Being Unemployed: How Long is Too Long?

Crystal Love
Crystal Love

6 min read

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Chances are someone has told you that it’s easier to find a job when you already have one.

That kernel of wisdom has been bandied about for decades, and most people just accepted it without question.

Recently, some evidence has seemed to support that belief, as a study was conducted to test those old assumptions. For anyone who’s ever worried about being unemployed for too long, that research offers some interesting insight.

Whether you have an employment gap to raise children, take care of a sick family member, attend grad school, or take a career break, this post will tell you what you need to know!

How being unemployed impacts job search success

The new data points come as the result of a study conducted by two economists from Sweden: Dan-Olof Rooth and Stefan Eriksson: Do Employers Use Unemployment as a Sorting Criterion When Hiring? Evidence from a Field Experiment.

The study was performed by sending out more than 8,000 resumes to apply for more than 3,500 open positions. Each of the resumes was a fake, and specifically tailored to list different types of employment status. The imaginary job candidates were either gainfully employed or had been unemployed for several months to more than a year.

Key Takeaway

The results? Let’s break it down by time period:

Being unemployed for 3 months: no big deal

While being unemployed for 3 months can sometimes seem like an eternity, the research suggests that many job seekers won’t experience any disadvantage from that status that will reflect poorly. This is apparently especially true for jobs that don’t require a great deal of specialized skills.

The biggest surprise came from those low-skill job applications. Apparently, many employers viewed that brief stint of unemployment as a bonus, since those applicants were readily available for immediate work.

What's the outlook when you’ve been unemployed for 6 months?

Being unemployed for less than six months also didn’t seem to impact the job search much. And again, this was more apparent in low-skill jobs. However, that six month period probably pushes the envelope when it comes to maintaining your chances for an interview.

The research results seemed to suggest diminishing odds of success after that first half-year of being unemployed.

How good are your odds of finding a job when you’ve been unemployed for 9 months?

Here’s where things get truly interesting. There is a downside to being unemployed for 9 months or more, and that downside encompasses both low and medium-skilled positions. According to the study’s results, once you’ve been unemployed for longer than 9 months, you can expect a significant drop-off in interview requests. The fake resumes sent out by the researchers suffered a 20 percent decline in responsiveness from potential employers.

However, high-skill jobs didn’t experience that same decline. Some believe that is due to the more complex hiring processes in place at those types of companies.

Being unemployed for more than a year

Unfortunately, there’s no way around this last fact: being unemployed for more than a year can raise a red flag and really put a damper on your job prospects. In fact, the research indicated that resumes with a current lengthy period of joblessness experienced little success at landing interviews.

There is good news, though. Once you land that first job after being unemployed for a year or more, your future job search prospects improve dramatically--the gap doesn't continue to impact future hiring.

So how long is too long to be unemployed?

Based on the results of the research, the simple answer might be that there’s no such thing as being unemployed for too long. Yes, your odds of landing an interview do decrease as your period of unemployment drags on, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to land a job eventually.

Still, your best options are to:

  • Find a new job before you’re unemployed; or

  • Work diligently to land a new job during the first six months of your unemployment.

Once you’ve gone past that six month period, you’re likely to see diminishing returns on your job search efforts--unless you’re in a high-skilled profession, of course.

How to land a job in the first 6 months of your job search

Since your chances of landing a job are best in your first 6 months, here are some tips to help you land a good job quickly.

1. Update your resume right away

Before you do anything else, it's time to brush off your resume and cover letter. Add your most recent experience as well as any skills or certifications you've acquired since you last opened your resume. You need to do this before you apply for any jobs or reach out to your network.

Depending on how long it's been since you last used your resume, you may need to do a more comprehensive overhaul. Over 90% of companies scan your resume with application tracking system (ATS) software now, so it needs to have keywords and formatting with that in mind.

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2. Reach out to your network

Start putting the word out that you're looking for more opportunities. You can mention it to your family and friends, post it on your LinkedIn profile, and send direct messages to contacts in your industry (past co-workers or supervisors).

Networking is the #1 tip on our related guide: 9 Tips to Find A Job In Less Than 30 Days.

3. Launch a strategic job search

  • Don't start applying to every job you see online. Take the time to read through job descriptions and tailor your resume for each submission.

  • Do track the jobs you apply to. Follow up with the company after a few days, and again after a couple of weeks.

  • Don't spend all your time applying to jobs online. You should also be growing your network, learning new skills, and practicing your interview skills.

  • Do use a variety of job boards to locate new opportunities. Look for ones in your industry and location for better results!


It might be better to find a job while you have a job, but you're not out of luck if you’re caught unaware. You have six months until most employers really start to care about employment gaps. Follow this advice from ZipJob's team of career experts to quickly find a new job!

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Crystal Love

Written by

Crystal Love, Certified Professional Résumé Writer

Crystal is an Editor and Content Writer with a background in business and 10+ years of experience developing resumes and cover letters for job seekers at various career stages. She is also a career coach and interview expert helping professionals find clarity in their career path and job search, and preparing for and navigating interviews with confidence. 

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