A mid-life career change is as good as a rest

The writer is the author of ‘Extra Time: 10 Lessons for Living Longer Better’

This year, a Christmas card arrived from an old friend telling us she’s had a bit-part on TV. Formerly a teacher, she enrolled in drama school in her fifties, which didn’t augur well. Her parents had warned her against taking such a big risk when she was starting out. But after her mother died and left her a small legacy she took the leap — watching her on stage, you’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

I’ve interviewed lots of people who’ve made career shifts in mid-life. The lucky ones talk with a sparkle that makes them seem younger. They achieve, often for the first time, the happiness that comes from what the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called a “flow state”: being completely absorbed in the task. When you’re in flow, nothing else seems to matter. And you don’t have to be an artist to feel it. One friend migrated from journalist to mindfulness instructor after taking up meditation as a sideline; another has enrolled on a plumbing course. At this year’s FT Weekend Festival, I met Ana Baillie, who is studying to be a midwife after 23 years as a lawyer with blue-chip firms. She had realised she might be only halfway through a long life, so why not switch to using a different part of her brain?

This sense of having extra time to play with can be very empowering. I have met people in their forties and fifties committing to years of training: in psychology, teaching, even medicine. They clearly expect a return on their investment by working into their seventies.

Naturally this is an elite group, buffered by professional earnings and/or supportive spouses. But they may be bellwethers. The Great Resignation of the pandemic removed many over-50s from the workforce, to general alarm. But we are only just beginning to map the Great Reshuffle, which saw workers of all ages job-hop, upskill, or return. In the UK and US, self-employment is on the rise again, with almost a million Britons aged 55-64, and almost half a million over 65, in that category. 

Labour shortages should make this an ideal time for older workers. Sadly, many employers remain wary. A report by the OECD and the non-profit Generation, based on interviews with hiring managers in eight countries, finds that older workers value experience more than recruiters, who are more interested in adaptability. It’s depressing to think that deep wells of wisdom are so readily dismissed. But the message is clear: show evidence of upskilling and tech nous.

That’s if you know what you want to do next. While younger generations have more varied careers, there are still 50-somethings who have worked in one sector and can find it hard to envisage an alternative. The standard advice to “talk to your network” can just reinforce their current identity. Those at senior levels may also suffer from an addiction to status, which can make a transition terrifying. Jan Hall and Jon Stokes, in their book Changing Gear, advise such people to try and remember what used to feel fun, to experiment.

The universal advice is to think ahead. Catherine Sermon, of the Careers Can Change campaign, says that adopting “small habits” can help de-risk a potential career shift: research what the fantasy job really requires, and ask people in that field if they’d be willing to have a cup of tea — “but think beforehand what help you want”. One of the campaign’s stars is Benvon Crumpler, a former BBC executive, who left broadcasting at the age of 50. She was pleasantly surprised by how willing strangers were to give advice. A programme called Brave Starts, which offers careers guidance to the over-45s, reminded her that she had “a ton of transferable skills”. She is now the chief operating officer of a digital recruitment business.

It can be hard to shake off the idea that mid-life marks the narrowing of options and the onset of decline, mapped in David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald’s famous U-shaped curve of self-reported life satisfaction, which slopes down from our twenties and bottoms out in our forties. But it does rise again. And indeed the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who coined the phrase “midlife crisis” in 1965, wrote some of his most original ideas in his seventies and set up an educational and research institute in his eighties.

I am a strong believer in telling stories like that, which make change seem possible. That seems more useful than some of Dr Google’s advice. It’s all very well being told to “use your superpowers” when you haven’t the faintest idea what they are, or to “live your best life” when you are trapped in the real world by financial commitments.

Few people have the luxury of becoming a gardener or going into interior design. Only 15 per cent of Britons aged 45-54 have received careers advice in the past three years, compared to two-thirds of those aged 16-24. But while school pupils need all the help they can get, it can be equally bewildering to know what’s out there at 50. The very fact that some pioneers are retraining as teachers and psychologists — which society badly needs more of — should be a signal that mid-career learners should be everywhere, not something to be remarked upon. 

For many, the biggest barrier to change is ourselves. Busy people are afraid of stillness. High achievers are afraid of fumbling. My actor friend had to overcome a lifetime of warnings about the perils of theatre to achieve her dream. I recently met a man who had lost his job and whose interim plan had failed. He was lucky enough to be solvent, but he couldn’t bear to have nothing to report. “Say you’re writing a book,” I said. And who knows, maybe he will.


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