Career change can be a frightening prospect at any age, but after 50, when you may feel your best years are behind you, it can be nothing short of terrifying. MARY HOSTY explains how to confidently navigate this tricky life transition …
In Daniel H Pink’s best-selling book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, Johnny, an accountant, laments the fact that his career plan is rapidly going off the rails as he slogs through figures and company reports late into the night. When a magical career genie appears, informing him that “There is no plan”, Johnny’s colleague retorts: “What kind of Deepak Chopra, Zen Bullcrap is that?”.
There’s no denying that advice and counselling about life and career transitions can occasionally slide dangerously close to “Zen Bullcrap” territory. Yet, the notion of there not being any plan is a wonderfully liberating discovery. Those who face big transitions in their lives, whether early or late, often find this out – sometimes after several decades of quietly working to a life plan at the public sector coalface, years of dizzying success running their own business, or a lifetime of cosy marriage with the person they had hoped they would grow old with. All of a sudden, the plan they thought was the plan goes up in a puff of smoke.
Part of our endless fascination with someone like Coco Chanel is that she had an apparently endless capacity to reinvent herself in the face of difficult circumstances throughout her life. Chanel was a top-notch adapter, a controversial figure who managed many personal and business transitions with courage, flair and steadfastness. For most of us though, life is a bit more complicated. We build careers for all sorts of reasons: coincidence, luck, material needs, talent, encouragement, what the parents wanted – or what the parents didn’t want at all. In our twenties and thirties, we fling ourselves at the career grindstone with fervent relish, but later in life we may begin to feel inclined or perhaps obliged to rethink the nature of our working lives, as we face major transitions.
Facing a life transition is scary. Like sitting alone in a rudderless boat in choppy waters, staring down a dark tunnel with little more than a dodgy torch to illuminate the way, it’s a time when we can feel directionless, frightened, and unsure of our safety or where the drift might carry us. We can so easily paralyse ourselves with fear of the unknown, cripple ourselves with lack of confidence and weigh ourselves down with all sorts of prejudices and
labels, misconceptions and horror stories of things that have gone dreadfully wrong for other people.
Age is one such label. We fear that we may be too old for certain careers or changes in our lives. So it’s always inspiring to hear stories of older people who take on a worthwhile challenge successfully. One such example is Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, who at 94 was dubbed the art world’s “hot new thing” by The New York Times. Having painted privately all her life, Herrera sold her first artwork at 89; now 104, she continues to work productively. The choreographer Twyla Tharp said in her best-selling book The Creative Habit that she was 58 years old before she finally felt like a master choreographer. The later works of Cezanne, Matisse and Yeats are deeply profound and full of the dazzling and true resonances of life.
In our twenties and thirties, we fling ourselves at the career grindstone with fervent relish, but later in life we may begin to feel inclined or perhaps obliged to rethink the nature of our working lives, as we face major transitions.
We set limits on ourselves and how we can manage career transitions; fret about lack of skill or expertise, about failure or looking foolish, of being hurt or rejected, hurting others, being broke or being thought selfish. And the biggest fear of all – fear of success. What if it all goes right? Who and what will I be then, if this new venture is a success? But skills, experience and knowledge can all be acquired through learning and practise, and they don’t all have to cost the earth. This is true whether we are 18 or 80. A few years back, I met a science professor whose career in academia ended abruptly when departments were amalgamated. At age 50, and after the initial shock and hurt and the letting go of an old and deeply-ingrained career and life, she dusted off a long-discarded ambition to become a cheesemaker, and set off down a whole new path. She now runs a successful dairy in France with her new French partner. Dare I say it – “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”.
In 1900, the average lifespan in this part of the world was 47. Today it is over 80. This is probably the single most significant development in human lifespan for at least 5,000 years, yet we’re still catching up with the implications. Much as we might like to dismiss the shallowness of phrases such as “60 is the new 40”, the fact remains that we’re approaching this stage of our lives in strikingly different ways from our parents. How many 65-year-olds do you know today who hang out in a rocking chair, looking back on the old days and timing their runs to and from the potting shed?
The years from 45 to 65 bring huge transitions for us. Our sweet little children become teenagers, grow up, move away from home and become parents themselves. Often at the same time, our own parents decline or leave us, and our careers sometimes end or wither on the vine. It can all feel like that wobbly boat in a dark tunnel. But where there is change and uncertainty, there is also opportunity and growth. Midlife transitions are also a second chance for us to reincarnate ourselves for better or worse, but often we fail to see the opportunities around us because of our conventional ways of thinking. After all, retirement itself is a form of convention, and like all conventions it needs to be taken down from its lofty shelf, shaken and stirred and reinvented to meet the needs of the modern world.
For mothers returning to work after a long absence, the challenges of transitioning back into the workplace are quite specific. Whereas once you opened up markets and closed deals, for the past 15 years it’s been opening yogurt pots and closing car doors with extreme care as you devote your life to the caring and rearing of your children. Now with time to draw breath at last, you look around and see contemporaries who have settled into career middle age. Younger people with new and scary-sounding qualifications and beautiful screensaver faces speak a corporate language you do not understand and zoom effortlessly upwards to positions of power and influence. A woman ten years younger than you, two doors up, has four children, a figure to die for and is the managing director of a large social media corporation called Facegloog. In the face of all that, you wonder what you could possibly have that’s of value to bring back to the workplace.
People paint horrific pictures of a place called “out there” – “it’s a tough old world out there”, “there are no jobs out there”, “are you sure you want to go back out there?”. But older, wiser and now with a wealth of life experience under your belt, this can be an amazing time in life to begin building a new career. Don’t underestimate the person you have become over the years, between learning to change nappies and navigating the challenges of discreetly monitoring a teenage summer of love. Employers are suddenly waking up to the advantages of having older people with a bit of life experience on the workforce because they are reliable, punctual, tactful, emotionally intelligent, and with resilience and a genuine sense of perspective about the world.
A woman ten years younger than you, two doors up, has four children, a figure to die for and is the managing director of a large social media corporation called Facegloog. In the face of all that, you wonder what you could possibly have that’s of value to bring back to the workplace.
As for change, people tend not to change unless there’s some incentive, whether it’s to lose weight, salvage a relationship or take our lives in a new direction. We don’t like change, by and large; unless it’s something manageable like a new outfit or a decent handbag. But once we’ve taken the first step, humans are surprisingly resilient and good at transition. History is full of people that have undergone the most fundamental and unexpected changes in their lives and flourished as a result. In the aftermath of World War II, survivors who had lost everything – homes, businesses, families, homeland – rebuilt their lives out of the rubble. They became fashion designers and film directors, or built enormous corporations that drove the economic and social development of the 1950s and 1960s. Evolution has fashioned us to be resilient.
The final lesson in Johnny Bunko’s Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, is to leave an imprint. People seeking career advice occasionally say that they want to make the world a better place, but they feel embarrassed by what feels like a vague, bland beauty-contest-blather of an ambition. But we are social creatures, and working towards something greater than ourselves is part of our DNA, whether that’s our families, communities, corporations or nations.
So if you’re facing a career or life transition – taking those first tentative steps back into the workplace or changing career direction, seeking out something that leaves an imprint is a very good starting point. Oh, and treat yourself to a nice handbag too, or whatever it is that puts zing in your step.
Five tips for managing a career transition
– Take the time to identify the constants in your life, and the things that fire you up. See how they tie in with your strengths, career interests and values.
– While you are deciding what to do next, teach yourself new skills in IT and social media.
– See a good career coach. They’ll do wonders for your confidence by helping you identify what you’ve got and how to make it work harder for you.
– Assemble your killer CV – not as easy as it looks. Even if you have a job for life and a pension plan that lasts until you’re 200 years old, the mind-set required to draft a CV that reflects the depth and breadth of your experience is a really valuable self-assessment tool. Try it.
– Know who your champions are and share your journey with them. You need cheerleaders, not fearleaders.
The film director: Despite having a career in Hollywood since the early 1980s, Kathryn Bigelow was better known for being the ex-wife of Titanic director James Cameron until, at age 56, she became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards for war movie The Hurt Locker.
The writer: Now 56 and author of the fastest selling paperbacks of all time, Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy author EL James didn’t start writing until age 46. A former TV executive who was active on fanfiction.net, she put pen to paper after being inspired by the Twilight saga. Time magazine has named her one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People”.
The entrepreneur: Having spent years working away quietly on business development projects for large corporations, Maxine Clark, 70, had an idea for a retail store that allowed children to customise their own teddy bears. Within two years she had built the foundations of the Build-A-Bear empire, which today has 425 stores worldwide and a multi-million dollar turnover.
The designer: A figure skater from the age of six, Vera Wang only entered the fashion industry when she failed to make the US Olympic team. Initially working as an editor for Vogue, Wang opened her first bridal boutique in her forties and became a household name aged 50 when Victoria Beckham chose to wear one of her dresses for her wedding at Luttrellstown Castle.
Main featured image: 59-year-old Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and former executive vice president of retail at Apple. During her time at Burberry was reported to be the highest-paid CEO in Britain, at Apple, she was reportedly the highest-paid executive in the company – as well as being the only female senior executive.