We need more books about mid-career, midlife transitions. Recently I came across The Age Advantage: Making the Most of Your Midlife Career Transition, a paperback by Jean Erickson Walker, Ed.D.
Walker writes straightforward “advice” with no attempt to create the jazzy style common among self-help books. It’s easy to read, although I winced at the clichés (“It’s not over till it’s over”). You’re definitely out of the “dream-it-and-do-it” mode here. Look for action tips, not inspiration.
The best part of the book comes at the beginning, when Walker describes what it’s like to go through a midlife career crisis. Walker differentiates beginning, middle and endings people, i.e., the stage of a transition where people feel most comfortable. This scheme resembles Martha Beck’s four stages (Finding Your Own North Star) and my own distinction between jumpers and clingers .
Midlife career change is defined as a change “when age is a factor.” Walker claims that attitude determines whether age is an advantage or disadvantage, although I never figured out the advantages that were actually created by attitude. She later acknowledges that discrimination is a reality that “should not be tolerated,” but in fact is hard to fight through the legal system. Here are some quotes that led me to ask, “Where’s the advantage?”
p. 204: “My coaching clients often tell me they’ve been advised to show more enthusiasm. Your calm demeanor may be interpreted as a lack of energy.”
p. 208: “Don’t be competitive. Your age advantage is that everyone expects you to have expertise and knowledge. You can afford to be generous.”
p. 294: “[C]companies do not hire someone over age fifty with the expectation of ‘developing’ them. Promotions may come, but they’re rare…”
I also suspect midlife career changers will benefit from the discussion of networking, one of the few directed to this career segment. She points out the need to come right out and ask for help, instead of putting on a front of, “Everything’s great.”
Her discussion of resumes is excellent, especially the emphasis on “accomplishment statements.” She suggests leaving off the “objective;” I encourage clients to run their resumes past someone who is active in their field. There is no way any career consultant can learn the idiosyncrasies of each industry and career field.
I also like Walker’s reality checks. Finding a new job, especially if you are changing fields, can take a long time. People often need to acknowledge and mourn career losses. There is indeed a downside to setting up your own business or consulting firm. Her advice about learning a firm’s culture seems basic — until you realize that someone who’s been in a job for twenty-plus years is like a fish who stopped seeing the water.
That said, I believe Walker underestimates the effect of identity on midlife career transition. She argues against hiring an “overqualified” employee and urges the midlife applicant to be careful not to intimidate employers during a hiring interview.
Being overqualified does create stress among employees and their coworkers and, if you have to worry about intimidating others during the interview, you’ll be tippy-toeing around for the remainder of your career!
I also question the value of a detailed assessment program. I find that people in their forties and fifties tend to be self-aware and that abstract values and interests rarely help them align with real careers.
Most people have a secret (or not so secret) dream or idea of what they want to do. When they don’t, they’re usually blocking themselves and standard exercises won’t help. The self-knowledge exercises here are commonplace, even banal: I hope the author saves more dynamic tasks for her “live” clients.
Finally, I find that many people would do better to start a business instead of job-hunting, or as a parallel activity to job-hunting. If you’re a high-profile person in your community or you’ve had a very senior position in a narrow area, you may not be able to find a new job — certainly not a good one — unless you’re a superb networker who’s flexible about relocation.
I’ve been told that a former mayor of my town found himself in need of a job after his wife left him, taking the assets (mostly from her side of the family) with her. Nobody would hire an ex-mayor. He ended up selling cars.
The Age Advantage was written about a year before 9/11, when employees were in short supply, so some of her suggestions seem dated. That’s inevitable when you write practical guidebooks instead of inspirational self-help.
A major gap is the lack of discussion of career resources available besides her own book. These days, it’s important for people to realize that they may not need a coach or counselor — it seems like “everybody’s” got one! On the other hand, if you’re feeling isolated or stuck, the right support person can make all the difference.
I recommend The Age Advantage, especially for those who have enjoyed a long career in corporate America Take what you find useful and ignore the rest. But first I recommend you take a look at Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star.
A great quote from The Age Advantage:
P 156: “Note: the high tech industry has dramatically changed the look of corporate America, where ‘cool’ and ‘laid-back’ are the right look. If you don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb, lose the pinstripes. It’s not necessary to go directly to rumpled blue jeans and tennis shoes, but you should look like you could do so comfortably on a moment’s notice. Nothing says you’re from a different generation quicker than being too formally dressed.”
My own comment: I love it! I’ve always been able to “do so comfortably on a moment’s notice.”