Samuel Greengard

Author / Journalist / Speaker

Presto Change-O

By Samuel Greengard, November & December 2006

It’s no easy trick to switch careers at 50-plus, but more and more workers are taking the leap and starting over at jobs they love 

A few years ago, when Henry Stewart found himself grinding out a seemingly endless stream of marketing strategies and press releases for corporate clients, the then 54-year-old owner of a public relations firm knew he had to make a career change. “I wasn’t having any fun,” says the Fort Worth, Texas, resident.

While Henry’s interest in PR had begun to cool, his enthusiasm for food and cooking had been heating up. He would prepare elaborate meals for friends and fantasize about becoming a chef—though he had always kept the idea on the back burner. The time had come, he decided, to move it front and center. “I realized that I had to pursue the change or it would never happen,” he says. So, with his wife’s blessing, he shuttered his firm and plunked down $20,000 to attend the Culinary Institute Alain & Marie LeNôtre in Houston. After an intensive 30-week program, Henry, by virtue of graduating number one in his class, landed an almost four-month internship at a renowned restaurant in the Alsace region of France. When he returned to the United States, the Marriott Renaissance Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth snapped him up as a line chef for its popular restaurant, Kalamatas.

Today, Henry works long hours in the restaurant kitchen and copes with the demands of preparing masterly meals for discerning palates. He spends weekends and holidays hovering over rack of lamb and capellini primavera. Yet he’s happier than ever. “I am betting the rest of my life on this. I’m doing what I always wanted to do,” he says. “My only regret is that I didn’t make the change years ago.”

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Like Henry Stewart, an increasing number of older workers are discovering that a midlife career change can pay big rewards. According to a 2005 study conducted by Merrill Lynch, 76 percent of baby boomers intend to “retire” and keep right on working and earning—most after launching a new career. “In many cases longer life spans and extended work spans translate into multiple careers,” observes Jeri Sedlar, coauthor of Don’t Retire, Rewire! (Alpha, 2002). “Many people are reaching their 50s and realizing that a career change can bring a great deal of happiness and fulfillment.”

For some, burnout from an existing job or the desire to face new challenges drives the change. For others, it’s about connecting to longtime interests or a soul-satisfying passion. Still others have change thrust upon them—they are fired, downsized, or get out while the getting’s good by accepting a buyout package. But what all these folks share is a desire to rethink their options.

“Many people in their 50s want to make a difference and feel as though they’re not just passing through life,” explains Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank that focuses on social service and aging, and author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America (PublicAffairs, 2000). “They want to put the productive years they have remaining to good use.”

It’s an impulse many of us feel, according to the 2005 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures New Face of Work Survey. That study found 57 percent of Americans between ages 50 and 70 say they want a job that gives them a greater sense of purpose, while half want jobs that contribute to the greater good, now and in retirement. Says Freedman: “We’re seeing these numbers already translate into a trend, with older workers voluntarily recareering into high-impact professions such as teaching, nursing, and working in social service organizations.” 

Rebecca Armstrong represents this emerging mindset. The 55-year-old resident of Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Oberlin College with a music degree but later earned a degree in architecture at The Cooper Union so she could “pay the rent.” Married and raising two children, she worked at various architectural firms for more than two decades. Over the past few years, however, her interests shifted. “I wanted to do something that mattered in the moment,” she says. “Architecture has an impact on people’s lives, but I wanted a direct connection.”

As a child Rebecca had dreamed about becoming a doctor, and in her mid-20s she had pondered attending medical school. But at the time, she says, “I thought I was too old, which only proves that I was too young and immature.” This time around, Rebecca knew that medical school would, indeed, take too long. So she decided to become a nurse practitioner specializing in neonatal intensive care. In May 2006 she entered a combined bachelor’s and master’s program at Columbia University. Rebecca will begin working in a neonatal ICU in the summer of 2007 and will have her master’s degree in about three years.

“A lot of people have said, ‘You’re really brave.’ But I don’t feel brave. I feel like I am doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” she remarks. “I have an incredible level of confidence about the situation. Things have never felt so right.” Rebecca, who financed the career change using equity in her family’s apartment, is spending more than $100,000 to attend Columbia. “This change isn’t about making more money. It will take me until about 2011 to get back to my income level as an architect,” she says. 

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Rebecca Armstrong’s approach to finding a new career—connecting to dreams, desires, and youthful aspirations—is one Sedlar has seen work for hundreds of people. Frequently, the answers to today’s questions (What sort of work would make me happy? What else am I good at?) lie in the past.

But be sure to look before you leap: it’s crucial to recognize when the itch to switch results more from a negative factor, such as a bad job or a stressful work environment, than from the urge for greater fulfillment. “Changing a career at age 50 or older isn’t something that should be taken lightly or acted on impulsively,” says Sedlar.

Nor do good intentions or a heartfelt connection to a new career prevent the personal turmoil that can come with making a major life change. Henry Stewart needed nearly four months of career counseling to find his focus and feel comfortable with his course of action. “It took a lot of introspection and self-evaluation,” he says.

Money considerations also inevitably intrude. Family and friends may scratch their heads in disbelief and wonder what kind of midlife crisis would prompt a 54- or 64-year-old to scrap an established career for the chance to grab onto the bottom rung of another job ladder. Henry, for instance, earns only eight dollars an hour at the Renaissance Worthington—though he expects to get a raise with his first evaluation.

“Taking a cut in salary at 50 is vastly different than taking a cut at 30,” says Mike Sullivan, director of education at Take Charge America, a Phoenix not-for-profit agency that offers financial-planning and counseling services.

Another concern is discrimination—from subtle to blatant. Many younger managers believe older workers lack the energy, creativity, and knowledge to perform well. In fact, a study conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston University found that younger job seekers are 40 percent more likely to get called back for an interview than those 50 or older. Such numbers make it abundantly clear that older workers must prepare for a change and accept that they might enter a new career with lower status and less respect.

“It’s essential to overcome a perception that young people can learn faster and work harder,” Sullivan says. This means developing a bulletproof résumé, brushing up on dormant interviewing skills, and emphasizing the advantages that come with experience, such as accumulated knowledge, reliability, and stability.

Trumping all these concerns, though, is the need for support from family members and friends. An announcement of a career change can elicit anything from joyous approval to outright shock and resentment. Sedlar recalls the case of one man, an investment banker, who left Wall Street to become a minister. Not long after, his wife divorced him. “Her explanation was ‘I married an investment banker, and that’s what I want.’”

On the other hand, starting a new career can become a joint venture that brings a couple closer together. Four years ago, when Milwaukee residents Marion and Jim Hook began looking for something that would allow them to step out of the daily nine-to-five work world, they spent a good deal of time pondering their interests and goals. She had worked with the U.S. State Department and as a consultant for nonprofit organizations. He had carved out a successful career in sales for Keane, an information-technology-services firm.

They knew they wanted to do work that was “people-oriented and fun,” and they wanted to work for themselves. So in 2003 the Hooks, then both 55, purchased the Adobe Rose, a six-room bed-and-breakfast nestled in the historic Sam Hughes neighborhood of central Tucson, Arizona, investing more than half a million dollars of their savings, including a portion of their 401(k) accounts.

The Hooks’ gamble has paid off nicely. Running the B&B fulfilled “a desire to entertain people and engage in interesting discussions,” Jim says. For Marion it was about spending time in the kitchen and preparing meals for guests. “Cooking has been a passion since I was 12 years old,” she explains. “Some of our friends thought we were absolutely insane, but we are having a marvelously good time and making ends meet. There was a risk associated with buying the inn, but there was also a risk associated with staying in the business world, where there’s no job security and no assurance of happiness,” she adds.

Clearly, for those 50-plus workers who have made the leap successfully, the reward of career change is personal satisfaction. “It’s not about socioeconomic status; it’s not about age. It’s about living your life to the fullest,” observes Helen Harkness, founder of Career Design Associates, in Garland, Texas, and author ofCapitalizing on Career Chaos: Bringing Creativity and Purpose to Your Work and Life (Davies-Black Publishing, 2005).

But switching careers doesn’t always require a dramatic overhaul of one’s life. Sometimes those looking for a change simply shift existing talents to a different, more rewarding purpose. Consider Joyce Roché, 59, who was president and COO of hair-care company Carson Products in Savannah, Georgia, and had been ranked by Black Enterprise magazine as one of the 40 most powerful black executives in America, when she decided in 2000 that her business skills could be used to make a greater impact in the nonprofit sector. “I wanted to do something more meaningful, and make a difference,” she recalls.

Joyce had already been volunteering at a local church and for the American Diabetes Association, but she yearned for more involvement. When she heard about an opening for president of Girls Inc., the civic and educational organization known until 1990 as Girls Clubs of America, she applied and quickly landed the job—at 25 percent less pay. Now she’s using the same talents that won her kudos in the for-profit world to help grow Girls Inc. And, she says, the rewards are tangible. “I used to go on vacation to feel re-energized and rejuvenated. Now I feel that way every day. When I interact with the girls, I can see and feel the positive impact I’m having.”

Finally, there are those who find themselves blind-sided by the workplace—downsizing, layoffs, buyouts—and must adapt on the fly. They can view the situation as a setback or an opportunity. Linda Reardon, for instance, worked in the information-technology department at Birmingham, Alabama-based SouthTrust Bank for 14 years. When SouthTrust merged with Wachovia Bank in 2004 and Linda, then age 56, was given notice, she wasn’t ready to pack it in and call it a career. “I wanted to stay active and involved and do something I really loved,” she says. She immediately set out to turn a lemon into lemonade.

Sewing had always been a part of Linda’s life. As a young girl, she started out on her grandmother’s sewing machine, then competed as a member of the local 4H Club. Later she married, had children, and began to stitch clothes for the family. Yet over the years, sewing was never more than a hobby. After leaving the bank with a bonus for “staying until the bitter end,” she purchased a $20,000 sewing machine and set up shop as Letters by Linda, embroidering jackets, caps, and other items for local firms. “I feel like I am putting my talents to work and having a lot of fun,” she says.

Of course, there are no sure bets. Shifting jobs is fraught with risk and the possibility that a new career won’t pan out. Linda is prepared for that possibility. Last year she earned a Project Management Professional (PMP) credential from the Project Management Institute. It could help her land an executive position with another employer if her business fails. “The backup plan is in place,” she says.

In other words, she’s ready for yet another bold leap into a new career.

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