Career transitions in later life

I am turning 40 years old this year, and the idea of having to work beyond the normal retirement age of 62 is becoming a reality for myself and my peers! According to the World Health Statistics report in 2017 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Singapore ranked third in the world for average life expectancy, just behind Japan and Switzerland. The average life expectancy in Singapore was 83.1 years. So we could all be living on average a good 20 years more after the current retirement age of 62. As long as we’re in good health, with a modest sustainable income source, and purpose & meaning in what we’ll be doing. People can be working into their 60s, 70s, even early 80s.

Many of my career coaching clients are in their 30s and 40s seeking career growth and development or mid-career transitions. Increasingly, I’m having clients who are in theirs 50s seeking for second careers or third careers. Recently, I worked with a Singaporean client in his mid-50s. And he was considering to relocate from Singapore to London with his wife and 2 sons in order to take up, in his own words, “a more challenging and exciting career in Artificial Intelligence”.

Executives in their late 40s, 50s and beyond, embarking on a “new” career path later in life are often seeking for more purposeful and meaningful work, perhaps after many years of feeling stuck or not as engaged anymore in certain corporate roles. There are some who are made redundant or being redeployed after organization restructuring or streamlining exercises. The challenges that they face could be:

  • Low confidence, self-esteem, feeling like an impostor – perhaps due to their seniority in terms of their age in the 50s, even 60s
  • Another one would be dealing with anxiety and insecurities. There could be financial or income worries, fear of failure or rejection for those who have been made redundant or redeployed
  • Some may be faced with the requirement to upskill in terms of embracing new technologies, new ways of working, creating connections and networks with younger generations in the workforce. In the first few months, this could mean a rather steep learning curve in picking new skills and new connections

Typically, I would work with the client with the following in mind:

First of all, I would focus on their confidence, self-esteem. Pointing out that with more than 20-30 years of work experience under their belt, age should potentially be their strength rather than weakness. I would encourage them to gather key insights and discuss their Strengths, Key Successes, Conscious/ unconscious values and motivations in their career journey thus far, before moving into the development areas, blind-spots that they may have in order to be successful in the new career.

Secondly, I would encourage them to explore their career narratives, their career story. Again with 20-30 years of experience under their belts, what are their Top 3-5 Core Skills and Competencies that would be beneficial to their new career path.

Thirdly, for people of all ages, not just for older executives, there is merit in clarifying the personal and organizational vision and objectives during the first few months of the career transition. And at the same time, having something like a First 90 days plan in the areas of success factors, key challenges, new identity and style, new approaches, forming new networks and connections, capabilities and upskilling.

Employers can do more:

The key objective of the employer must be for the hired employee, in this case the older executives to succeed in the role, deliver value and results for the company, and to have some longevity in the role.

The Onboarding process would be crucial , and this could be customized or tailored for different age groups– to alleviate some of the anxieties mentioned earlier on that are more associated with older executives. This could be a series of company onboarding workshops focussing on company culture, company structure, key success criteria, Skills training, and very importantly a buddy system or mentor system for the initial transition period.

Some companies developed “Returnship Programs” for people who are looking to restart their careers after an extended absence from the workforce. They offer guided period of exploration for the participant in various business functions, with an opportunity to sharpen their skills in a work environment that may be changing rapidly and significantly. This gives participants the ability to explore a new area of expertise and learn new skills. Perhaps some elements can be considered by employers looking for ways to help older executives into their new careers.

Some thoughts on retirement:

The so called Golden Age of our lives, the retirement age, is not only about money or financial income, and it shouldn’t be.

From adult-development theories describing different life stages. The child psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory of Life Cycle Transitions with the last stage being late adulthood for people in their 70s and 80s. The psychologist Daniel Levinson (Levinson, 1978) described “The Seasons of a Man’s Life” through alternating cycles of stability and transition. Another psychologist, Robert Kegan (Kegan, 1982) argued that meaning-making is a lifelong activity that begins in earliest infancy and continues to evolve through a series of stages encompassing childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

There can be many meaningful and purposeful activities for Late Adulthood and Retirement including:

  • Coming to terms with the person’s Dream, the desire to leave a legacy
  • Reconnecting with friends, colleagues from earlier life
  • Renewing relationships with their own children
  • Spending time and Developing relationship with grandchildren
  • Giving back to society, community in various ways
  • Looking after spouse, partner, dealing with aging, health matters

Amelia’s career transition journey

One year ago, Amelia left her high paying, high profile career as a Vice President and Business Division Head at a global pharmaceutical firm. The Senior Vice President whom she directly reported for the past 5 years retired, and an organizational reshuffle quickly followed. She founded it difficult working with the new senior management team, mostly hired externally. She was also increasingly seeking clarity on the purpose and meaning in her work and life. Besides, it felt like she needed a change in mid-life at age 45, after working continuously for 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry.

In the following months, Amelia started to make a list of options for her next career move, from concrete tangible ideas to general interests. In essence, she embarked on exploring a whole range of possible selves and sometimes “dreaded selves”.

During the career transition, Amelia’s experience of possible selves was varied in number and range, which is quite common. There were 2 conservative, traditional, respectable “Pharmaceutical Self” and “Biomedical General Manager Self” where she looked back to applying her 20-years of rich experience and skills as a senior executive in the global pharmaceutical industry “old self”. These were seemingly safer options, but she did feel rather bored and unmotivated to plunge into the same industry so soon again, working with the same people, same processes without much learning opportunities. She had an urge to try something else. There was a “Management Consulting Self” which persuaded her to apply for top-tier firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and get involved with large scale pharmaceutical industry consulting projects. However, upon closer examination, she was anxious with the long work hours, frequent business travel requirement, and the pressurized demand from global clients. There was a respectable “Academia Self” of studying for a Master’s or PhD degree in hope of becoming a lecturer or scientific researcher at a top university. However, she was unsure of the competition, faculty politics, administrative and research stress that might surface with a tenure-track environment. Lastly, there was an entrepreneurial “Portfolio Career Self” trying to combine her interest in Life Coaching, with Consulting and Community/Charity work, whilst balancing with more flexibility and time spent with her young children and family.

During the career transition journey, Amelia felt rather confused and struggled with the competing multiple possible selves. Some were seemingly safer, more traditional options, whilst others were lacking in detail and being more uncertain. Some were options imposed on her by social pressures from family, friends, and ex-colleagues on what she ought to be. Some were self-imposed on herself on what she thought she ought to be. Some excited her more than others. Whilst some looked more feasible, when others allowed more flexibility providing better work-life balance, bringing up a young family.

For now, after 12-months, it seems that Amelia’s focus is firmly on learning and testing more about the entrepreneurial “Portfolio Career Self”. Trying out more experiments to give form and order to this possible self in order to make it more tangible. This includes: pursuing a coaching certificate and starting up her own Life Coaching practice, starting up a small pharmaceutical business consulting practice, trying out academia work as an adjunct lecturer in business administration at a local university, putting herself forward for several non-profit community/charity projects. She is still unsure whether the new business and career path will be a success, but the most important thing is she remains curious, and can see herself pursuing this in the medium to long term. Most importantly, it “feels right” to Amelia embarking on this current career track.

*All personal identification details have been altered to maintain confidentiality.