Mid-life: A time for reinvention?

The start of a new year, especially a new decade, is a time for reflection, for change and regeneration, and in my world that often leads to a plethora of people within our network asking, ‘what’s next?’

I think this is especially pronounced when, like me, people reach their ‘mid-life’ point (commonly defined as between 45-60 years old). As we are typically living and working for longer, more of us want to take control of the latter part of our working lives to make them better, more rewarding and/ or more balanced. But the challenge is often how, and what this actually means.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Laura Walker to discuss this. Laura herself is going through the ‘mid-life career’ stage; having spent 25 years as an award-winning HR professional. With a particular focus on Talent and Organisational Development for high profile organisations like John Lewis, GSK and Centrica, Laura has more recently started to focus on helping both individuals and companies discover how mid-life careers can be better and more fulfilling.

PM: Laura, what inspired you to focus on this particular area?

LW: More and more people around me were realising they would be working longer in their lifetime but dreaded the idea of doing the same thing for the next 15-20 years. They wanted help to figure out what was right for them, but there wasn’t really any good quality research and insight available to help. At the time, I was doing a Masters in Coaching and decided to develop a research-based model into ‘Mid-life Career Reinvention’ – hoping to fill a gap.

For the vast majority of people, the mid-life crisis is a myth. Elliot Jaques, psychoanalyst, social scientist and management consultant, coined the phrase in 1965, but his work was only with clinical patients. In fact, mid-life is a time of transition. For most people this is gradual, natural, manageable and healthy, albeit unpleasant. It is, in other words, the opposite of a crisis.

PM: What is it about mid-life that prompts so many people to think about a change in their career?

LW: Mid-life is a pivotal time in our lives – if not the pivotal time. You straddle your own youth and old age. You support both older and younger generations in our families. In work, we are between younger and older workers. We are playing many roles; life events are more common, and your whole sense of ‘self’ is shifting. Add in a looming big birthday – and it’s quite a potent mix.

Re-evaluation and re-assessment of our lives is very common in mid-life, and certain aspects of our work become more important. Most people put more emphasis on a better balance in their lives; more meaningful and flexible work, a more conducive working atmosphere, and greater autonomy. What suited you at 25, may not suit you at 45 or 55.

For many of us dissatisfaction slowly creeps up on us, often taking years to manifest. For others, it can hit us square in the face triggered by a life changing event such as an unwanted redundancy, or the loss of someone close.

Dissatisfaction doesn’t always mean it’s time for a change of career – but it is time to reflect, pay attention to what is going on, and to potentially make some adjustments.

PM: What are the three most important things to consider if you are looking for a change?

LW: Firstly, the need for meaning grows rapidly in mid-life. This need has always been there – affecting how we feel about our work – but it’s like liquid fertiliser is poured over us in midlife – organic of course! Whether your work is meaningful depends on four factors – coherence with who you are, the ability to contribute beyond yourself, opportunity for growth and accomplishment, and impact and balance in our wider life.

Secondly, not knowing yourself anymore can make you feel lost or untethered – like your tent pegs have become loose and the guide ropes are flapping in the wind. Mid-life is a natural time to take a fresh look at yourself – who are you now? what matters most now? what are you are good at? And are your existing habits holding you back? People who know their meaning and purpose are happier, healthier, more fulfilled. People who act in ways that are consistent with their beliefs and values are less stressed.

Thirdly, know that a mid-life reinvention won’t be a walk in the park – many people compare it to an adventurous walk through a forest! You generally can’t see where you will end up when you begin. There will be unexpected turns along the way – you can walk alone or with others, and there will be times in the shade and the light.

You don’t always have to completely reinvent yourself overnight. Simply identify what you’d like to change and start taking small steps toward making it happen. You’ll find that it doesn’t take long before you’re starting to see improvements in your personal and professional lives.

PM: What are the pitfalls to avoid?

LW: It’s really important to find someone to talk to who is not biased. Almost everyone in our social systems will have an agenda of their own relating to your hopes, fears, concerns, dreams, and ideas. Even if they try not to – they do. This means it can be hard to have real conversations with family, friends, manager, or colleagues.

Sleepwalking into your future isn’t a great option. If you are feeling a little lost, you often need a map to guide you. Taking the chance to pause, take stock, and look forward with an unbiased, challenging supporter will be hugely helpful and liberating.

Finally, be inspired by someone else’s change story – but remember their story is not yours. By mid-life you are not a blank page and the later chapters in your life are your own to write.

PM: Laura, what are your top tips for people going through their ‘mid-life career’?

Be open minded about new experiences and experiment alongside what you are currently doing – try just saying yes when you might normally hesitate. Chance and planned happenstance play a huge part in career change.

Pivotal periods in our lives are also the times we grow the most. They can be uncomfortable and uncertain as we experience new and different things, but the outcome is life changing for all of the right reasons.

Even if the time isn’t right for a change, take the opportunity to keep learning new skills. Some claim the shelf life for skills today is only 5 years – so your current skills won’t sustain you to the end of your working life.

It is a well-kept secret that most people feel lost at some point during their mid-life – myself included. Admitting you don’t know what you want to do is tough. We are so used to problem solving, planning and deciding that not knowing can make us feel lost, vulnerable, or inadequate (or all of the above!). Yes, it is scary – but it’s also exciting!

The best support comes from someone who is an unbiased, challenging supporter. Some people find that in a coach or a skilled friend. There are also resources available online – the Department of Work and Pensions created a mid-life career review website in 2019. Be wary of self-help books that pedal the ‘believe in yourself and go for it’ message – it simply doesn’t work that way.

In my research, I found that reinventing your late career is a dance with fear and confidence. A dance that is dynamic and changing, but ultimately better than marching in the wrong direction.

PM: Thank you, Laura for your insightful and helpful point of view. I very much look forward to speaking further to discuss what organisations can do to help their mid-life career population.

For more information on Mid-life Careers, or to contact Laura directly, please see her website https://midlifecareers.co.uk/

Paul McNamara

Partner
Head of Interim Human Resources Practice


Paul is a highly respected executive consultant with more than 15 years’ experience within Human Resources. He delivers senior level interim assignments across all HR disciplines and industry sectors, operating at daily rates typically between £600 – £2,000.