have a bit of a leg up as severance tells prospects that you could have been retained by the former employer – severance is seldom given to those dismissed for cause. Take some time in the beginning to go thru some evaluations such as Myers-Briggs and the like if you’re looking at possibly changing your focus – they are very helpful.

    Best of luck in your search.

    • I found out my MBTI a long time ago. I’m a ISFJ. Why should I waste my time doing “tests” for personality when I NEED A JOB? I need a PAID JOB. I can’t do this volunteer work anymore. I volunteered for 9 months at once place, I volunteered for another place on Saturdays (non profit) for 2 years and I volunteered for another place for 6 months and that was a government employer. All volunteering does (if you volunteer too long) is show an employer that you haven’t been PAID for all of your work. It makes you look like you can’t do regular work.

      Right now I am burnt out on looking for work. Why should I look for work when I apply to 30-60 jobs A MONTH and I get NO PHONE CALLS and I leave my MBA OFF of my resume. I can’t even get a stupid wal-mart job with my B.S. on my resume. What the heck do employers want? A freaking 19 year old KID? I’m 37, single and female and I guess I should be male, 19 and married right? Is that what employers are looking for?

      I’m not going to waste my time on taking personality tests and I think many people would agree with me. When you need MONEY and when you need $1K minimum a month, you are not going to lay around taking personality tests. And who has severance pay? Does that even exist anymore since the 1980s? Really?

      I’m not motivated to look for work anymore. Why should I put in 60 job applications a month when I get no phone calls? No payback, nothing not even a letter of “Thank you for applying we picked someone else with less education than you, someone 10 years younger than you”.

      I’m done. I’ll make the tax payer pay for my food stamps. I’ll make the tax payer pay from Riverside County Health Care and Affordable Care Act. I didn’t pay a dime for my surgery that I had on Oct 18th.

      I’m a good worker and I always worked full-time my entire life from 1993-2007. People are going to be sorry for not hiring me. Time is just ticking away. I’m sure I can be unemployed for another 5 years. And I mean full-time. Part-time to me is not a job. Working 4 hours a week does not count as a job. 4 hours a week is a joke. Not even worth my time for gasoline.

      So go ahead and read this. Do not hire me. Don’t believe in me. Don’t look at me as a person. I know my value.

      • 37? MBA? Single?

        Do you have any kids, attachments, pre-existing medical conditions?

        Because if you don’t, there’s an option for you. Seriously – go teach business english in Asia. I’m not even kidding. You can be making $30K-$50K a year doing it in no time, and the market is virtually bottomless. It’s not necessarily a step forward, but it beats the hell out of Wal-Mart or Starbucks. With an MBA, you can set yourself up as an executive coach and be paid $50-80 per hour in cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen. The air’s not the best, but the cost of living is lower than US cities, the money is good, and it’ll look better to a future employer than an extended period of unemployment or part-time jobs.

        Get a credit card and buy a plane ticket. If you don’t want to work without a parachute, get an ESL certification first (programs in the US run about a month and cost about $2-3K, but with an MBA, you probably don’t need it).

      • Thanks for your article.
        It is very true and I hope that hiring process should change ASAP
        I understand what you mean to say.We should know our value, if hiring person do not know. We should respect ourselves as a person


  7. I don’t like being unemployed. I have a misdemeanor in my background and I am labelled for life I am told. I’m wondering can anyone consider hiring anyone with a minor offense? Am I wrong to try to stay in a field almost 40 years, just to stay employed? I cannot even qualify for unemployment. I don’t like unemployed.

    • No one likes being unemployed. God. Try being unemployed for 6 years. Try it and then come back in 6 years and whine to me. I’m almost 40 as well. So I’m screwed by July 2015. You shouldn’t have problems getting a job (with respect to the law) unless you are a felon.

  8. How about this sort of dilemma: Suppose you really want to do something like hike the whole Pacifc Crest Trail. That takes around six months to do. If you do it when you’re laid off, then by the time you start job-hunting again you’ll have a six-month gap on your resume. If you wait until you’re employed again, how will you ever get six months off to do it??

    • During your breaks along the trail, when you restock supplies, and go back to your car, keep your cell phone there, and any other electronics so that you can maintain the job search. It may be possible to do both. It really only takes a few hours per week and you could do it once a week during your break from the trail. It’s not ideal, but it is workable.

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