Self actualization is a concept that has gained widespread acceptance in American society, but fifty years ago it would have been viewed as being overly self involved. What was paramount then was working hard enough to provide (or maintain) opportunities for one’s family to advance, and this generally meant finding one career track and sticking to it (perhaps even to the same company). The Baby Boomers, rebellious on so many cultural / societal fronts, also challenged this one. The rejection of 1950s conformity, the increasing visibility of women and Blacks, the rise in the divorce rate: all contributed to new, bold ways of conceptualizing career paths, leading to the phenomenon of multiple careers in a lifetime.
Over the past five years a powerful new economic factor has led to increased interest in career switching among older Americans, namely the crumbling of millions of seniors’ retirement plans as home values tanked. So it is no surprise that more and more older Americans are contemplating heading in new career directions even in their fifties and sixties. Realizing that they may have a decade or more of work life ahead, they seek to find employment that will be enriching, fulfilling, challenging, or, at the least, less boring.
Here are several suggestions that have proven effective for a number of my older clients:
Ignore statistics – A huge barrier to progress on finding a new career is the pessimism that many older workers feel about their prospects, sapping their energy, creativity, and willingness to connect with others. Yes, it is generally harder to get hired if you’re older. But remember that millions of older workers do succeed in finding meaningful career direction and remunerative employment. Plus, the picture is definitely brightening; the latest Department of Labor statistics continue to show unemployment rates for older worker declining faster than for the workforce in general.
Solidify your financial base – If you’re an older workers, career switching is going to take longer than would be the case if you were quite a bit younger. For one thing, entry level positions are pretty much off limits; for another, as one ages it’s also often somewhat more difficult to connect with others (which can be problematic, since networking is the primary tool to use in identifying and landing new opportunities). All this means bolstering your financial position as much as possible prior to striking out in a new career direction. If you have one, hold on to that good-paying job for longer than you might like in order to build a thicker cushion. Also, it’s much easier for an older worker to find a new job from an employed (vs. unemployed) status.
Volunteer – There are two excellent ways of volunteering that can lead to new career paths. First, there’s plain old volunteering at an organization to do whatever work you might be interested in or suited for, from administrative work to delivering meals to candystriping to financial counseling. There are some excellent websites dedicated to volunteering opportunities: Volunteermatch.org, Greaterdccares.org, and Onebrick.org. Second, consider applying to join a not-for-profit Board. The fellow Board members you will be interacting with are probably well connected and from a diversity of backgrounds.
Keep your skills current / acquire new ones – Familiarity / facility with social media, PowerPoint, Excel: these are skills that will telegraph to a potential employer that you are actively engaged in the world of work and career, not to mention the fact that many jobs require this kind of specialized knowledge. Keeping your skills up-to-date is also a great way to keep your mind agile and creative. There are numerous free or low-cost programs that will teach you valuable professional skills, the DC public library system and UDC being two. And of course there are many low-cost online training options. If you’re a veteran, Microsoft sponsors Elevate America, a free computer skills training program.
Don’t be afraid to address the age issue head-on – Chances are good that your age will be an elephant in the room as you’re networking and interviewing. Remember that age brings with it a number of very desirable characteristics to an employer: maturity, wisdom, perspective, patience. Weave these advantages into your pitch; they’ll help position you in a fresh and more appealing way.