To successfully manifest your future career, you have to be strategic, proactive, and more intentional than when you were younger. The deck is stacked against older workers, so here’s how to up your career development game and work the way you want to work in your second act.
Don’t buy into the idea that you’re “done” if you’re over 50 or over 60. Stop resigning yourself to the consolation prize of a “retirement job” (which sounds like a placeholder for something to pass the time until you die). Check out the following philosophy and the playbook for creating a sustainable and successful future career.
No, you are not too old to pursue a “career” vs simply getting a job. You have another 20 or 30 viable years ahead of you. That is plenty of time to build a new expertise, or to double down on the most rewarding and stimulating facets of your past career.
Why Career Design?
Your future career is not an inevitable outcome and unraveling of good or bad decisions that you made 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
By looking at this as a design process, you can systematically break down and master the career development process. You can make a plan and adopt a series of principles that will create the career that you want. Get off the hamster wheel of submitting countless resumes to open positions that yield only sporadic (often uncomfortable) interviews and too many rejections.
Instead, think about what you actually want your job to be like. Define and flesh out all the parameters of your desired job. Describe the impact or change that your job is going to have for your employer, your client, or your customer – and ultimately for yourself.
A New Career Stage Paradigm
To understand where you’re heading in your future career, it helps to look at how the fundamentals of our careers have changed in the digital age.
When we grew up, we were taught that to succeed in life we had to get a good education. That education would lead us to a good job. And after working for 40 years in that job, we would get to retire to a life of leisure. I think we all know that this paradigm is outdated at best.
Today, in the digital economy, education is life-long. We’re always going to be learning new skills and new workflows because the world of work is changing so fast. Our ability to change and to adapt is more important than ever.
So the first leg of the career trajectory today is no longer education, it’s awareness.
To succeed long term, we need to know who we are, what we do best, how we can best apply our skills and our talents, and how we can deliver results. That awareness gives us our entree and our initial identity in the workforce and empowers us to move to the next step in the trajectory, which is to create value.
Pursuing a career today is no longer about showing up, following directions, and climbing the steps in the power hierarchy (that hierarchy may not be around in five years…). Instead, we have to be constantly figuring out how to provide value in the face of change and the increasing complexity of business. We have to use our awareness to determine the best way to create new solutions, to think critically, to become leaders, and to collaborate effectively. Curiosity, as media mogul Barry Diller once said, is now more important than intelligence.
Finally, instead of retiring and withdrawing from the world, we have the opportunity to be of service. We need to take everything we’ve learned and share it with those coming up behind us. Why mothball 30 or 40 years of wisdom, perspective, and experience? Give it back. Pay it forward. Fortunately, with age comes a quest for meaning and purpose – and for leaving a legacy. So adopting an attitude of service as a core element of one’s professional outlook can be surprisingly appealing and invigorating.
So the lifetime career arc has evolved ****from Education→Career→Retirement to Awareness→Value→Service.
Use Your Time Wisely
Building on this new paradigm, you have been around the block enough to know who you are. You have the awareness. You also have the experience, wisdom, and perspective to make valuable and insightful contributions. You can deliver the value. And you are likely at a stage of life where a good part of your work is, and/or could be providing guidance and mentoring to younger professionals. You can be of service.
Your key challenge will likely be, in many instances, stopping or slowing down long enough to evaluate exactly what aspect or aspects of your considerable professional portfolio you want to focus on. For those of you who currently feel lost and unsure about where to go or what to do or where to focus, it’s time to reach out to colleagues, mentors, and wise friends (and maybe hire a coach).
This is an iterative process. You won’t get it done in a weekend. You’re likely going to have to dig deep to decide what you really want to do at this point in your life. You may very well have trouble decoupling your identity from the job you currently or most recently had. You may decide on one course of action, but then feel it fade while another direction emerges as the first choice. Give it some time. Experiment. Research and ask questions. Be open. Be curious.
Remember that you are more than your resume. Don’t let yourself be limited by your past.
Discard Your Baggage
The career design process is not only about narrowing down the job options you want to focus on, it is also about reconciling your past so that it doesn’t distract or discourage you from pursuing your vision.
Clarity and purpose may currently elude you. You may feel that you actually don’t know who you are after all this time. It may seem like your identity is wrapped up in the position you just left. Or the great job you left that you’ve never been able to replicate.
Don’t let unresolved issues, experiences, or memories of the past cloud your current thinking and prevent you from committing to a successful and rewarding second-act career.
Don’t let self-judgment or long-held resentments define you or prevent you from exploring your interests or your passions.
Don’t let OPO (other people’s opinions) intimidate you or invalidate your ideas or your instincts about your future career. You know yourself best at the end of the day. Everyone thinks they know you. Very few people actually do know you. Listen carefully to what these people have to say, especially those who are willing to give you the constructive feedback you need to hear. It may be hard to swallow, but in your gut, you know they’re right.
Upgrade Your Role
At this point in your life, you’re done with being a cog in someone else’s wheel. You want to do it your way. You want the flexibility and freedom to conduct your work life the way you want. Whether this pertains to your schedule, your location, the people you work with, or the responsibilities you take on, you’ve earned that right.
Fortunately, the world has changed too. Technology gives you the ability to be a digital nomad if you want to, consulting to clients pretty much from anywhere you want and on your own schedule. Even in more conventional salaried positions, and particularly for older employees with decades of valuable experience, the key is whether or not the job gets done. Delivering on your job no longer means punching a clock or just showing up at the office.
Your one targeted comment or question in a meeting could be the turning point that solves an existential problem for your entire organization, or sets in motion a critical success initiative.
Think about that idea when you’re dreaming up your future career plan. Strategize a way to put yourself into a situation where you can be not only supremely useful, but supremely appreciated.
Step into your wisdom.
However, one of the reasons you may have been downsized or let go from your job in your 50s could have been the perception that you were still doing the same job you were hired to do years ago. You may not have realized that you needed to step up, to refresh or even reinvent your role to stay current, stay relevant, and stay employable.
Ageism is definitely pushing too many people out of their jobs (as over half of us are destined to be over 50), but the other side of the equation is that many older workers don’t realize that they need to re-think and, yes, redesign their roles to meet today’s challenges and opportunities.
Your future career will not be easy to build. The difficulty lies not in the obstacles you face out there in the jobs marketplace. The difficulty is inside your own head. You need to get clear and get busy on defining more specifically who you are, what you do best, and what value you provide.
Start to build certainty and momentum around this value proposition, and the clear message that you express around it. Then, you will make prospective employers, clients, and customers sit up and take notice the minute you start talking.
Designing For the Authentic You
Putting all of this together requires thought, analysis, strategy, and time. That’s why it’s a design process. Done right, it will be a conscious, intentional, flexible, appropriate, and useful plan that expresses the unique contribution that you alone can make. It’s not that you are unique in the world. There are certainly others who can do what you do. But they can’t do it as you. They can’t bring to it the same life story that you bring to it.
Combine your personality, your preferences, your strengths, your eccentricities, and your dreams with your skills, your training, your talents, your experiences, your lessons, and your connections.
It sounds like a tall order, but if you start now, you will be well on your way to achieving your goals and realizing your career future vision.
More Successful Over 50
The Kauffmann Foundation released a study a few years ago on entrepreneurship in the U.S., concluding that business startups by older entrepreneurs are more successful than those started by younger entrepreneurs – often by a margin of 2:1 or more.
And according to the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) 82% of older workers who changed their careers felt that the transition was a successful one.
If you’re older, you know more, your experience means something, and your perspective and the lessons you learned help you make better decisions. Trust that you are actually in the best period in your life to take charge of your future career and make your career development process a success.
It Starts Here: Claim Your Niche
The most important thing you can do to start this process is to define a very specific solution, problem, product, or service you will focus on. The biggest mistake new business creators make is to think that their target market is larger than it should be. Remember that if you think your target market is “everyone,” your actual market is “no one.”
This applies to your job search as well. Sure, there are lots of open job descriptions you read that you could do. That doesn’t mean that you should do that job (or apply to it). And your chances of getting that job are low if it is simply one of the things you can do, but not the central core value that you provide.
You need to make the painful decision to only focus on the open positions that narrowly describe exactly what you’re best at doing. And look for an organization whose culture, values, and other qualities are congruent with your own.
If you’re going to start your own practice or your own business, you need to distill and extract the most narrow, granular, almost infinitesimal focus you can imagine.
Employers, clients, and customers are going to be looking to you as the solution for the most important problem or concern they have right now.
Be that solution.
Once you’ve achieved that result for them, they may be interested in what else you have to offer. But start by solving the biggest pain point, and evolve from there.
So stop wasting your time looking at open positions. If you’re starting a practice or a business, stop listening to what marketers or other “experts” recommend as the thing to do.
Are You Onboard? Get To Work!
Decide more clearly and more precisely what that value package is that you want to provide based on everything I’ve touched on in this article. Go looking for people who will understand that, and refer you to people who will jump at hiring you.
You know how to do this:
- Make a list of your “must-haves” and deal-breakers for what you want and don’t want in your new job or business.
- Write your top skills, qualities, strengths etc. on post-its or file cards and put them up on a wall so you can narrow down your best value proposition.
- Make a list of your most trusted business connections for feedback and guidance.
- Make a list of at least 10 people you need to reconnect with to grow your network.
- Keep a pad with you at all times to jot down ideas that you’ll forget if you try to remember them.
- Make a list of 20 companies doing the kind of work you want to do (and use LinkedIn to see if you can connect to anyone who works there).
- Write a 1-2 page description of what your ideal day or week will be like in your new job, new practice, or new business.
- Write a 1-paragraph Mission Statement describing the value and the transformation that your new job, practice, or business will deliver to your intended employer, client, or customer. This could be the beginning of your elevator pitch to grab the attention of new prospects.
Get on this! Don’t leave this to chance. Making a career development plan for your future career is too important.
Share your experience in the comments to help me better understand how these principles are working, and to support others who are wrestling with the same questions.
Remember the old adage: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second-best time is today.
Great post, John! The idea of designing your own career path is both empowering and necessary in today’s rapidly changing job market. I particularly appreciated the tip about continually learning and expanding your skillset.
Another actionable tip I would add is to network actively and build relationships with people in your desired industry. Having a strong network can open up new opportunities and provide valuable insights and advice as you navigate your career.
It’s also important to have a clear understanding of your values, interests, and goals. Regularly reflecting on these can help you make decisions and prioritize your career moves towards a fulfilling and meaningful future.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take calculated risks and try new things. Whether it’s taking on a new project at work, freelancing, or starting a side hustle, experimenting with new opportunities can help you discover your passions and what you’re truly capable of.
Thanks again for sharing your insights and tips, I look forward to more helpful articles in the future!
Thanks, Steve – much appreciated!