Categorized | Life

No Midlife Crisis Here

Posted on 18 April 2009

You cannot put an age limit on career transition.

As the U.S. population grays, more Americans in their 50s are changing careers. After spending a decade or two working in the same field, many people are retiring early from one career–only to embark on another.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a non-profit dedicated to the welfare of older Americans, recently asked members to provide information on midlife job and career changes. The results revealed that many, especially those aged 55 to 65, plan on working well into their golden years. A full 80 percent of baby boomers expect to work at least part-time in retirement, many as self-employed.

Sara Rix is a senior policy advisor specializing in labor force and work issues in the Public Policy Institute at AARP. “Successful changers gave a lot of thought to what they would like to do,” Rix says. “They researched the labor market and made sure they had the training needed to make themselves competitive. You have to not only be able to do the job, but you’ve got to sell yourself constantly and fight against the inevitable discrimination that an older person meets.”

The market didn’t go exactly as planned: “NAFTA put a kibosh on my hydroponic tomatoes.”

Taking the Plunge
Alden Lockley turns 62 this November. Born and raised on a fruit and poultry farm, he spent 25 years with Xerox working as a final run and test operator for new machinery. He retired at 55 and started NuWay Farms, growers of hydroponic tomatoes, in Williamson, NY. But the market didn’t go exactly as planned: “NAFTA put a kibosh on my hydroponic tomatoes,” says Lockley.

Then a greenhouse in neighboring Ontario, NY, came up for sale. Not willing to give up on his agricultural ambitions, Lockley purchased DeLass Greenhouse and Market just a year ago.

The biggest challenge in starting a new business at Lockley’s age is money. “No one wants to hire anyone who’s 60 years old, I’m too young to draw social security, and people don’t want to let you borrow money,” he says. He was finally able to get a small loan, and the former owner of the greenhouse held the mortgage. Despite working 12 to 14 hour days in the spring at the greenhouse, Lockley says his job at Xerox paid more. But he remains optimistic. “Hopefully, in two or three years, this will pay up there,” he says, “I enjoy what I do.”

Gene Smith, 59, and wife Diana started a Victorian bed and breakfast seven years ago. Smith spent 20 years as an assistant archaeologist for the Texas Department of Transportation, which actually prepared him for the switch to bed and breakfast proprietor. “Being an assistant archaeologist, particularly interested in historic archaeology, I knew a lot about historic houses and their furnishings,” he says.

Located in Gonzales, TX, the Houston House Bed & Breakfast has grown by 12 percent each year since opening its doors. But success hasn’t come easy, says Smith: “We had been to workshops, but they never prepare someone for the actual event.” There was more work and time involved than Smith expected, and his start-up costs skyrocketed. Fortunately, two local banks were willing to give them loans and keep the business going.

Another Path
There are those whose midlife career changes are more community-centered. At age 62, Heidi Kost-Gross is in the midst of her first term as commissioner of natural resources for the town of Wellesley, MA. Kost-Gross’ manages conservation efforts, city parks, and all town-owned, undeveloped lands.

Before running for office, Kost-Gross had a great deal of practical experience in her field. A landscape architect for 15 years, she still runs her own local firm, G/S Associates. Her elected position pays no salary.

Unlike those over 50 who experience age-based discrimination when starting a new business, Kost-Gross found her age to be an asset. In fact, she says, aging is a joy: “You have the wisdom to worry less and you accomplish more because of experience.” Kost-Gross has not ruled out running for political office beyond the local level. “I could possibly run statewide,” she says.

Older, Wiser, and Marketable
As people approach retirement age, Rix encourages them to continue thinking about the skills, training, and re-training necessary to stay marketable–no matter what kind of career change one is planning.

“Older workers tend to be discriminated against in continuing education,” says Rix. If an employer offers tuition reimbursement or on-the-job training in new software, take advantage of it. New skills and core knowledge make a person marketable. “Older workers have to show that they’re technologically adept and that they can learn,” she says. Plus, it keeps your learning skills in check.

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