Considering a career change after 50?

Weigh the pros and cons of tackling an 'encore career'.

Weigh the pros and cons of an "encore career".

Last month, UK government Skills Minister Matthew Hancock caused a stir when he suggested men and women aged over 50 and seeking a career change should undertake apprenticeship schemes that would allow them to retrain as lawyers, bankers and accountants.

What he didn’t say was how newly skilled-up older workers in Britain were supposed to compete for jobs – even as their peers with a lifetime of experience in the professions are losing them – against graduates fresh out of university. The response from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) was pointed.

Although it is accepted that more workers over 50 will choose to, or financially have to, follow a new career path to help them work longer – and need the training to do it – its position was such that any training had to be vastly different from the sort already offered to young people transitioning from education to work. 

“It should be geared specifically towards people who have lots of experience in the workforce and need to adapt their existing skills,” a senior IPPR economist said. In other words: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So, where do these divided camps of opinion leave those who are over 50, currently unemployed, staring down the barrel of it or simply treading water in career limbo? After all, waking one morning and saying, “I think I’ll become a lawyer!” is one thing, but for many, such a goal might be impractical.

The case for a potentially risky and expensive attempt at a mid-life career change might not be as compelling if you consider alternative opportunities in your current organisation.

The obvious question to answer is: “Why am I thinking like this anyway?” There are numerous offline and online, frequently inexpensive training programs specifically designed to help equip people (of all ages) with new technical skills that could kick-start their place in a profession they’ve already invested years in.

Commitment to their acquisition can help overcome some of the negative stereotypes a few younger employers often have about older workers, and even from a purely financial perspective, career reinvention through professional development will likely be less costly, draining and time-consuming than trying to reincarnate in a new sector.

With that said, many have done it and never looked back. Colonel Sanders didn’t start the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise empire until he was 65, Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s at 52, and Raymond Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, wasn’t published until he was 51.

It’s a fact, though, that a midlife career change usually has an adverse impact on personal income. Being realistic about probable cash-flow – both during retraining and the years following – is vital. Do you really want to significantly adjust your current lifestyle, possibly to the extent of having to downsize your home?

If you can't afford to leave your current job and you don’t have to – again, why would you want to? Is it the because of the work itself, the working environment, or a bit of both? The case for a potentially risky and expensive attempt at pulling off a mid-life career change might not be as compelling if you stop to consider alternative opportunities in your current organisation. For example, could you create a new niche for yourself, a way to make your existing role more interesting, or even explore secondment to a different area of the business?

“Over fifties need to think about things a little differently,” says Lindsay Doig, president of Life Activities Clubs Victoria and former chairman of the Victorian Third Age Network of CPA Australia.

“You can’t always and you might not want to continue in the same role, and although some employers might think an older person hasn’t many years left in front of them, there is a lot more overhead getting younger people up to speed.”

Still, if you really have had enough and possess the drive, raw acumen and financial wherewithal to embark on what’s dubbed an “encore career”, there is loose consensus on how to at least give it your best shot. Paradoxically, as Doig intimates, there is even a case to suggest that it might be easier to start a new career in midlife given you now have an established skillset, maturity and – hopefully – the right reasoning.

So, what would you want to do if you weren’t doing what you’ve been doing for the last 30-plus years? Once you’ve identified what you wished you’d started doing in your twenties, look long and hard at the nuts and bolts of that profession as it stands today, particularly with respect to its growth potential, the key trends impacting it, the skills in most demand and, above all, the role to which you will eventually aspire, the mandatory entry level qualifications you’ll need and, of course, how long it’s likely to take to achieve them.

Although recruitment advertisements will spell out a lot of the basic requisites in the field you want to enter, they’re not going to tell you if, in the pursuit of a new academic qualification, you can get credits for prior life experience or, indeed, whether the profession has an above average percentage of employees aged over 50. The best way to unearth this type of information is to start communicating with professionals already working in the field. As always, networking is a key tool through which to gain insight into both opportunities and risks.

When all is said and done, if training for a fully-fledged, brand-new professional career when you’re over fifty seems too hard, then chances are it probably is. On the other hand, as someone once said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Equally, a recently spotted T-shirt noted: “It’s not how old you are – it’s how you are old.”

Steps to career reinvention

  • Objectively assess what you do and don’t like about your current job, and how it might be changed for the better.
  • Decide what is it that you’ve always wanted to do and still believe you could do.
  • Research the skills and formal qualifications required.
  • Speak to people already in the field, especially potential mentors.
  • Be realistic about your short- and long-term earning potential, and how it could affect your lifestyle.

Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.


July 2020
July 2020

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