How to Opt Back In: Starting Your Career Later in Life
At a summer picnic, my mom and her friend started discussing their career history and their hopes for the future business they would like to launch. Both women initially worked but opted to stay home when they had children. Now, with the kids grown up, they’ve found themselves at a crossroads: They want to work again, and they have great ideas for startups, but they aren’t quite sure how to begin.
I have heard similar discussions all over the world from women ready to start something after their kids grow up, whether it be a noodle stand or a textile company or a food business. Many women of my mom’s generation (the Baby Boomers) are ready to “opt in” and transition to a career or business after having kids, but many women I talk to are too intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect. Even women with amazing skills face this challenge: My Aunty in India, for example, is a world-class artist and sells many pieces, but won’t hold an exhibition of her work because she feels like she isn’t good enough.
But the truth is, it’s never too late to get started pursuing something you’re excited about. So, to anyone who has ever thought about jumping back in the game, but isn’t sure where to start, here are some basic—but important—things to remember.
Your Skills Are Valuable
I am always surprised by the number of women around the world who say, “I have no skills and no degree—who is going to hire me or take my business seriously?” And I want to say, “Hey ladies! Not only are you skilled in management, delegation, accounting, and a host of other skills, but if that work you did in the home for years was monetized, you’d probably be getting a pretty hefty salary.”
Still, many women I talk to don’t believe me. Around most of the world, work in the home is still perceived as women’s work (though there are definite exceptions to the rule, such as in Scandinavia), but just because this dated perception exists, doesn’t mean the skills you have garnered don’t mean anything. In fact, all of the experiences you gained as a parent are extremely valuable and practical, and you should own that. Raising kids, not only are you an executive team member, running the people in your house, but you are a project manager, development director (think fundraising for your kids’ baseball team), and a host of other titles based on your daily routine.
To ensure your skills are recognized, its so important to have family members or close friends surrounding you who can encourage you and remind you of the skills you bring to the table. You can also look to social media groups and blogs for inspiration and support.
Careers Aren’t One Track Anymore
“We didn’t have careers—we had jobs,” is something the ladies of my mom’s generation often say. And I think that’s the reason many women are scared to get started on a new career path—they looked at their early career as a “job” or “series of jobs,” and don’t think they can get started on a “career.”
But the truth is, a career doesn’t mean working in an office for 25 years and retiring with a fat pension anymore. Careers are often about gaining experience in what you love, even if that means that your proverbial career ladder is a zig zag or game of leap frog. And this isn’t being distracted or not knowing your path—this is about finding out your expertise and passion.
So, remember that you don’t have to start at the bottom if you haven’t been working for a while. Your previous jobs—no matter what they were—as well as all of the non-work experiences you’ve gained over the years, can be part of your “career” path.
It’s OK to Fail
When my mom and aunt rent out spaces for their artisan jewelry businesses, sometimes they do really well, and sometimes they don’t. At first, that was hard for them, but they quickly learned to move past those bumps in the road. Just because one show doesn’t work out, doesn’t mean they should get discouraged or give up—if anything, they should keep pushing forward and branching out to new locations to see what works and what doesn’t.
Yes, stepping out with your business idea or work into the world can be daunting, but don’t let that stop you: Launch that food business, open up that Etsy shop, take on some freelance clients, or go for that interesting job. For one, you will learn from the experience whether it’s positive or negative. Plus, without taking the risk, you won’t know what you can really do. If the Millennial generation can teach Baby Boomers anything, it’s that mistakes will be made, and sometimes failure happens—but that’s OK. Don’t let that intimidate you, because it’s just part of the process.
Your Career Doesn’t Have to Take Over Your Life
One thing that many women starting a new business or career path forget, especially if they have been taking care of families for years, is that it’s OK to take time out for themselves. In fact, it’s critical to take time out from your daily routine to create your business plan or focus on your strategy for entering the workforce. I know a lot of moms would see this as impossible, but really, this is the first step in making your dream a reality.
Start building chunks of time in your schedule for you to focus and work on your next steps, even if that means you order take-out a couple nights a week. It might feel different than the routine you’ve had for so many years, but that’s a good thing. It’s your time to grow and cultivate your idea and make it work.
As I travel, I talk to a lot of women who share the same challenge—they want to launch a business or start a career later in life, but simply don’t know how to take the first step. But times have changed, and we don’t have to hold on to those same ideologies that once limited women who decided to stay home. I encourage women who are excited about starting something new to take the leap, and create a new career that suits you.
Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.