A police officer turned music agent. A Navy captain who became a circus manager. A botanist who traded plants for making chocolate. Those are a few of the major career changes among boomers and retirees I interviewed for my book, What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond.
Each one faced a different set of challenges. Yet their stories reveal common threads.
Many of these men and women were spurred to discover what really matters to them and transform their work (and, in turn, personal) lives by a crisis or loss that starkly revealed the fleeting nature of life. No one acted impulsively. They paused. They planned. They bypassed helter-skelter approaches and pursued prudent, well-researched moves.
Each person had a flexible time horizon for his or her venture. If necessary, these people added the essential skills and degrees before they made the leap. They often apprenticed or volunteered beforehand. They reached out to their networks of social and professional contacts to ask for help and guidance.
But what really sticks with me is that they all share confidence in the direction they’ve taken. They collectively work longer hours, but it doesn’t matter. They only wish they had done it sooner.
You might know you want to do something different but don’t have the courage to do it yet. Take a breath.
Here are my top 10 tips for making a career change.
1. Understand what’s behind your desire to make a change
Maybe you are starting to become disillusioned with work. You’re bogged down. Perhaps you’re no longer on the way up. This is the time to step back and think about life more broadly. Be warned, career changers can go into mourning. All of a sudden, you realize how you miss your old career, and you’re not really open to replacing those things.
The longer time frame you have to plan, the better. Start working at age 50 on a career you might not get around to until age 60. If you have lots of time, you can try out some ideas and possibilities, role-play and do a little bit of those things to see if that is the direction you want to go.
2. Get your life in order
Get physically and financially fit. Change is stressful. When you’re physically fit, you have more energy and are mentally sharper to face the challenges ahead. Starting a new career later in life takes an incredible amount of strength and energy.
Debt will kill your dreams. It limits your choices. Without the burden of crushing credit card bills and a big mortgage, you’re nimble. Being debt-free allows you the freedom to pursue work that may pay less initially, if you’re starting over in a new field. Or if you are starting your own business, it tides you over until you can afford to pay yourself a salary — sometimes a year or more.
A new career, too, is often a spiritual quest.
3. Be practical
If possible, make your move in stages. You may need to upgrade your skills and education, so take one class at a time. If you’d like to go to graduate school, maybe start by taking a night course. You don’t have to enroll in a full load. You can add more classes as your direction and motivation become clear.
Overspending in your job search is another big mistake. Why shell out the big bucks on advanced degrees when a few courses will suffice, or spend on a pricey résumé service before you’ve really thought through your next step? If possible, take some classes while your current employer is still offering tuition reimbursement (though be sure to investigate whether there is a payback requirement if you leave). And check out gratis career services from your alma mater.
4. Find a mentor
Seek advice from people who’ve been successful in the field that interests you. Everyone likes to be asked for counsel.
5. Be prepared for setbacks
It’s not all smooth sailing, but if you’ve laid the proper groundwork, you’ll get through the rough patches. Having your family or partner at your back for support will help tremendously. They don’t have to own your dream, just be supportive.
You might try several jobs before you find the one that’s right. Anne Nolan, president of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest homeless service provider, started as member of the board. She didn’t know what she wanted to do when she lost her executive-level job, but she had a year’s salary and time to think about her options. She joined the board at the shelter not because she dreamed it would turn into a full-time job, but because it was an activity toget her out of her rut and do something besides worrying about what was next. It gradually became her passion. In time she was hired as the director.
Look for jobs that leverage experience. Check out job websites like Encore.org, Job-Hunt.org, Life Reimagined for Work, Retiredbrains.com and Workforce50.com to get a flavor of what others are doing and what jobs are out there. Investigate nonprofits and fields like health care, eldercare and education that have a growing demand for workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is a good reference.
8. Don’t lock yourself into a must-have salary
Money is the biggest roadblock for most career changers. Chances are when you start over in a new field or move to a nonprofit, you will need to take a salary cut at least initially. If you have an emergency fund to buy you time, you can do a more thoughtful job search. Pare back your discretionary living expenses to reflect a more realistic view of what you’ll earn. Consider the things that are important in your life and which things are giving you pleasure that you might have to give up.
9. Keep your hand out of the cookie jar
Don’t dip too deep into your core savings. Of all the mistakes older workers make in launching second careers, this is probably the worst. Would-be entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily raiding retirement accounts to launch businesses, but they’re tapping home equity and other savings, and that has obvious implications for retirement security.
10. Do something every day to work toward your goal
Changing careers can seem overwhelming. Don’t struggle to find an ideal starting point or perfect path; that is great advice I gleaned from Clearways Consulting career coach Beverly Jones, a second-acter herself. Once you have some picture of where you want to go, get things moving by taking small steps toward that vision. What really matters is that you do a little something on a regular basis.
Parting thought: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes.
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her how-to guide to finding profitable, fulfilling work after 50: Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.