Midlife Career Changers: How Colleges Can Support the “What’s Next?” EndeavorJulia Ivy | Faculty Director of the Masters in International Management, Northeastern University
It used to be thought “right” to stay in one career track your whole life. You would gradually climb the professional and income ladders of your chosen profession before ultimately retiring to spend time gardening, vacationing, and enjoying the grandchildren. But times have changed.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person born in the later years of the baby boom (born between 1946 and 1964) held 10.8 percent of jobs from age 18 to 42. As Forbes reports, in 2019, many retired Baby Boomers were getting ready for a new round of job hunting, seeing a new career as a new adventure. Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, can also be expected to change careers at least once. Many, according to Ernst & Young data presented by AARP, will at some point feel they are being overlooked when it comes to advancement and job enrichment, and will want to change their situations.
Midlife Career Changers as Adult Learners
Midlife career changers represent a special breed of adult learners. They are often highly accomplished in their careers but no longer interested in continuing to climb the ladder within their existing professions. Consider a few of examples:
Barbara, now in her late-40s, holds an MBA and an advanced certificate in Marketing, on top of her bachelor’s degree. After working for the last 15 years at the executive level in large retail-focused corporations, she has grown tired of the culture of big business and of retail in general.
Matt is a 50-year-old retired military officer with 20+ years of service. Unlike many other veterans who go to work for military contractors or veteran-focused nonprofits, Matt wants to try something different.
Lori is a recently retired educator in her 60s with a doctorate in education. For the last 20 years, she has been on faculty in her university’s School of Education. She could retire but would prefer to keep working outside of academia.
What Do Midlife Career Changers Want from Educational Institutions?
To find the way of being true to their multidimensional interests
Most midlife career changers have little desire to try to squeeze into the traditional box of a single-focused profession where traditionally defined problems are approached in traditional ways. Barbara, Matt, and Lori are at stages in their lives where they want to be part of an organization that will endow them with the power to locate problem areas and apply their experience to find solutions. They need help connecting with organizations within their scopes of interest to explore opportunities that will genuinely satisfy their new career aspirations. Are traditional career services offices up to the job?
To clarify their new professional core
Career changers are “done” with their previous professional lives and ready to explore new possibilities. They have chosen to challenge themselves instead of continuing inside their previous professions. Barbara has rejected the notion of spending her life among large corporate retailers but has not clearly answered the question, “What’s next?” Similar to Barbara, Matt and Lori not wanting to stay within their fields, but may need to refine their “What’s next?” goals. Do colleges offer some kind of personal strategy course that might help these adult learners identify with clarity and precision what they want to do next?
To utilize their personal, social, and professional capital
Experienced returning students have little desire to sit in a classroom with students who only recently finished their undergrad degrees and listen to someone from the college’s career services office directing them to “write a resume, submit it to a broad range of employers, and go for a bunch of interviews.” What tools can their college give more experienced professionals to help them find the perfect match?
No longer the equivalent of department store career shoppers, midlife career changers are interested in what I’ve termed “Boutique Employability”: opportunities tailor-made to their unique qualifications and interests.
How Can Colleges Address the Needs of Midlife Career Changers?
Instead of, or in addition to, offering general-subject courses that tend to be less relevant for career changing seasoned professionals, graduate and continuing education colleges could offer a platform for their journey, using course assignments as stepping stones toward their new space in the job market — the space that career changers will ultimately shape for themselves.
1. Starting the Program with a Personal Strategy Gateway Course
Midlife career changers often have a general idea of what they’d like to do next but are not always aware of all their choices. Colleges must help career changers clarify their professional core. The best way to help them is to offer a Personal Strategy course as a gateway to the umbrella of programs the applicants have to choose from. The course outcomes would be measured by how effectively the career changers themselves have defined their focus of study and the scope of organizations the school has engaged to assist them in exploring their options in the class.
2. Offering “Making Your Case” Experiential Learning Opportunities with Potential Employers
There are two ways leaders can do this:
Incorporate Case Writing into Learning Objectives
Career changers need to develop trust within their new profession. Through storytelling and case writing for companies of their interest, adult learners acquire a tangible tool to explore new opportunities, developing personal and professional connections in new employment realms.
Provide Opportunities for Value-Added Case Solving
Midlife career changers don’t want to waste time on exercises that do not tangibly increase their future opportunities or make difference for those who need it. They want to generate value for real companies that they have connected with through case writing, deploying their multidimensional competencies for solving a company’s challenge. Since they’ve already learned about the company through case writing, their recommendations will be precise. Because they have already developed trust with company insiders, the company will listen.
3. Concluding the Program with Students’ Publicity: Facilitate the Most Effective Use of Earned Capital
At the end of the day, career changers want results. They want to excite the market with the personal capital, social capital, and professional capital they are bringing to their new professions. Colleges should provide graduates with a platform for demonstrating their competitive edge by promoting their profiles and engaging with real-life organizations around the projects career changers have delivered during the study.
In today’s fluid professional reality, colleges and students alike stand to benefit from programs that deploy innovative tools like “Making Your Case” and other personal strategy building approaches to give midlife career changers the Boutique Employability EDGE in their new endeavors.
The technique is described in detail in Crafting Your Edge for Today’s Job Market manual that students can apply through the study.