The mid-career shift
People’s values tend to change as they get older. One of the most popular psychological frameworks for categorising human values – the broad goals that we use as guiding principles in life – looks at two independent dimensions.
One value dimension contrasts self-enhancement (for example, the pursuit of power, status, achievement and personal success) against self-transcendence (broadly defined as the pursuit of values such as tolerance of others, appreciation for what we have, and benevolence towards family and friends).
Analysing a sample of more than 50,000 adults from multiple countries, researchers led by Ingwer Borg at the University of Münster found that older people typically move away from self-enhancement and towards self-transcendence.
The other major value dimension contrasts openness to change (a desire for excitement, challenge and novelty in life) against conservatism (a yearning for safety, stability and greater personal restraint). The same team led by Borg found that older people habitually move away from openness to change and towards conservatism.
In terms of career change, then, older professionals typically become less interested in the pursuit of wealth and status, and increasingly seek to do work that is more meaningful rather than only financially rewarding.
However, the challenge in life may make them more reluctant to make changes that allow them to do work that is more purposeful.
When I am coaching professionals considering a career change, I often ask them to reflect on what matters to them by writing about a significant future birthday. To do this, imagine that it’s your 90th birthday and you have gathered your closest friends and family around you. What would you like them to say about your life’s ARC – your achievements, relationships and character?
Consider three questions:
What would you like to have achieved by this 90th birthday? Think about what is personally meaningful to you, what non-financial as well as financial goals would you optimistically but realistically like to accomplish?
How would you like key relationships in your life to develop? No one can change the past. But how would you like your relationships to develop from now on? Consider not only family and friends but also colleagues, people you mentor and others who may be important to you.
How would you like people to describe you in terms of your personal character? Perhaps you would love to be celebrated for your ambition and adventurousness, your kindness and warmth, your willingness to coach and inspire others, your curiosity and calmness, or whatever else you choose.
Studies of professionals considering career change consistently find that networking is an important factor in determining both the decision to change career as well as the perceived success of such a change. Rather than struggling with the decision by yourself, consider reaching out to people you know who have made any sort of mid-career shift. In the field of vocational counselling, this is often known as informational interviewing.
Ask people you know for as little as 20 to 30 minutes of their time. Explain that you wish to hear about their career decisions, the pressures they were under, the barriers they faced, the options they considered and the lessons they learned from their eventual choice. Even if the people you speak to are in quite different industries, you will almost certainly hear about issues or ideas that relate to you in some way.
In the process of creative problem-solving, psychologists often speak of the need for both divergent thinking as well as convergent thinking. Divergent thinking involves exploration without boundaries – considering the widest possible array of ideas, options and opportunities. So, begin by having as many conversations as you can in order to expand your horizons. Only later should come the convergent thinking stage in which you weigh pros and cons, narrow your choices and, ultimately, map how to get from where you are to where you wish to be.
The issue of career change can be thought of as a problem or issue as any other. When facing problems, psychologists distinguish between the tendency to engage in unproductive worry versus productive worry. Unproductive worry typically involves thinking over and over about the same topics but without solving the problem. Wishful thinking can also in some ways be thought of as a type of unproductive thinking.
Unproductive worry and wishful thinking are likely only to fuel your dissatisfaction about your situation. To move forwards, engage instead in productive worry by tackling the topic of career change as you would any business project.
An important principle in worrying productively is to focus more on what you can do to change a situation rather than why your career and life may be the way they are. So, write things down. List actions you could take. Make a plan. Set yourself deadlines. Get advice. Do a cost-benefit analysis of any alternatives you are considering. Research options – and then keep revisiting your plan when new information comes in.
Develop your skills
Develop your skills, too. A recent study by German and Australian academics led by Clarissa Bohlmann at Leipzig University found that older professionals were less likely to turn to entrepreneurship as an option than their younger counterparts, due in part to their perceived lack of skills.
Knowledge and skill can be developed relatively easily. Pick up a couple of books. Look for free courses online. Consider also that top business schools often market themselves by putting free content on YouTube.
Above all, stay in what some researchers have called learning mode. Avoid simply worrying about your career or wishing that something magical could happen. Instead, lean into the project of career change, take action, learn from your actions and repeat.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace
This article was first published in AB magazine February 2022