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Why 50-Year-Olds Are Changing Careers

For many Gen Xers, changing priorities means changing ambitions at work

At age 50, Patti Thull ditched her 60-hour-a-week job in executive communications and became a freelance writer. “I had stayed in corporate life because I was a single mom and needed the steady income and medical insurance for my daughter,” recalls the Warren, Michigan, resident. “But once she had successfully launched, I was free to reimagine my own future.” For Tim Bodor of Sterling, Virginia, the lure was autonomy: He wanted more control over his schedule. With only two weeks per year of paid leave at his job in call-center operations, Bodor remembers, “I used half my PTO taking my kids to and from college.”  When Bodor was 54, his wife, Rebecca, bought a home-care-services franchise. Three years later, Bodor was able to ditch his day job to join the franchise full-time. For Bodor, that was the end of “working under other people’s rules.” Many in their 50s have made similar shifts. While researching this story, we heard about a dermatologist-turned-veterinary-school-student, an ad-executive-turned-cleaning-supply-entrepreneur and a speech-therapist-turned-retail-worker, among others. Although national statistics on the phenomenon are elusive, 50-something workers have been taking unexpected career turns lately, experts confirm. Work that fits Most of these workers are “downshifting to something that’s a little bit less stressful and has more flexibility,” says Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Others make ambitious leaps into new career terrain. Supporting all their pursuits is the low unemployment rate, which has opened opportunities and empowered workers to take risks, Sanzenbacher notes. Longevity is an impetus as well, says Michael Clinton, author of Roar into the Second Half of Your Life (Before It’s Too Late). “The idea of having a new career in your 50s, which a generation ago would’ve seemed almost impossible, has now become a major reality,” Clinton says. “You can start a whole new career at 55 and have that career for 20-plus years.” The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact. According to an AARP study of older workers, 33 percent of 50-somethings say that living through the pandemic made them want to improve their work-life balance; 62 percent say it made them reprioritize how a job fits into their life. For many mid-50s career changers, an outside circumstance such as a health issue or job loss forces their hand. That’s what happened to Dawn Steele Halbert of the Greater Chicago area, who was laid off from her job in media sales at age 59. Halbert responded by venturing into new territory, first cohosting women’s empowerment retreats, then entering the insurance business. “It’s very different from what I was doing before, but I love it,” Halbert says.

Managing expectations Changing your career trajectory — even when it’s your idea — can feel daunting in your 50s, says Kerry Hannon, a workplace futurist and author of In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work. One challenge is ageism, says John Dooney, a human resources knowledge adviser and senior certified professional with the Society for Human Resource Management. People may view you as overqualified for your new role or mistrust your grasp of related technology. It may be harder than expected to give up the esteem that comes with a long track record of good work. “That can be demotivating and depressing to some workers,” Dooney points out. “They may think, I’ve worked my whole life, and nobody is valuing my experience.” With a downshift, there’s typically a reduction in pay, and that can cause angst if you’re not prepared for it, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert for the employment website Monster. You’re not the only one who needs to be prepared, either: If you’re in a relationship, your partner may balk at seeing the household’s finances reduced during your prime earning and saving years. For Clinton, the biggest deterrent to a successful shift is what he calls self-imposed ageism. “There’s a lot of negative self-talk that people pick up,” he explains. The key to ending that habit is recognizing pessimistic thoughts and replacing them with kinder — and more accurate — ones. Pondering a job change yourself? Experts offer this advice: Look within. Think about the type of work you find fulfilling, hobbies you enjoy, businesses you admire, even contemporaries whose jobs cause a twinge of envy. Those clues can help you determine where to look for your next role. Mine your company. Your organization may have other jobs to explore. “Look around where you are right now,” Hannon advises. “You could make an internal career transition.” Redeploy skills. “You don’t need to reinvent yourself,” Hannon says. Many tools in a mature worker’s toolbox are applicable to more than one field. Keep learning. Especially amid the growth of online courses, it has never been easier to sharpen your skills, or develop new ones, before making a leap. Honor your partner. Recognize that a downshift will affect your whole household. After crunching the numbers, talk to your spouse about what you want and what it would mean financially, Salemi suggests. Stay realistic. Expect stumbling blocks and prepare for them. A savings cushion and a career coach can help you navigate the change. Among workers ages 50 to 59, in the past 3 years:

  • 19 percent say they started wanting more meaningful work.

  • 64 percent say they tried to reduce their stress at work.

  • 67 percent say they consciously tried to slow down their life.

Laura Petrecca is a contributing writer for AARP. She has written for USA Today, Real Simple, Digiday’s WorkLife, Kiplinger, AARP, Men’s Health, Worth, Crain’s New York Business and Advertising Age.

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