Why make a midlife career change? 

How can employers deal with mid-career changes? Hudson's Tim Drake explains.

Whether you’re 25 or 55, it’s never easy changing careers. It doesn’t just mean quitting your job. It means learning new skills, potentially earning new qualifications, starting from scratch in an unfamiliar environment and possibly even relocating.

So what motivates people to do it at middle age? Why spend more than two decades building your career, your skills and experience, simply to scrap the lot and start all over again?

Personality and preferences shift over the course of someone’s life because of an innate urge to grow. The first half of your life is spent confirming and using your strongest preferences, from the university you choose to the career you pursue. Once those preferences have been satisfied you’ll start to develop secondary preferences to add balance and depth.  

Extroverts may become more interested in spending time alone (perhaps becoming better suited to working from home), introverts may become more confident in their social skills (primed for a move to a client-facing role) and thinkers may start to take notice of the impact words or actions have on others (leaders mellowing with age).

Our Talent Trends research suggests that around a quarter of employees aged 35+ are experiencing this change, demanding broader experience in their role or more specialist experience. One in five are also looking to experience other roles within their business, or benefit from greater training.

Midlife career changes can also be motivated by practical benefits. Going freelance could improve work-life balance; contracting could mix things up before monotony sets in; we’re seeing more people working embarking on portfolio careers, with multiple jobs that equate to a full-time role.

Conversely, career changes may be born out of necessity – particularly for baby boomers that need to care for longer-living parents, help children buy their first home or explore new ways to meet a pensions shortfall.

The question for employers is how to deal with this change?

Employers need to be able to accommodate, manage and mitigate these drivers – understanding the things that motivate people to make the midlife career change and acting accordingly. If an organisation doesn’t want to lose a permanent member of staff, it’s necessary to explore every available option to satisfy them – giving them new opportunities to learn in their roles, offering them more flexible working options, giving them the chance to move sideways in the business.

If your workforce suddenly starts to shift from full-time to a couple of days a week, you need to make your organisation a more welcoming environment for part-time workers, bringing in part-time specialists to cover the workload of one.

If you want people to walk through your doors and offer their expertise, you need to create a culture that not only welcomes, but encourages this way of working. Your culture needs to be about rapid, agile change – a place where old hierarchies, structures and attitudes are levelled and where fluidity is the norm.

In turn, you need to think about those driven to flexible careers out of necessity – those who don’t care about culture as much as they care about security and pragmatism.

You need measures in place to ensure you can deal with a contingent workforce. If one freelancer leaves, you need to be able to call on your network of other freelancers. Old processes need to change. In the new world of work, workforce planning can no longer be an annual thing – it needs to become an ongoing process.

Ultimately, employers now to give thought to multiple audiences with differing needs – giving permanent staff the opportunities they seek to pursue diverse interests within their roles, cultivating your culture for those who choose the thrill of a midlife career change, and making real changes to support those who are making these career moves out of necessity.

Tim Drake is UK head of talent management at Hudson, a provider of recruitment, talent management and RPO services.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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