After 35 years in the same business, is it possible to turn on a dime and make a go of it in some entirely new field? The answer of course is “yes,” but when you’ve been “downsized” or otherwise unceremoniously dumped by your company, it is still an incredibly unsettling and disorienting experience. Sampling the comeback trails of successful encore career reinventor is an enormously important opportunity to reset our attitude and to regain our courage.
The first thing we need to reframe is our sense of value and purpose: getting fired is not only not fatal, it in no way diminishes or negates our skills, abilities, talents or accomplishments. In fact, it may be the biggest favor we’ve ever been given. A wise teacher of mine once told me: “God fires you from jobs you’re too dumb to quit.”
Even if we feel unprepared to be pounding the pavement, we’ve likely weathered many ups and downs and are likely more savvy and resilient than we give ourselves credit for. While there’s always a chance that we’ll turn right around and find another salaried position, the mindset that Boomers need to be adopting is that of the freelancer – the consultant. Clearly, the business world today is a flatter, more changeable, more modular environment, where teams are put together and split apart to respond competitively to changing market conditions. Boomers have tremendous advantages in this market: we know a lot, and our experience helps us shortcut a lot of obstacles that younger minds can’t get around so easily. But rather than put that all to work for the same supervisor day in and day out, we’re now being challenged to work more like our younger gen-x and millennial counterparts: as outsourced resources who do one particular set of skills very well. We are the solutions to a myriad set of problems, if we’re willing to take the risk, and package ourselves accordingly.
Enter Ted Smith, a realtor in Washington D.C. Ted has been selling residential real estate in the District for the past four years. He’s 64 years old, and plans to be selling real estate in the District until he’s 70, at which point he’s thinking of returning to Austin, TX, where he made his home for 35 years before going on his own Boomer Reinvention. Ted and I were classmates at Amherst College back in the 70s and we reconnected recently so I could download his journey. After college, Ted thought he was going to be an academic, and earned his PhD in Linguistics and English. For about 5 years, he taught at the University of Texas at Austin, and began to teach adults at IBM’s Austin facility through their Volunteer Education program. It turned out that teaching adults was more interesting than teaching college students, so Ted set up a consulting practice doing trainings, initially as a contractor for IBM, but then spending the next 30 years focusing on business and technical communication (which had been the topic of his doctoral thesis). He spent 12 years in that initial practice, working for high-tech companies and governmental organizations. He then got, as he puts it, “wooed” into joining two different software startups (in a row), staying with them through their IPOs before moving on. As is often the case with companies that go public and ride the Wall St. rapids, the stock and options that Ted acquired turned out to “be pretty worthless….” But he’s funny and philosophical about it all: “I’ve bought high and sold low all my life. It’s good advice and I’m sticking to it!” It was the second company that he worked for that offered him a move to Washington D.C., which seemed like an advantageous opportunity at the time, but after a year and a half, the axe fell, and he decided he had had enough of the corporate world.
After three decades beating to the corporate drum, he decided to start something new, and get what he felt was an early jump on his retirement. “I joke about the fact that I reinvented myself at age 59, finally starting something early in life.” He thought about going back to classroom teaching, talked with David Allen’s company about becoming a GTD (Getting Things Done) trainer, but decided he had been on the road for too long and that it was time to stay put somewhere.
Real estate under his own shingle was an unexpected move. He had never seen himself as a salesman, but it turns out that he’s done well as a realtor and is having a great time. It combines many of the communication and presentation skills that he knows so well from his consulting career, as well as the organizational and management skills needed to negotiate, close and document deals. And it piques his interest in people and places: he loves what people’s homes say about them, and matching the right people with the right places is a challenging game that he finds endlessly fascinating. “I’m kind of a nosy guy: I love going inside people’s houses.” He thinks real estate is a great encore career: “Very few people start out their careers in real estate. Everybody comes there from someplace else, and there are some very interesting backgrounds that people bring into the real estate field. I’ve met tax lawyers, school teachers, other university professors. I’ve [even] met a medical doctor.”
Looking back on the evolution of corporate life over the last 30 years, Ted observes that job security is a myth, even at what were once considered stable companies. “At the end of the day, you really are working for yourself… Even if you have a job inside an organization, you’re representing your own interests, trying to grow your own career, and really, to some extent, [trying to] protect yourself inside of that environment.”
Ted’s advice to Boomers who find themselves on the same trajectory:
1. Don’t wait for the axe to fall. Ted has had his head handed to him twice in his career. The last time it happened, at age 59, his brother told him that he was never going to find another job; that he was too old and too expensive and that companies would never take a chance on him because he would be gone and retired in short order. Ted embraced that advice and says it’s time for all of us to do the same and to take control of our lives. Don’t expect the old order to care about you or to throw you a bone. Figure out what you like doing, and how to make money doing it.
2. Find a Coach. Once you’ve made the decision to make the move, don’t do it alone. Enlist the support of a professional who can talk with you about makes you happy and what brings you joy in your life. It is the coach’s job to help you figure out what you’ve always wanted to do – perhaps it’s something that you’ve never had the guts to do. Now is the time: use the coach to support you to go find your happiness.
3. Play Where You Work (and Work Where You Play). Take advantage of the looser, what Ted calls more “porous” interplay between work and home, and use it to your advantage. Clients are interested in results and in you delivering value. Remember the stiffer, more formal world before “business casual?” Look at how far we’ve come, and how much freedom we actually have to get things done our way, on our own schedule. That luxury alone should give Boomers the enthusiasm to strike out on their own.
What if reinventing our careers is more than an opportunity, more than a necessity, but actually our calling? With so many Boomers succeeding in encore careers, what if this time is actually our time to shine as a generation, to actually embrace and live the values that we grew up with? If so, and if we are in fact all capable of working more entrepreneurially, or turning our talents to solve real problems for clients in all fields and of all types, then we are truly at the dawn of an era of great expansiveness and accomplishment for our generation.