Friday, July 10, 2015

Career Planning for The Over 55 Crowd

Lots of articles are written about how to advance your career, and they are mostly aimed at the 20 to 45 year old who is trying to advance in terms of hierarchy, pay, responsibility, and scope.  This is all fine and good, but what happens when you are older and later in your career?  Success at 55+ is based on continued employment at a decent wage along with the usual factors - most people do not want to be unemployed and forced to take jobs they do not like. Based on my experiences and observations, which mainly cover the technology industry, here are my thoughts.

If your career is in a slow changing industry, you can often continue to advance well into your 50's and 60's, based on your experience.  Your cumulative experience is valuable as the industry has not changed much.  Examples of a slower changing "industry" would be law, education, medicine, transportation, and construction.  For example, an old experienced criminal lawyer with a good track record, many contacts in the field, and an experienced staff would be a good choice to advise or defend you.  Over 55 people in these industries can follow the same career advice as 20 to 45 year olds: maintain your skills, work hard, keep a good network, take training as things change, act professional, etc.

If your career is in a fast changing industry, you need to take a different approach.  Industries like computers, telecommunications, music, and fashion rapidly change and often the young just-out-of-school person is the most sought-after employee, "a young person's job".  How does an over 55 person handle their career successfully in these industries?  A few thoughts:

  1. Continue to advance as an executive, assuming you are in that happy place called executive-land.  This is ideal - high pay, high status, more perqs, your experience may be valued, etc.  A bonus is that you can move to other competitors in your industry as successful executives are often in demand and age is less of an issue.  However, there are very few executive positions in a company compared to the number of 55+ workers.
  2. Advance in the managerial level.  This is great for many - higher pay, more status, more perqs, your experience may be valued, etc.  However, middle management is often the target for cutbacks and it is hard to get an equivalent job at another company in your industry as they usually have plenty of their own middle managers.
  3. Continue to advance as a technical or skilled worker.  This is hard to do but some manage it  by assiduously taking training, taking on more challenging work, putting in long hours and generally delivering value as an execution specialist.  Many over 55 folks cannot handle this due to the level of effort involved to stay current.  I know of exactly one contemporary who is still writing software, designing chips, or designing systems at this age.
  4. Move to the less technical or less arduous jobs in your industry.  There is a reason you see many older folks in project management, budgeting, regulatory compliance, and quality management departments.  These areas require less technical skill, less effort, and there is some value in your experience.  For example, knowing the difficulties in debugging software, even obsolete languages, gives you some insight into planning a modern software project.  The issues here are that pay levels are often less than you received at the peak of your career and the status of these jobs is often lower and you have to accept this.
  5. Become a consultant in your industry.  Some industries use a lot of consultants, and this can be an ideal 55+ job if you can manage it.  Keep your network current and ensure you have an in-demand consulting skill, for example, being an expert in maintaining legacy software on old hardware might be a good consulting gig in some industries.
  6. Exit your industry and start a new career in a different area, something that interests you.  Perhaps you want to become a seasonal tour guide instead of a chip designer.  As long as you have saved enough and your new pay will support your lifestyle, more power to you!

So what is the message here?  If you are in a rapidly changing industry and are over 55, the usual career advice may not be relevant.  You need to think clearly about yourself, your skills, your energy level and your industry and plan differently for a successful career in your late 50's and 60's.  Otherwise, your career may be determined by fate, not by you.  I wish you success.

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