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Changing Career Course Doesn’t Make You a Quitter

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I’ve had a successful 25-year career as a nurse and thought I wanted to become a psychotherapist. At 54 and a perfectionist, I’ve taken several of the graduate courses and am concerned about the length of the program and the internship. I’m having second thoughts about spending four years in the program, yet I don’t want to be a quitter. My friends know I am in graduate school. I am not sure what to do. Your thoughts? 

Answer: Your struggle is understandable. No one wants to feel like a “quitter.”

For many, midlife was a linear experience. You attended high school, then college and became an engineer, teacher, administrator or nurse. You worked for an employer for 25 to 30 years with clear values: hard work, good performance, stability and security.

Today, change is the new norm. In the 1990s, corporate cultures shifted from paternalism to employee self-reliance. We are still in the period of self-reliance with employers doing less for their employees. I mention this because individuals are drivers of their own professional destiny.

That means each of us takes some risks to make our work and professional life not only a source of income, but work that fits with our values, what we want to become and what we want to contribute.

A recent article in BusinessWeek (Nov. 11) by Marc Freedman is germane to your question. Freedman is CEO of Civic Ventures, a think tank in San Francisco that works to define the second half of adult life as a time of individual and social renewal. Through research and strategic alliances, it demonstrates the value of experience in solving serious social problems.

According to Freedman, an unprecedented number of those in their 50s are charting a different life course, compared to their parents. Many are seeking not only income, but meaning, particularly since they are likely to work for another 10 to 20 years.

The path to finding that career is not well-charted. Freedman calls it a “do-it-yourself project made all the worse by tough financial times.” Consultants – such as life coaches, financial planners and headhunters – have tackled the issues. They all charge a fee. When millions of people are confronting the same issue, Freedman continues, we are faced with a social imperative.

After World War II, we had the GI Bill to assist soldiers in adapting to civilian life. With 10,000 boomers turning 50 each day, we are faced with another imperative and opportunity.  Freedman suggests four changes to provide the path, opportunity and benefit to the nation:

Change our attitude:
We need to recognize the change as a transition – a process – rather than a transaction – a single job change. It’s what you will do and what you will be.

Create new social institutions: We need to offer opportunities that we extend to young adults: education and internships.

Develop ways to finance the transition:
The financial services industry should develop accounts that are aimed at the midlife transition. One idea is the IPA – Individual Purpose Accounts – providing tax breaks for education, training and fellowships after age 50.

Create innovative public policies: We have started with the federal Serve America Act, which partially funds 10 encore fellowships in each state, for Americans 55 and older. The fellowships are for one-year management or leadership positions in nonprofit organizations. A national human resource strategy is needed.

On a more personal note, time means more as we march through the life stages. We realize we are mortal and that time is a gift, not to be wasted.  Given that, it makes perfect sense to change one’s mind. Such a change takes greater courage and strength than marching along with others because of social expectations. Midlife is a time for authenticity, to be who we are. And, shifting gears is part of the process.

When someone asks, “How is school going?” you might respond, “I have made a decision I don’t think I want to spend the next four years as a student and intern. Given what I have learned, combined with my past experience as a successful health professional, I am going to chart a new course, and am very excited to do so.”

Thank you for your good question and best wishes for charting a successful path to your next career.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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