This article is adapted from the AARP Crash Course in Finding the Work You Love by Samuel Greengard (AARP Books/Sterling, 2008).
For more than a third of her life, Colombian-born Mercedes Pellet wrote the book on language translations. A business she and her husband, Michael, started in 1979 had grown to 55 employees and approximately $5 million in annual sales. By 2004 her firm was translating English into 60 languages and had a roster of elite clients, including Texaco and American Airlines. “It was a very successful business,” she explains.
But the Swanton, Md., couple had begun to feel it was about time to cash in and pursue other interests. Mercedes had fantasized for years about doing some type of work that involved rescuing abused and abandoned animals. When her Yorkshire terrier died, everything clicked. “I knew it was time to act,” she says.
Though when Mercedes—now a 63-year-old grandmother—investigated what it would take to become a veterinarian, she winced. “I realized eight years of intensive study was going to be too much.” She still went back to school but set her sights on a more realistic career goal: becoming a veterinary technician.
She enrolled at Fairmont State Community & Technical College (now Pierpont Community & Technical College) in Fairmont, W.Va., taking classes in chemistry and microbiology—and soon feared she was in over her head. “In my first chemistry class,” she recalls, “all I understood from the instructor was ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’ I thought I had made a terrible mistake. Plus, none of the 18- and 19-year-old students bothered talking to me.” But she hung in.
Her persistence paid off. Today she is combining her new vet-tech qualifications and her business smarts to raise funds for an animal adoption center in Garrett County, Md. Mercedes plans to work at the center after it’s built next year. “When I told my mother about the career change, she thought I was crazy,” she says. “Friends and family thought I had flipped. But I knew this was the right decision for me and, fortunately, my husband supported me all the way.”
Mercedes’s career change is a tale of success. Still, it didn’t happen overnight. Although switching careers at any age is a challenge, older workers typically have a lot more to overcome than do their younger counterparts. They must master new trends and technologies. They must cope with daunting lifestyle changes, such as the likelihood of a lower income or the reality of “parachuting” into an unfamiliar social circle. They must confront—and learn how to evade or vanquish—the real peril of age discrimination. And, finally, they must accept the basic truth that landing a rewarding position will never be a panacea for all of life’s problems.
For those willing to pursue their dream, however, the possibilities for regeneration and renewal are practically limitless. If you’re ready for that journey, here are some steps that will help you along the way.
Understand the Risks
Despite an economy in recession, the opportunities for a midlife career change have never been better. A variety of factors—changing attitudes toward older workers, rising demand for workplace experience, and more powerful job-search resources (notably online)—are helping ease the way. According to Ernst & Young, a global accounting firm that helps companies identify and capitalize on business opportunities, nearly 40 percent of employers noted that their number one concern for the next five years will be a shortage of workers. Nursing, restaurants, and utilities are just a few of the fields that face worker shortages caused by retirement and changing demographics. “It has become increasingly apparent that the workplace can ill afford to lose older workers,” observes John A. Challenger, chief executive at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm.
Even so, recareering is not for the faint of heart. It can entail difficult and potentially life-altering decisions that prompt an overhaul of your lifestyle or living standard. It can affect family members and friends. What’s more, a new career may generate a great deal of internal stress—especially in the early stages. “An older person must overcome fears and obstacles that aren’t necessarily part of the experience for someone younger,” says Lori Davila, an Atlanta career coach who works with clients all over the world. Plus, many older workers find they miss the seniority and respect they built up at a previous job. And a career change later in life may lead to financial problems. Taking a 10 percent cut in salary at age 30 is vastly different from taking a 50 percent cut at age 50. It’s essential to acknowledge these issues upfront and devise a plan to deal with them before embarking on a career change.
Mull Your Motives
Another motivator: You may be experiencing “passion drift.” According to Sarah Edwards, coauthor of Changing Directions Without Losing Your Way (Tarcher, 2001), “a lot happens at midlife. Our thoughts, interests, and goals change—and we may find that we’ve strayed from the things that once made us feel content and brought a sense of value into our lives.”
A nurse, for example, may excel in his role and receive a promotion or two. Then one day he wakes up to find he’s no longer healing the sick—his original passion—but managing other nurses’ schedules and drowning beneath piles of paperwork. Or a traffic engineer who always relished troubleshooting problems in the field realizes she’s become a desk jockey mired in project management. Like them, you may feel that you want change, but you remain uncertain about which new field of endeavor you want to pursue.
Running toward something, by contrast, is all about striving to reach a defined goal—whether it’s going back to school to earn a master’s degree to become a teacher or saving the money needed to open a boxing gym. Taking the time to figure out the motivation for what you really want to do with the rest of your life—or at least the next stage of it—and setting realistic goals can mean the difference between rewards and roadblocks. Ask yourself: Do I really need to change careers at this point in my life? How will this new work make me happier? Am I ready to tackle the challenge of reinventing myself? Without some genuine introspection, you’re apt to follow the same patterns (or make the same fundamental choices) over and over again. The scenery may change, but the feeling of déjà vu continues.
Examine Your Values
Once you decide why you’re going for a career change, you have to pin down some coordinates and then determine which direction you’re going to go. These three questions might help you get a handle on your career ambitions and start you moving toward that goal.
What are your objectives? Figure out what’s drawing you to a particular career path, beyond just the money. Do you want to help others? Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you want to influence the social fabric or change public policy? Leave a legacy? Knowing what your objectives are is an important start to the process.
What are your core values? Each of us has internalized a unique set of values. These shape how we feel about work and career issues and typically center on traits such as independence, creativity, responsibility, security, and honesty. Decide which ones are the most essential to you.
Are your objectives and values in sync with the job or career you’ve chosen? If they’re not, you’re likely to feel discouraged, disaffected, and perhaps even depressed. On the other hand, when the two are in accord, you’ll be able to raise your performance to a higher level and achieve the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment you’ve been looking for all your life.
Terry Nicholetti learned the importance of this process the hard way. After graduating from high school, she decided to become a Roman Catholic nun. For the next five years she lived her vows while getting her bachelor’s degree and teaching at Catholic schools in Connecticut. Then she decided sisterhood wasn’t for her and she left. After that she worked as a theater director, a sales manager, a book author, and a seminar host. Each of these jobs was giving her a hint of her real objective. “I was moving in the direction of performing and artistic expression,” she says. “But I didn’t realize it.” She had to take time to really analyze her life, her values, and her goals before she could realize her dream. Today Nicholetti, 63, stages business-skills workshops for companies and does one-woman shows and standup comedy. “I am living my heart’s desire.” she says.
Get Expert Advice
Sometimes people need guidance in finding out what they really want to do. Henry Stewart, 59, ran a successful PR firm in Fort Worth, Texas, but he’d grown tired of the business and had been in career counseling for two years to “discover where my true passion for work lay.” Stewart had dabbled for years with the idea of becoming a chef. “I bought cookbooks, watched cooking shows, and put together elaborate meals for family and friends.” When his brother died from liver cancer in 2004, he decided that life is short and change is good. With the blessing of his wife, Randi, he took the leap. Stewart enrolled at the Culinary Institute Alain & Marie LeNôtre in Houston, earned an internship at a premier restaurant in Alsace, France, and eventually landed a position as a chef at a fine-dining restaurant in Fort Worth. “I’m having the time of my life,” he declares.
Career counselors can help you in a number of ways. They can make you aware of alternative job opportunities and aid you in learning more about yourself. “A good counselor focuses your time and energy much more efficiently,” says Helen Harkness, president of Career Design Associates in Garland, Texas.
The professional career adviser is especially useful to an older individual who is thinking about changing careers. Here’s why: The counselor can aid you in sorting through the overwhelming number of career possibilities and options. In addition, a counselor can identify personal issues that may be holding you back.
The process of career counseling usually follows a fairly predictable arc. The first step is an interview and evaluation process. The counselor might then decide to administer an aptitude test—one of the oldest and most trusted methods for identifying personal interests and how they fit in with career possibilities. “When testing is combined with someone who has expertise in administering a test,” says David P. Campbell, a leading expert on career development in Colorado Springs, “it can provide plenty of useful information.” If the test is done right, a career counselor should send you away with a clearer idea of your skills, interests, and aptitudes and a solid career-development plan.
It’s very likely you’ll need a skills upgrade to land your dream job. That means heading back to school. Not to worry. You’ll be joining a growing crowd: as more and more boomers and other older Americans pursue new careers, the look and feel of the classroom is changing. No longer is it an oddity to see 50- or 60-year-olds attending a trade school, a community college, or a four-year university.
“Boomers Go to College,” a 2007 study conducted by AARP Oregon and the Portland Community College, finds that older individuals are “motivated learners.” They have differing attitudes and needs, however, when it comes to higher learning. Because of that, some institutions have created customized programs for older students. In August 2007 Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank and social-program incubator, teamed with the MetLife Foundation to provide funds to ten community colleges across the country so they could develop programs to help older workers gain the skills needed for careers in education, health care, and social services. These Encore Colleges, as Civic Ventures has dubbed them, offer specialized curriculums and teaching methods designed for boomers and seniors, as well as mentoring programs and career counseling.
Traditional colleges and universities aren’t the only game in town, either. You may also want to consider a trade school, where you can learn such diverse pursuits as cooking, court reporting, and website design. In many instances, trade schools provide the desired knowledge and skills in weeks or months rather than years. Tom Standard decided that after 20 years as a chef, often logging 80-hour workweeks, he wanted to go in a completely new direction with his career. His wife, Amy, suggested he try something in computers, “since he spent most of his downtime in front of a monitor.” The Arlington, Va., resident enrolled in a six-month course at a technology trade school. He’s been working “very happily,” he says, as a systems analyst “with a more normal life” for the past six years.
If you’re interested in resuming your education, check with the institution you plan to attend to see whether it offers special mentoring, tutoring, career-counseling, or academic-advisory services for older students. If it doesn’t, administrators can probably refer you to a school that does.
Test the Waters
Once you’ve completed all the steps described here, you should have a pretty good idea of where you want to go. But what if you’re still not sure? Here are some ways to gain insight into the career you’re considering before actually taking the plunge. They’ll also help you get your foot in the door for a position you’ve decided you want to pursue.
Job Sampling What better way to learn about a job or career than to take it for a test drive? VocationVacations (866-888-6329), a Portland, Ore., organization, offers an array of opportunities to sample real jobs at real companies and nonprofit organizations. You can pay anywhere from six hundred to a few thousand dollars to try your hand at just about any calling, from wedding coordinator to animal therapist, from trucker to riverboat-tour guide. You spend two or three days doing the actual work.
Internships and Volunteer Positions A part-time (or full-time, if you can financially swing it) internship or volunteer opportunity is a good way to get an idea of what a job involves. Both also give you an inside track to possibly securing paying work in that field.
Networking Seek out and talk to someone who is actually working in the field you’re interested in. Most professionals will be glad to give you some insight into their work. And ask your friends, family, and former colleagues to help you by putting you in touch with people they know who share your interests.
Social-Networking Sites More and more people are tapping into websites such as LinkedIn—an online network of professionals from around the world representing 150 industries—to build professional networks. These sites allow you to share information with people who have your same interests. Other services, such as ZoomInfo.com, let you create or edit an online profile and search for job leads. Recruiters often use these sites to spot promising job candidates.
No one can predict where a career journey will lead you or how it might change your life. Especially for those in midlife and beyond, changing careers can transform an existence. Actively sought out or not, a professional upheaval can reshape your world in myriad ways, taking you on a roller coaster ride of self-discovery. But amid the chaos, one thing becomes clear: pursuing your professional dreams can create an impact with outward ripples that are both positive and profound for you and everyone around you. And pursuing a career change just might deliver you to a place where reality finally dovetails with those dreams.
Mercedes Pellet is now living her fantasy. “Wonderful things have happened as a result of my career change,” she says. “By making a difference in the lives of animals, I feel as though I have accomplished something significant.”
After early careers as a restaurant manager and a telecom-industry executive, Samuel Greengard reinvented himself as a freelance writer specializing in career and workplace issues. He has contributed to many print and online publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, MSNBC.com, and Wired.
A Reinvention Checklist
Four strategies for taking your career dreams from fantasy to fulfillment
1. Recognize your reasons for making a switch You may be tired of your line of work and need something that provides greater stimulation and challenges. Or, you may be looking for social interaction or personal reward. For instance, some older individuals take work at a local retailer in order to meet people and stay connected. Others become substitute teachers so they can give back to the community.
2. Calculate your commitment Do you want to work full-time or part-time? Do you want to job-share or telecommute at least part of the time? Does seasonal or cyclical work strike your fancy? A new line of work may mean starting out at the bottom—can you deal with that? It’s best to know before you advance to Go.
3. Consider a hobby or a passion More than a few successful careers and new businesses have been born out of a love for collectibles, animals, or something seemingly obscure that didn’t have an apparent real-world application. Sewing is Linda Reardon’s passion. She started her own embroidering business at age 56 after getting laid off from a bank, where she had worked in the information technology field for more than 14 years. Today, Letters by Linda has helped the enterprising Birmingham, Alabama, resident reinvent herself and earn a good income.
4. Acknowledge your limitations You may be great at arranging flowers but wilt when coping with customers. You may talk to the animals but have little patience for walking a pack of rambunctious canines. It’s important to follow your heart, but pay attention to your head: establish that a career will work—by conducting a self-assessment or using career counseling—before you pull the plug on a current job and move forward. It’s also vital to take ownership of your career and life plans. Resist the temptation to conform to others’ expectations. Blaze your own trail. —S.G.