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Five things no-one ever told you about a mid-life career change

Angus Cameron 11th January 2021

I am of that generation (just) that assumed they’d have fairly simple career path.  A directionless school career followed by a less than vocational degree, a few short-term jobs and a slew of post-graduate degrees finally landed me in a university lectureship.  And that was going to be it, as I thought, until retirement.  A few changes within the role were expected, but nothing dramatic.  Like many of my generation that now seems like a distant pipe-dream.  Even if it had existed, with hindsight is that really what I wanted?

Whether it was or not, like many people I have now been through the mid-life career change.  What did they not tell me?

Well, before we get to the big five, its important to realise that there is no ‘they’.  Career planning and advice is usually something we focus on the (relatively) young and even then handle within organisations or professions.  In fact there’s precious little even for those people, so if like me you are ‘mid-life’ (a loose period that seems to start in your forties and end with ‘not dead yet’) you can expect….nothing.  But if there had been a they, what would they have failed to tell us?

1 – It’s nowhere near as hard as you think.

We invest so much time and effort building our identities around work, that the prospect of shifting after a long time in one role (19 years in my case) ought to be terrifying.  But its not.  It is amazing how quickly the habits of industries and organisations simply fall away.  Goals, activities, structures, and processes that seemed so important for so long, simply evaporate.  And as many of those things were the sources of stress and anxiety, getting rid of them can be a positive benefit.  (Anyone familiar with the UK Higher Education industry will appreciate just what a delight it has been to get rid of REF alone!).  Change is far more liberating than it is constraining.  Embrace it.

2 – You are wise.

Coming into a new industry where everyone knows the jargon and seems to know exactly what they are doing is intimidating.  Us ‘mid-lifers’ tend to move into fairly senior positions in our new worlds.  This means that normal background levels of impostor syndrome are boosted off the scale.  When you really are an impostor, people are only too happy to let you know.  But that’s only the first couple of weeks.  What quickly becomes apparent is that no-one really knows what they’re doing.  Most of the clever and authoritative-sounding confidence you’ll encounter is defensive bluster.  How do you know this? Because for all that you’re in a new industry, organisation and/or role, people are people and problems are problems.  And as you’re ‘mid-life’ you’ve been dealing with these last two a lot longer than most.  You know stuff.  Value it. 

3 – It takes time.

If you were in your previous role for many years, you’ve almost certainly forgotten just how long it took to get started.  Taking that time is expected of younger people – they’re starting out, they have to learn the ropes, they make mistakes, and all that is tolerated.  Indeed, we quite rightly give people new into roles lighter workloads, structured goals, targeted training and the rest to ease their way.  Mid-lifers don’t usually get all that.  And before you think I’m feeling sorry for us, most don’t want it.  We learn differently precisely because of the experience we bring.  Adapting to a new career is like building a complex three-dimensional jigsaw.  You have skills, knowledge and experience.  Your new employer appointed you because of those skills, that knowledge and all that experience.  But, what they see and what you know are not the same things.  And so ensues a careful process of identifying the corners and edges of your personality and their role as you both try to figure out what fits where to build a complete image of the new you.  Just to complicate things, unlike a real jigsaw, there is no picture on the box – you have work it out as you go.  Curiously this seems also the case if you’ve taken the leap to self-employment or setting up your own business – you still have to reinvent yourself.  Either way, you’ll need to invest time in adaptation and – this can be tricky – so will your new employer.  It does not happen overnight, however wise you are.

4 – It takes energy.

Change is exhausting  Even if it is exhilarating, rewarding and positive, it is not a normal state of being.  So even if you’re having fun (or think you are) make sure you pace yourself.  I say this not as some ageist comment on us mid-lifers – we’re not done yet!  Rather, like many adult learners we tend to overinvest in aspects of our new roles that may not be the best use of our time.  This is partly because we’re used to knowing what we’re doing – that’s the whole point of all that experience.  But important as that is in giving us the raw materials for our new professional selves, we still have to actively and reflexively adapt.  And that means that even quite routine tasks take more time, thought and consideration as you bed in.  And if you’re having to do all that in order to fulfil a full-time role without looking like an idiot, that means you’re often working harder than you realise.  Again, not self-pity, we’re doing this for a reason.  But be strategic about expenditure of energy: focus it on the stuff that helps you and your new colleagues.

5 – You’re not alone.

All that wisdom and experience mean that you can move effortlessly into your new role without being reliant on others.  You can cope.  You are resilient by definition.  You don’t need anyone else to show you what to do……

All this is, of course, rubbish.  Unfortunately it is rubbish usually imposed upon us by ourselves.  We demand of ourselves a degree of autonomy and capability that, even if it were possible, is almost certainly undesirable.  And I hate to say this, but it is those mid-lifers of the male persuasion that are usually most guilty of this.  All I can say is, get over (y)ourselves. 

The days of heroic-individualism are, or should be, long gone.  The idea of the uber-capable, senior type waltzing into a new industry or organisation and being able to manage it (and themselves) perfectly from day one without help is a nonsense, and a dangerous nonsense at that.  It is dangerous for the individual because the stresses and strains of taking on such roles are huge.  This can be exhilarating and inspiring, but also carries significant risks to mental and physical wellbeing.  It is  a dangerous to the organisation, partly because the individual is taking daft risks (usually in the name of professional ‘pride’), but because it carries with it a frankly toxic attitude.  No organisation needs it: don’t be the one to carry it.

Because you’re not alone: you need your new colleagues and – and this is the bit ‘they’ never tell anyone – they need you.  They need you to be part of their journey, to add to the sum total of their success and to share in it.  All that wisdom and experience needs to be shared.  Don’t keep it to yourself – it is your gift to your new colleagues.

One other thing.  Whatever ‘they’ did or did not tell you, the career change doesn’t end.  You don’t go through it past some invisible threshold and just settle into a new long-term routine.  The change is continuous and exciting: you’ll get a taste for it.  Not only will your ‘mid-life’ change be ongoing, it almost certainly won’t be your last.

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