Rethinking careers – hints for older workers 

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Sorry, the careers literature starts to define you as an older worker around the age of 45 years – but in some ways it’s a bonus because “Rethinking Careers” is a strong message that it’s time to rethink and revise your career so that you have the options you may want for the future.  Good career management is intentional and strategic. It’s not about rigid planning but about flexible strategies and finding an approach to that you connect with, one that brings empowerment and motivation. And if you are approaching the mid-forties or older it’s time to think about a strategic approach to the next 20+ years.  

What are the key ideas to consider when Rethinking Careers? 

  • Career management is about self direction, designing your own career where you can, and creating the success that you want- success that fits your aspirations and your life, and understanding that these aspirations change over time.
  •  Learning is no longer something we go to but a way a being, it can be boundaryless, happening anywhere any time in innovative new ways.  Mid-life learning is a key plus for later life options. In fact, that updated or new credential is almost an essential ingredient for later life choice.
  • Check that you understand the concept of building career capital, investing in yourself, and putting your own time and money into career assets because this not only offers benefits to employers, it builds your own expertise and employability.  The investment pays off in longer term options, earnings and career confidence. The single most significant  issue that older workers (generally in their fifties)  bring to me as a career counsellor  is the desire for options in later careers – the chance for change,  freedom, flexibility and autonomy in their lives. These options are best prepared for earlier in the way you strategise regarding learning and investment.  
  • The vision of success has changed. Many older workers have begun their career in a more traditional environment when the vision of success focussed on the career ladder. It was always vertical, and had clear external indicators – titles, financial rewards, size of office, getting to the top. Still a strong driver of success for many, and we wouldn’t have that any other way, but the paradigm today has so much more flexibility- people are able to move up down or sideways depending on their own personal goals, or their industries’ needs. It is best if people in a workplace can focus on contribution and results, not titles or promotions, because there are only so many managers’ titles and they have been used to excess. But when they know about it people do respond to the idea of psychological success and an internal career – one that fulfils the aspects of their lives and their work that are really important to them. 

Rethinking careers with success

So today we see success differently. In the 21st century career it is about what is personally meaningful to you. I call it success without an audience, because it only has to please and meet the needs of you or you and your family. And of course it changes over time, so the challenge is to understand that when you have achieved one version of success – which may be highly achievement oriented- you may need another version, because to stay up to date with who you are, as you grow and develop, other things may become more personally meaningful. 

Connected to revisioning success are the developmental changes we see in careers and none is more interesting than the drive for career renewal at mid life.  Very typically for many in their mid 40’s onwards is a desire for renewal that, bottom line, is a search for a renewed self, or a desire to reconnect with self.  

In the frantic world of achievement, and especially in the world of executive careers the self can get disconnected. There is a gap between the inner being and the external reality – they are out of harmony, and this is a strong message for many that rethinking and revisioning is required. The connection between self and work is at the heart of our best work, our best contribution; many would say that we are only truly satisfied when our career behaviours are integrated with our life and our self, our identity, who we are.  

Judi Marshall, a Professor of Management at Bath University wrote a classic book in 1995 about women managers. She researched women who were leaving roles, many at mid-life; and she describes their values conflict, and the ongoing challenge of living with the incongruence between their environment and their inner being. It’s a fascinating study- it seems when we can no longer express who we really are in our work environment, and the adaptive aspect becomes too great it creates enormous disharmony for the self. She asked the question – ‘what does it take to live in such challenging places, and provided these answers: 

  • The skills of being different in an organisational culture, 
  • Practices for replenishing personal power and energy
  • The skills of living with multiple perspectives. 

For many however it was very difficult to maintain a viable sense of self. This research studied women, but it is clear to many career practitioners that this can be problem for men as well, they just don’t articulate it in quite the same way. 

Rethinking careers identity

So midlife or later life renewal eventually asks the question ‘what do I really want for the next 20+ years – how do I make this stage of my life productive, and have a life worth living? The new flexible concepts of careers and success says OK. Go for it. You can change if you want to. It helps when you know that as your career expands so does the self. Learning is transformational, and so are the challenges of a fast paced and changing work environment – and we have to form new concepts of our self over time to adapt to these changes.  This is our career identity and a healthy one can grow and change. The self always wants to grow, it doesn’t care if you have got to the top or not. It still wants to grow. This gives new meaning to the expression, please yourself. But it really does mean please your self because in doing so paradoxically you do your best work. 

The later years of a career are for many about finding richness in life, not a narrow focus, but a broadening of experience. The fifties can be very concerned with freedom seeking. The freedom to leverage our skills and experience to work in ways that suit the whole self. (We don’t have a work self, we have a whole self, and despite our efforts to keep these separate it doesn’t always work.) It may mean the creation of a new career identity.  The worst thing that can happen at the later stages of our life is that we become fixed in a vision that cannot change. This can be sometimes seen with older men who do not know how to revision themselves – possibly as enduring respected contributors rather than powerful leaders. But people don’t relinquish old identities until they realise that’s what they have to do, and when they are given new frameworks of thinking then they may find it surprisingly simple. 

Having the life worth living

So how do we know if we are having the life ‘worth living’?

Shepherd, the writer who first talked about the ‘path with a heart’ gives us three indicators – 

Tone – you will feel energised, alive and truly yourself, feel good in your entire being, and experience moments of joy!

Resonance – you will feel good about your relationships, and aligned with what suits you

Perspective – you will feel good about your choices because your life has balance. 

You may not see these 24/7 but they should turn up regularly in your working week. 

So there are benefits in taking time to rethink, revision and strategise; you stop limiting yourselves and start to work out ways to enhance what you do, and live the life you want. You become prepared for new ideas and roles, and for the need for these to change over time. You have developed the learning to give yourselves options in later career.  Having done so you are better placed to achieve your version of success and the life worth living. 

…the challenge is to understand that when you have achieved one version of success – which may be highly achievement oriented- you may need another version..

Dr Heather Carpenter 

Author of Your 21st Century Career –new paths to personal success (New Holland Publishers 2010).