How to make a career change at 50?

From October 2020 the State Pension age for men and women will be 66 as the government faces the reality of an ageing population, and many of us will work some way beyond. Far from the twilight years, in your fifties you can easily be facing another decade or two at work.

With plenty of life left, the golden generation are no longer putting up with jobs that don’t push their buttons. Research by the London School of Business and Finance has found that 43% of employees aged between 45 and 54 are seeking new challenges and opportunities[1].

“More people are changing jobs in their 50s than any time before,” says John Lees, career coach and author of ‘How to Get a Job You Love’.

When our working lives can easily exceed half a century, it’s simply old-fashioned to treat people in their 50s as winding down for retirement. In fact, more older people than ever are making the most of their accumulated experience: in the last five years more than a million people aged 50 and over have rejoined the workforce[2].

Why are the over 50s changing careers?

Over-stressed, divorce, empty nest, boredom at work, redundancy or simply an urge to learn new skills: there are plenty of reasons for wanting to change career in your 50s, but for many it’s about satisfaction.

“I craved one thing above all,” Lucy Kellaway told the Times after causing a splash in 2016 when she quit her job as a Financial Times columnist to retrain as a teacher[3]: “the luxury of being useful.”

“Almost everyone said the same thing: you’re mad. Many of my contemporaries were restive in their assorted jobs too, and while some were planning to slouch towards retirement, others longed to start all over again doing something new, difficult and worthwhile. As I hope to go on living for many more decades, it seems mad to spend my whole life doing one thing.”

She’s not alone in her thinking. Research from Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute (one of the driving forces behind the hygge wave that has swept the world) asked 8,000 Danish workers from every sector where they found professional contentment[4]. The winner, overwhelmingly, was a meaningful sense of purpose.

“For the men and women that I work with, making a difference using the wisdom and skills they’ve acquired is a big driver,” says Ros Toynbee, director and lead coach of The Career Coach. “It’s not about going up the ladder, and they’re not ready to retire – they feel they have bags of experience and energy to give.”

Others are seeking a change of pace and to tackle spiralling stress levels, looking to replace stressful roles with part-time or alternative careers. “I wasn’t enjoying the job, and had no job satisfaction or work-life balance,” says Maggie Regis who retrained as a private maths tutor after a career as a GP Practice Manager.  “There were lots of conflicting pressures, constant challenges with managing staff, changing and increasing employment laws, and fundamental changes in the funding of healthcare causing massive workload. I wanted a change.”

Though the work pressures are still there – “teaching is very demanding” – the new role has brought a flexibility and satisfaction that management couldn’t, “not to mention regular holidays”.

“Taking your foot off the pedal doesn’t have to mean that you’ve lost all motivation,” says John, “just that you’ve learned that work doesn’t have to be all-consuming.”

Should you consider a career change over 50: What are the realities?

Aside from starry-eyed aspirations of work that is finally fulfilling, there are some serious considerations to take into account when considering a new career at 50.

For one, the money. Starting any new career is likely to mean a pay cut and there has been downward pressure on wages since the 2008 crunch, however if your mortgage is paid off and the children have left home, you’ll have fewer pressures on your finances, which affords you the luxury of working for love rather than money. Be clear about how much you really need to live comfortably, and motivations for the change.

“I’m part of the lucky generation with houses and pensions,” says Lucy; “a drop in salary doesn’t terrify me in the way it once would have.”

Unless you’re setting up your own business, you’ll find yourself back at the bottom of the ladder, perhaps with an uneasy dynamic of being ruled by bosses young enough to be your grandchildren. For many relinquishing power and the stress that goes with it is part of the appeal, but make sure that’s you.

Despite successful careers and excellent skillsets, many people looking for a change of career at 50 can find the job market intimidating, deterred by being perceived as too old or, ironically, too experienced. Though robust age discrimination legislation is in place to protect older people in the workforce, a survey by Angela Ruskin University found that older applicants are more than four times less likely to be offered an interview, regardless of experience.

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