Changing careers in your 40s, 50s and 60s
People laugh about others having a mid-life crisis, yet for those experiencing such a phenomenon, it can be exhilarating and scary at the same time. Mike had worked for the same organisation for over twenty years. He was a senior manager, well respected and up until very recently had felt reasonably fulfilled.
When he first came to see me, he seemed agitated and had difficulty articulating what was really bothering him. I asked him why he had chosen the career he had. He explained at the time he was newly married and his wife was expecting their first child. He wanted to provide a good home and felt it was his job to provide security for his family.
The organisation he worked for now had offered all of this and had in all fairness given him a good career. However, his children were now at University and he felt he was missing out.
I asked Mike to stop and think about how he felt when he started his career. He described how he was excited by the possibilities that lay ahead, the opportunities to develop new skills, and make a contribution to an organisation he was inspired by.
He had set himself ambitious goals and his career had progressed exactly how he had wanted it to. However, recently his energy levels and motivation had dropped. He now longer really felt inspired by the organisation, which had floated on the stock exchange five years ago, and he felt increasingly like a number rather than an individual. He felt demoralised by the constant chasing of profit margins, and was really at a loss as to what his next career move might be. Who would want to employ someone in their 50s? yet he still had a long way to go before retirement. Mike was experiencing amid-career slump.
LOSING YOUR MOJO
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s research evidences that for many people their career usually starts on a high, has a slump or plateaus mid-career and then ends on a high. There are several reasons for this.
First, you may have learnt all you need to know to do your current job. With no new challenges presenting themselves, your enthusiasm dwindles and you may become disinterested. So what’s the answer? For some, promotion seems like the obvious choice. Yet, many are unprepared for the competition they face. The higher up you go, the fewer the opportunities, the competition inevitably becomes fierce. The other question is whether you would really want the additional stress and time pressures that would in all probability follow.
In addition, work life balance also becomes more important, family commitments such as children or a parent becoming frail also need to feature in the consideration. You may start to resent the demands a career places on you and/or feel guilty about not spending enough time with your family.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE FEELING OF INERTIA
Mike and I reflected on how he could overcome this feeling of inertia and frustration. We used the seven strategies below:
1 Find your purpose
I asked Mike to list the parts of his job he found rewarding and gave him a sense of achievement. Mike loved working with people, building relationships, identifying their need and working with them to find an innovative solution. He was a creative individual however, the new corporate direction had to his mind stopped him from being so creative and this had contributed to his sense of abandonment. We used Schein’s Career Anchors to map this out.
I asked Mike where else was he able to use his creative mind. His face lit up as he described to me his delight in transforming his garden. It had been a barren patch and it was now a peaceful haven, incorporating lots of unusual plants. He had enjoyed researching the plants for his garden, designing the layout, visiting other gardens and talking to people about their experiences. He now opened his garden for the National Garden Scheme and had felt very proud of everything he had achieved.
He had a few years ago thought about becoming a landscape gardener however, family commitments had stopped him from taking it any further.
If you can empathise with Mike remember that you can often find a sense of purpose in some unusual places, and when you least expect it eg: volunteering.
At our next session, Mike told me that his organisation was restructuring and he would have to compete for his role. He described a sense of liberation, and he felt this could present him with an opportunity to pursue his dream. The redundancy package was reasonable, and he could work part-time as a gardener-cum-handyman whilst studying. His wife and children were supportive, as they could see how unhappy he was.
We set about developing SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) Goals.
2 SMART goals
At this stage it was important for Mike to take a step back and really think about where he wanted to take this venture. It’s all too easy to get carried away with the excitement and not consider the practicalities.
See our blog:
BE YOUR OWN BOSS
I asked Mike to think about where he wanted to be in a year, three years, five years and ten years. It was important for Mike to have creative thinking space and to feel challenged but did he want a business that would demand more and more of his time, at the expense of spending time with his family? Did Mike want to eventually employ staff, for example? Did he want to develop a business to sell it in ten year’s time? These were just some of the considerations Mike had to think about.
3 Challenge self
Mike had gained a lot of really valuable and transferable skills in his career. For example, he would was very good at selling ideas and concepts. He also enjoyed meeting new people and building relationships. He did confess however, that he found paperwork a real chore and would put it off if he could. Mike clearly enjoyed challenge but he also needed to be grounded in reality, for example, he would have to prepare detailed quotes for the work he was proposing, he would need to keep accounts to be audited, he too would need quotes for materials etc. It was important for Mike to think about how he would manage this, as this presented just as much as a challenge for Mike. Mike was initially resistant; he would get someone in to do all this for him. I challenged back and asked him how he would finance this? The redundancy money would only last so long. We left the session at this juncture and Mike agreed to think further on this.
4 Find a mentor or coach
A mentor or coach can provide you with appropriate challenge to really think through your ideas and identify your transferable skills. They can also work with you to break bad habits and develop new skills to increase your likelihood of success.
Research mentors/coaches carefully. Ask around for recommendations. Always have an initial chemistry session with the coach or mentor to ensure you can work with that person. It’s a big investment of time, and usually comes at a cost. The chemistry session should in most cases be at no cost.
5 Change Role within your organisation
If unlike Mike, self-employment, is not for you consider asking your organisation if you can undertake a secondment in the organisation. Ask your HR department for a career chat.
6 What will make you happy
Now this is a difficult one. You know the saying the grass isn’t always greener? Well, this can be true. Take time out to really think about what you want; don’t be in any hurry and don’t become alarmed if you are not immediately inspired.
Make a list of the things you really enjoy; do not be influenced by others and try, if you can, not to ask other people for their views. It’s all too easy for unconscious bias to slip in and then dominate our thought process.
Once you have your list of what makes you happy, think about who you know who may be able to help. People are so reluctant to network, fearing that people will reject them however; most people are flattered to be asked and will gladly agree to meet you for a coffee and share their experiences. They too may know someone else they can introduce you to, so don’t be shy of asking the question. This does take time, but it is worth the investment. Set time aside to do it, and do not sacrifice it to do others things. Be disciplined!
7 Network, network, network
As already mentioned networking here is key. Talk to your line manager, colleagues, trustees, direct reports, customers etc. Building these relationships not only develops trust and rapport, it can also remind you why you joined the organisation in the first place.
If you are thinking of changing career, these very same people may have had similar experiences which they would gladly share with you.
As with every story most people want to know the end…
Mike did indeed take voluntary redundancy. He is now studying garden design by distance learning and has set himself up as an independent gardener and handyman. He looks remarkable! He looks refreshed, his voice has taken a far more energetic tone, and he describes himself as happy.
Yes, he has had to cut back on life’s little luxuries yet, he says he now feels much happier than he has for years. His wife has also become involved in the business, and has set herself the challenge of learning book-keeping knowing that this is not Mike’s strength. She tells me it’s nice to be something other than someone’s wife or mother.
Time ahead will continue to bring their challenges for Mike and his family however, his mid-career slump provided him with a golden opportunity to take a step back and realise what was most important to him.
For practical tips on returning to education as a mature student visit:
Returning to Higher Education