How to Re-invent Your Career After Age 50

It’s estimated that more than one in four Americans are tapping into their retirement savings accounts such as 401(k)s to meet non-retirement needs, but such a strategy can mean it may require people to work longer, especially since company-provided pensions are now provided to only one-in-five workers.

That could explain why twice as many people in their late 50s and early 60s are starting a business or becoming freelancers compared to a year ago, finds a PeoplePerHour survey. Some 38% of respondents admit that while running their own show is a challenge, more than two-thirds report it wasn’t likely that they’d ever want to work for someone else again.

Nancy Collamer, author of “Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passion During Semi-Retirement,” recently discussed with Anita Bruzzese how older workers can best position themselves to launch new careers later in life.

AB: First, let’s begin with what you mean by a “second-act career.”

NC: A second-act career involves more than just landing a new job or shifting into a different industry. It refers to a distinct move into a new line of work, and for people in semi-retirement, it typically also implies a more flexible lifestyle.

AB: How do you decide what you want to do in these second-act careers? Does it have to be what you’ve always done in your professional life or can you start something completely new?

NC: By all means you can start something new! After all, if you don’t do it now, what are you waiting for? Just be aware that it can take considerable time, energy and expense to start anew (not to mention that it also can require a bit of an ego adjustment) so be realistic about your expectations.

All things being equal, it is always easiest to transition into a new career that is related in some way, shape or form to what you did before. For example, perhaps you enjoyed facilitating meetings – a skill that could be transferred over to working as a director for a non-profit. Or maybe you loved mentoring younger employees – an experience that could be a springboard into a second-act as an executive coach. Take the time to assess your background and then consider whether there isn’t some piece or part of your professional experience – no matter how seemingly insignificant – that  might be worth leveraging as a bridge into your next act.

AB: What are some common mistakes people make when deciding on a second-act career?

People often wait too long to get the reinvention process rolling. Don’t make that mistake. Start planning for your semi-retirement sooner rather than later to ensure that you have enough time – and the needed financial breathing room – to fully explore your range of possibilities.

There is also a tendency for people to play it a little too safe; they restrict themselves to choosing only from options that are closely linked to what they did before or from a limited pool of jobs that they deem to be the “next logical step.” It’s important to allow yourself the freedom to explore, research and test-out new options before making any final decisions about your future. Put aside a small amount of money each year to spend on classes, workshops and other opportunities to learn about and train for potential new career directions. It doesn’t need to be much, but once you earmark those funds, you’ll be more likely to invest in your ongoing education (and if you hesitate to spend the money on yourself, just think about what you spent on your kids’ piano and ice skating lessons over the years!) Adult education is a big business these days, and there are more opportunities than ever for people over 50 to indulge in lifelong learning.

AB: What do the people who find success doing this have in common? What are they doing right?

People who succeed share several traits in common. Most notable among the people I interviewed was their “can-do” attitude; they were willing to stretch outside their comfort zone, excited to explore new options and weren’t afraid to admit what they didn’t know.  This doesn’t mean that they weren’t scared. They were, but they chipped away at their fear in baby steps by taking classes, volunteering, temping and going to conferences. Of course, it takes money to do some of these things, but successful second-acters are willing to invest both time and money in their success. They also recognized that reinvention doesn’t happen in a vacuum so they made it a habit to get out of the house, join groups and surround themselves with supportive personalities.

AB:  Are job possibilities limited for those over age 50? Are there some things they shouldn’t try because success will be elusive?

It’s true that job possibilities can be somewhat limited for people over 50. Physically demanding jobs and jobs that require people to be on their feet (e.g., physical therapist or construction worker) can prove problematic as people age. Certain industries tend to favor younger people (beauty, entertainment, sports, etc.) and age discrimination can be a very real factor when people apply for jobs in those fields.

If your goal is to continue to work in a traditional job, you’ll want to seek out opportunities and industries where your years of experience, maturity and proven track record are perceived as a competitive advantage (healthcare, education and senior-care services are examples of senior-friendly fields). But keep in mind that most people in semi-retirement don’t necessarily want to continue to work in traditional 9-5 jobs, and for people who want to pursue freelance and entrepreneurial opportunities, age discrimination is less likely to be an issue.

Have you thought about a second-act career?

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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  • debrafeldman

    One benefit to those who count on a second-act career is the relief and freedom which stems from the assurance that you don’t have to complete your retirement savings and be stuck there forever. As human beings we are wired to prefer new beginnings to endings. Therefore, being able to anticipate the next chapter in a positive framework is way more attractive then looking forward to diminishing resources and opportunities.Many JobWhiz clients have taken a very narrow path to success. Now they are free to explore different careers that may not have the same obligations as their original choice. It’s refreshing for them and their families. Retirement from a primary career then transforms into an exciting chance rather than a deathly sentence. The key to success for each individual that I have helped has been finding solutions that embrace different rewards than what they sought in their pre-retirement life.

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  • Rod Severino

    This is a good article. It underscores the need to start on a parallel career (a hobby that make money, a business, a passive investment project) as early as possible. The balancing act is to ensure that your main career is not at all compromised in anyway, at all times

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