Career Transition—a creative path to retirement?
Retirement looks much different today than it did a couple of decades ago. Many people aren’t looking to spend their retirement years watching the world go by, and some might actually find the idea of a front-porch-sitting retirement boring in the first place. Just like most employees across an organization, mature workers are seeking purpose and meaning, and these needs don’t fizzle because their age is rising.
The statistics support this change in retirement patterns, too. 74 percent of people want to work past the age of 65, according to a recent Gallup poll. Gallup states that these changes are likely related to life enhancement and preferences, financial security, and specifically related “to the changes in Social Security and movement away from guaranteed benefit plans, such as pensions.”
According to US News & World Report, the expectant retirement age is now 66, a number that has crept up in recent years—even though the actual average retirement age is 63. This means that the rising generation of folks eligible to retire might stay in their roles even longer than you think. In short, some people want to work, many have to work, and individuals are making different choices about their careers than they did just a few years ago.
In my role as career coach, I frequently provide support to help mature age workers find the next path in their career journeys. While some go on to join the gig economy, become consultants, join a board of directors, or focus on volunteerism, others want to stay in the workforce full-time – but they don’t want the same job anymore. For a variety of reasons, some people nearing the retirement age begin considering a career change as the next phase of their work journeys.
Reimagining retirement with purpose
Studies show that people in the older generation continue to be happier and more satisfied through the end of their life, even when they are facing bigger challenges, than younger people. When facing the choice between retirement or no retirement—could career transition be the answer?
Because of the possibilities open to workers of all ages, there is no longer an “optimal retirement” plan. Dependencies such as health, money, relationships, and personal goals play a major role in what late in life career or retirement might look like for an individual. In general, people expect to live longer, healthier lives—and average life expectancy statistics support this trend. They also expect to have purpose and meaning in their lives, regardless of age.
Instead of traditional retirement, maturing employees are seeking to enrich the next phase of their lives with endeavors that bring substance and meaning -- including career transition. I see a lot of tenured folks who have been in the workforce for years who are not quite ready to retire, but are in dire need of a change. While some look to leave the full-time workforce, others are looking for their next career and professional challenge. Earlier in their lives, they changed careers often to gain more experience and skills. Then, in middle career, they looked for opportunities for advancement and financial gain. With a cache of fungible skills and less pressure to advance and make more money, mature age workers are often looking for ways to fulfill their passions, have an impact, and find a sense of meaning and purpose through their work. For some, this means changing careers after achieving a certain level of success and spending years in the same industry.
Five considerations for a late career change
If you’re considering a career transition in the latter part of your career or as a form of creative retirement, there are a few things to consider before deciding on the change. While it may seem romantic to think about just walking away from the role you’ve had for years because it feels like your work has started to suck the life out of you, take a moment to get your ducks in a row before taking an uncalculated risk. If you think it’s time for a change, it probably is. There may be something you’ve been passionate about all along, but following that passion hasn’t been realistic.
If you’re considering a career change instead of retirement, but aren’t sure how to get started, here are five things to consider:
#1 Plan before you execute
Whatever the reason for your change of heart and career, take the time to plan. Do your research and find out what the job you’ve been dreaming about really entails. Look at job postings and take an honest inventory of your skills in comparison to what companies are looking for. If at all possible, find someone already in the industry that will talk to you honestly about the role, the hiring environment, and the hard and soft skills essential to being successful in the job. Once you’ve discovered your gaps in skills or experience, create a plan to fill those gaps through further education, training, and even volunteering.
Depending on when you first entered the workforce, you’re likely familiar with the risks of a career change, such as compensation differences between industries or roles. Considering the risks associated with a career transition is especially important for individuals making a career change as there may be financial sacrifices or title differences necessary to make the change. For example, you need to make a certain salary to stay on track for retirement savings -- assuming you wanted to fully retire someday after your career change. Or perhaps your target industry is especially competitive, making it more difficult to break in initially.
If you can, try to devise a safety net. Make sure you have a backup plan if your career transition doesn’t feel right or follow the expected timeline. For many people undergoing a late-stage career transition, they might consider whether or not returning to the former line of work in a similar or different capacity would be possible if the new direction doesn’t pan out as expected. While it would be counter-productive to simply return to exactly the same role – especially once you’ve decided it’s no longer fulfilling -- consider creative ways to remain in your former line of work. Perhaps you would be happier and find the work more fulfilling if you were consulting, or working as a contractor for several companies.
#2: Identify transferable skills
Whether you’ve been in the workforce for 3 years or 30 years, you have developed your skillsets to a certain capacity. Chances are, the longer you’ve been working, the stronger and more defined your skills and expertise have become.
Take it one step further and think about what cross-industry skills can be applicable to new roles and opportunities. For example, if you’ve worked in the customer service industry and have dealt with people every day for decades, you likely have strong relationship management and communication skills that would be transferable to roles requiring those types of soft skills. Once you identify your core skills, make them part of your story by explaining how you have had an impact on company goals and by finding ways to demonstrate how those skills fit into the role you’re currently seeking.
Sometimes career transition, especially if you are particularly concerned with keeping your same standard of pay and level, might require some creativity. Take a step back to consider how you can obtain new skills in creative ways, like volunteering, serving on a board, or taking on new projects with different teams at your organization.
I recently worked with a seasoned employee who was looking to shift into a role in finance. While he had the background training and academics to support the career change, he didn’t have any recent relevant experience. To fill the gap, he looked for ways to gain experience even before he was ready to make the complete career transition and became the financial controller for his religious organization. This volunteer work showed his willingness and eagerness to learn and grow into a new career, while his decades of experience demonstrated his all-around tenacity and commitment in previous roles.
#3: Seek help from a mentor
It’s common sense to seek career advice early-on or find a mentor when you’re fresh out of college or new on the job. But many seasoned workers don’t immediately consider seeking mentorship as part of their career transition strategy. Mentors can be an invaluable resource, as they can often help to identify gaps in experience, make connections, be a sounding board, and provide sage advice.
To find a mentor, first look at your own circle and think “who are people who can help me if I want to move into a new career?” Ideally, you can connect with someone in your target industry who knows what’s required and can help you identify transferable skills and make recommendations about which skills you may be lacking and have ideas for filling the gaps. Mentors can also provide valuable connections to others in the industry and help you find more people to add to your network. Reach out to these people, follow them on their social channels, read what they read, and try to learn what they already know.
#4 Network, network, network
We know that most roles are found through the network and referral process and not through recruiters and job postings. During the course of your career, you have most likely developed an extensive network. If you haven’t been actively engaging the people in your network, now’s the time to start reaching out. Start with the people you know best to get advice and direction about where to begin your journey. Expand your networks by asking if anyone knows someone in the industry you’re hoping to enter and ask for an introduction.
In general, people love to talk about themselves and what they do. Conduct informational interviews to find out what individuals love (and hate) about the work they’re doing. Their insights might help you determine if this is really the career change you want. In the course of those conversations, mention your interest in changing roles. You never know who might know of an opening at their company or at another company.
When networking, look beyond your LinkedIn connections. Attend industry events and talk to people at social gatherings. I once had a client who was walking her dog and stopped to talk to a neighbor. When she talked about her goal of changing careers, the neighbor mentioned an opening at his company and offered to show her resume around. The connection resulted in interviews.
#5: From dream to story
Once you have a plan, work on putting together your story and the unique value proposition you’ll present to organizations once you start actively seeking a new job. For many seasoned workers, your story might include enumerating the many contributions you’ve made at multiple companies, explaining a break in your career to care for children or elderly parents, or shifts in expertise as you have moved through your career. Think about your dream for a new career path in the context of your story, and then start mapping it together. By the way, your networks are a great testing ground for your story. Reach out to people you know and try it out on them to get their feedback.
Get to a place where you can sell yourself and your skillsets to recruiters in such a way that explains why you’re a strong hire. We always recommend job candidates tell “smart stories” that support the concept of transferable skills, which brings me to my next point….
It’s now HR’s role to keep an open mind
From the hiring manager’s perspective, seasoned employees going through a career transition might be just what your team needs. If an experienced worker approaches you and explains they have decades of experience, but limited experience in the role you’re hiring for, don’t just write them off. After all, dismissing candidates based on your own assumptions may mean losing the opportunity to add a mature, highly-skilled worker to your team. In general, I find that people who are choosing career changes tend to be individuals who are eager to find meaningful work, dedicated to doing a good job, willing to put in extra time and effort, and may bring a fresh perspective that those who are saturated in industry norms may not offer.
Individuals who are changing careers to follow a life-long passion often bring a level of energy and dedication that other employees may not possess. Mature workers have been around the block, so to speak, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and know when to ask for help. Their skills and diverse perspectives can turn out to be a significant asset to any team they join.
Workers are leaving the workforce later, and it’s important for all organizations to realize that not all paths to retirement look the same. All employees, regardless of background, skills on their resume, or age, have unique reasons for wanting to work for a company, whether it be community, passion for the work, new experiences, or something entirely different. The workforce continues to change and organizations hoping to stay competitive are shifting their thinking to understand the benefits of supporting mature workers on whatever creative or traditional paths to retirement they choose to follow.
Cathy Beluch is a RiseSmart Executive Career Coach. A graduate of Rutgers University, she holds a Certificate in Executive & Organizational Coaching from NYU SCPS, a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) Credential from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and is a longstanding member of the ICF and the Association for Talent Development (ATD).