You’ve reached the milestone age of 50, and you’re finally clear on what you want to do for the rest of your life—and it’s not what you’ve spent the last few decades of your career doing.
There are plenty of different reasons you might be planning to work beyond retirement age. Maybe you need financial stability to take care of your family or you simply aren’t ready to retire, even if you have the means to do so. And perhaps you can’t imagine staying in your current position without your happiness taking a significant hit. As a result, you might consider making a career change to ensure you can work for the next 15, 20, or even 30 years in a position you find fulfilling.
Erin Owen, executive coach and creator of the Executive Career Reinvention methodology, shares that the clients she works with in their 50s are often seeking greater meaning and impact in their careers. “As part of normal adult development at this age, and a more spiritually-minded view of the world, it is common for adults in their 50s to want to be engaged in more meaningful work with other people,” she says. In her experience, they want to “shift their focus to managing and mentoring people or doing other work that aligns with their heart’s desires and passions so they can have a positive impact on their community and the world at large.”
So some choose to make a career change after 50 because they don’t want to waste another minute in a position that doesn’t align with their purpose or passions. For others, the goal is a more flexible schedule that will allow them to spend more time with their families or find time to enjoy life.
Whatever it is that makes you decide to change careers after 50, it’s definitely not too late for you to do so. But you might be flooded with questions and fears about the challenges ahead—and you’re not alone.
Challenges Facing Career Changers Over 50
Making a career change can be daunting at any age, but the feeling can be particularly pronounced for those over 50. “My clients often struggle with self-doubt, even though they have been so successful in their careers. How could they possibly make a change at their age? Who would hire them?” Owen says. “The confidence they experienced in the work they have known so well disappears when they begin to think about doing something different.”
It’s true that there are extra challenges you face at your age. Any way you slice it, it’s undeniable that ageism is very real and alive in the workforce. A 2018 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report indicated that six out of 10 older workers had been subjected to or witnessed age discrimination in the workplace, and 90% of those workers said it was common.
The discrimination and bias against workers currently employed also spills over to older workers who are interviewing—especially if it’s for a type of role they haven’t held before. Career changers over 50 deal with “overcoming bias, microinequities, and microaggressions as a result of [their] appearance [and a] perception of having low energy levels and learning agility,” says Lillian Davenport, SHRM Senior Certified HR Professional and principal at EndView Solutions, LLC, a Houston-based leadership development coaching, consulting, and training practice. They’re combatting “the preconceived conclusion that an older worker will be slower to learn and lack relevance when it comes to being current on technology and contemporary concepts.”
When you’re over 50, you also face the possibility of being challenged or not supported by family or friends who don’t understand why you would make a career change at this point in your life. Plus, you might have financial responsibilities (house payments, for example, or children in college) that require calculated risk-taking.
The more proactive and prepared you are to make the change, the easier it will be to transition and land a new position. Here are seven things to consider that can make a career change after 50 a little easier.
1. Clarify Your Goals
If you’re seriously considering a career change, take a moment to do an honest self-assessment. This step will help you to clarify whether a career change is the right move—or if you’re actually seeking some other kind of life change.
“The single most important thing to consider and focus on is clarity around what you’re seeking to do,” says Suzanne O’Brien, a career advancement coach and creator of the online course “Career Confidence.” Otherwise, it’s difficult to develop a game plan to move forward and successfully change careers.
Ask yourself the following questions, and answer them thoughtfully.
- Why do you want to make a career change?
- What are your career goals from this point forward?
- What are your life goals from this point forward?
- How can your career and life goals align?
- Are you fully willing to put in the time, effort, and patience to change careers and get up to speed in a new role or industry?
It’s also important to outline your specific goals:
- What does your ideal career look like?
- What job title and duties are you after?
- What industry do you see yourself getting into?
2. Identify Your Transferable Skills
As part of your self-assessment, get clear on what relevant experience and transferable skills you’d bring to your target role. Transferable skills include both hard and soft skills. For hard skills, consider the technical skills and abilities needed for the job. What training and education do you have that aligns with the job requirements? Soft skills—the skills that help you effectively work with others—are highly valued by employers and very transferable between positions. What soft skills do you already possess that will lend to your success in your target position?
You might even find that your career change doesn’t require you to switch directions as drastically as you think. For example, if you’re interested in transitioning from sales into marketing because that’s what makes your heart sing, it’ll help that you’ve probably already been doing some marketing in your sales job.
“Many professionals seeking a career change are actually looking for more of what I call a career ‘veer,’ something close to what they’re already doing with a new angle,” O’Brien says. “It’s important to get incredibly clear on this point, because if you’re seeking a career veer, chances are you bring a lot more experience to the table than you or others might initially think.”
3. Fill in the Gaps
When considering a career change, remember that you’re in the driver’s seat. To ensure success, plan ahead and take proactive steps to support the process.
Identify gaps from where you are to where you want to go—and then work to close them. If you lack in necessary technical skills, for example, find a class or online course. If you’re not sure if you’d like the new direction or industry you’re considering or lack on-the-job experience, offer to do some volunteer work, take on a side project, or seek an apprenticeship where you can test it out and gain experience.
For example, if you’re currently an accounting manager for a nonprofit and you would like to change careers to become an HR training and development guru for a private firm, you could seek out a side project opportunity to develop a training program for your current organization. Or you could offer to volunteer and shadow a training and development professional at a local HR firm.
Other options taken by older career changers Davenport has worked with: taking on a stretch project in their current position, networking to get an inside perspective and prepare accordingly to land a position, and partnering with someone from a different generation to learn about current technology, trends, and approaches.
4. Hire a Career Specialist
Making a career change after 50 requires clarity, focus, patience, and courage. Consider working with a career specialist to support you in moving through any challenges you might face—from the initial stages of considering a career change through to landing your desired job.
Career specialists—including career coaches, career counselors, recruiting specialists, and human resources representatives—can support you in assessing your current goals, keep you on the right track, make sure you’re thoroughly evaluating your skills and relevant experience, and help you close any possible gaps and overcome challenges as you navigate the career change process. A career specialist can also help you develop your personal brand, coach you through the job application and interview process, and provide moral support.
5. Update Your Resume
Surprised to see this tip so far down on the list? “A huge mistake I see the over-50 set make is not having clarity about what they want to be...before they spend the time and money to update their personally branded job search marketing materials,” Owen says.
Once you have clarity in the types of positions you’re going for, you’re ready to update your resume or create a new one. The first thing you’ll want to do is tailor it to match the industry and types of roles you’re now interested in. Incorporate the transferable and relevant skills that support your career change. Utilize action verbs to highlight your accomplishments, and incorporate keywords from the job description into your resume, as well.
Many resume suggestions that focus on combating ageism suggest you leave off details that reveal your age, but remember that an outdated resume, even if it doesn’t mention what year you graduated from college, could also show your age. So make sure your resume represents current resume trends: Use a modern resume template, many of which you can find for free or for a relatively low-cost online. Optimize your resume so that it can be read by an ATS (applicant tracking system) and then impress a human, too. Ditch skills that would be considered antiquated, such as paper filing. Finally, leave off the outdated objective statement, and instead add a summary at the top to support your career change by succinctly explaining how your relevant skills and expertise make you an excellent candidate for the role.
General resume guidance often suggests that you leave off experience that goes back further than 10 years. However, if you’re making a career change after 50, then you’ll want to use discretion as to what to include and what to leave off. For example, if you have work experience from 15 years ago that’s highly relevant to the new career you’re pursuing, you might choose to include it.
You also want to be careful not to appear to be an entry-level candidate with little work experience in any field. “Instead of positioning yourself as a marketer with three years of experience, consider positioning yourself as an executive with 25 years of experience and a flair for marketing and business strategy,” O’Brien says. “That unique combination may get you a great role working at a much higher level, and earning a better salary.” Once you walk into that interview room, you can’t hide who you are, nor should you try to. Instead, choose to see your wisdom and experience as an asset, and trust that the companies that you would like to work for will, too.
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6. Tap into Your Network
From the moment you realize you want to make a career change, begin reaching out to your current network to share your goals. You never know who in your network might know of opportunities or people you should connect with.
You don’t want to reach out to people to simply ask them for a job. But it’s definitely OK to ask folks you know to keep an eye out for opportunities that might be a fit for you. Or maybe there’s someone they might be able to introduce you to who can help you find a way into the industry or organization of interest.
It also never hurts to seek guidance from anyone in your network who might already be working in your target role or industry. (Remember that you can reach out for an informational interview no matter what your age or theirs.) Make sure your LinkedIn profile is current and highlights your transferable skills, as well, in case the folks you reach out to decide to look you up.
“Don’t just add connections,” says Angelique Hamilton, CEO and Founder of Florida-based HR Chique Group. “Make your connections purposeful and intentional. Your community will be your greatest support system as you navigate through the change.”
7. Be Ready to Tell Your Story
Why are you making a career change? This is the question your network, recruiters, and hiring managers will undoubtedly want you to answer. You don’t need to tell your whole life story. Instead, be brief, positive, and to the point when answering the question for your networking contacts, in your cover letter, and during your interview.
Your cover letter is a great tool to explain why you’re changing careers and make the case that you would be a great hire. If you’re looking to transition careers from a finance manager to a leadership and development manager, for example, you might incorporate something similar to the following into your cover letter:
I have worked for more than a decade as a finance manager. At Company X, I led a team of 10 employees to serve our clients and meet the organization’s financial goals, consistently exceeding expectations. I also developed four budgeting courses for managers and supervisors and developed the training program curriculum for our tax accountants and finance department new hires.
Recently, I've been seeking an opportunity that draws on my professional experience and focuses on my passion for training and development. I would be eager to bring my lifelong dedication to training, motivating, and empowering employees to support your organization as Training and Development Director.
You’ll almost certainly have the opportunity to reiterate why you’re making a career change during your interview. Stick with being positive and brief and give just enough information to highlight why you’re making a change. So you might say: “I have years of experience successfully leading teams as a finance manager, and what I’ve enjoyed the most are the opportunities I’ve had to train and develop employees of all levels. I’m passionate about supporting others in meeting their professional development goals, and I want the rest of my career to be focused in that arena.”
Leave it up to the interviewer to delve deeper with follow-up questions if he or she feels the need to do so. (This type of response is also perfect for your networking contacts in person and in writing.)
It can take a few months just to prepare to make a career change. Once you’re ready to go, it can easily take another six to 12 (or more) months to identify a good fit and land a job in a competitive market. And regardless of your age, the job search process comes with ups and downs. So be kind to yourself as you navigate this exciting phase of your life. With perseverance, it is absolutely possible for you to succeed.