Think You Are Too Old to Start Over?
Whether it's going back to school, or entering a new field, don't underestimate what you will bring to the role — and what you'll learn
Debbie Halpern, 58, of New Jersey, has thought about making a career change for years. Halpern says. "I worried I was too old or maybe I wouldn't enjoy the work. And what if I went through all that effort and, in the end, couldn't make a good living? In retrospect, all the excuses were probably driven by an underlying fear of failure."
Halpern is not alone. Many older adults, especially women, wonder if they should change careers. While the reasons may vary, making a change later in life can be scary, especially when you know if you do, many of your co-workers could be half your age.
Different Reasons for Change
In Halpern's case, she had contemplated a career change for a long time. She says, "I thought about becoming a therapist before I initially went to college, but somehow instead I went to business school. Even though I had a successful career in business, I always thought about 'my road not taken.'"
"I decided to take one class to see if this was something I could do, and several years later, I'm a nurse, applying for jobs with people the same age as my kids."
In contrast, Kasey Kelly (a pseudonym) of New Jersey never thought about being a nurse when she was younger. An advertising executive for many years, Kelly found herself interested in a career in health care after one of her three children was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder.
"It was a combination of wanting to understand better what the doctors were saying and being so inspired by the nurses we met in the hospital," Kelly says. "I decided to take one class to see if this was something I could do, and several years later, I'm a nurse, applying for jobs with people the same age as my kids."
For Randi Hoffman, 63, of New York, the change wasn't one that she initially wanted. Hoffman had been a journalist and a reporter before spending 16 years as a staff writer and public relations person.
"At 51, everyone in my entire department was fired. After a year of contacting everyone I could think of, and over 300 resumes sent out, I didn't have a job," Hoffman says. "I was sinking and getting depressed."
She realized she had to make a change and decided to become an English Second Language (ESL) teacher. "At first, it was hard. I was grieving the fact that I had skills and knowledge that were not valued by the world," admits Hoffman. "But I am a writer and voracious reader, so being an ESL teacher fits with my love of language."
Anne Parris, 52, of Virginia, made a career change after 15 years as a stay-at-home mother. Rather than returning to accounting, the field she worked in before she had kids, she chose a job in marketing.
"The type of marketing I specialize in, affiliate marketing, didn't really exist when I was in college," Parris says.
Lynn Berger, a career counselor and coach based in New York City, says, "Being older, a person may feel they have to approach a career change with a sense of urgency. But it is much better to go about the change methodically. Talk to people, and do research. Try it out before you go all in. You will feel stronger and more confident about the change by taking your time."
Halpern agrees that it is crucial to take it slow. "I started with one online class," she says. "It was a soft start to my journey. I thought there would be absolutely no way I could concentrate for four hours on Zoom every Saturday. That class broke down one of my biggest barriers and made me realize this was the right path forward."
Oldest Student in the Classroom
Making a career change may require additional education. Returning to being a student after so many years out of the classroom can be a big deterrent.
Kelly laughs when recalling one of her first nursing classes. She says, "The professor asked everyone to take out their notepads. I took out a spiral notebook and an actual pencil with an eraser tip. Of course, everyone else in the class had tablets and stylus pens. Then the teacher asked if we all knew what 'Blackboard' was, and I nodded. But he was talking about a software program, not an actual blackboard. It was clear a lot had changed since I had been a student."
"I had a mini breakdown the night before I had to register for classes trying to figure out the registration system. I almost gave up right then."
Halpern also had some trouble adjusting. "Learning new systems and processes was overwhelming at times, " she says. "I had a mini breakdown the night before I had to register for classes trying to figure out the registration system. I almost gave up right then. Thank goodness my kids happened to be home with me and were familiar with it."
Dealing with Ageism
Berger says, "It can be awkward feeling like the oldest person in the room. Everyone deals with it differently. It's a fact, so I usually suggest acknowledging it. Maybe make a joke if that's comfortable for you."
Kelly recalls walking to class one snowy day, struggling as she carried a huge pile of books. When a kind male student asked if she needed help, she accepted his offer. "With my gray hair, I guess he assumed I was the professor," says Kelly. "He was very surprised when I didn't go to the podium and instead took the seat next to him in the classroom."
Parris says, "Everyone I work with is very professional, but I always worry I stand out as an old person."
Adds Hoffman, "When I was working at the private language school, there may have been some co-workers who would have been nicer to me if I were younger or cuter. But that is true regardless; there are always people who are nice and people who aren't in any workplace."
Broadening Your View
As people get older, their world can get smaller. A career change can expose them to a broader, more diverse range of people, young and old.
"My program draws people of all ages and backgrounds," says Halpern. "Part of being in social work is confronting your own cultural biases, and it's amazing to hear other people's experiences that are so different from mine."
"It doesn't bother me to be starting out again. I feel much more confident than I did in my twenties and thirties."
Hoffman also sees her new career as a chance to learn more about people outside her community's lives. She says, "It's valuable for me to see the world through the eyes of people who are so very different from me. My students are mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants wanting to be professionals. It makes me realize the amount of privilege I had growing up middle-class with college-educated parents."
Advantages of Being Older
For many, being older than their co-workers can be an asset. "It doesn't bother me to be starting out again," says Parris. "I feel much more confident than I did in my twenties and thirties. I am more sure of my skills and my value."
Hoffman says, "I've made some good friends with people younger than me. One of them was a single mother. I was able to give support and advice, including that she should go on one more final adventure before her due date. I was probably more assertive than I would have been when I was younger."
"Sometimes patients prefer me to the younger nurses. Because I am older, they think I have more experience," says Kelly. "And while I don't educationally, I have more life experience, and that perspective helps me have more empathy."
Finding Your Group
While it may feel like you are the only person starting at square one, most older adults find that it is not just them. Halpern says, "When I was trying to decide whether to go back to school, I interviewed a lot of people and one of them told me, "the people with more wrinkles find each other," and it's true. We found each other on day one and it's nice to have a little cohort."
Kelly has also bonded with the older students in her program. "We studied together and now we are searching for jobs together," she says. "We share resources and have looked over each other's resumes. We know we may face ageism as new nurses in our fifties, so we have to stick together and support one another."
Connecting the Generations
Part of establishing good working relationships with younger peers is to be open to their ideas. Berger explains, "Don't go in with an attitude of 'I know better because I'm older.' Instead, listen to younger people. Be engaged and have fun learning what you can from them."
"I've always loved the energy of people in their twenties and thirties," she says. "Being around younger people keeps you in touch. It also helps to connect me with my young adult kids."
"Even though they are closer in age to my children, the other nursing students treat me like one of them, not like a 'mom,'" explains Kelly. "They tell me stuff about their lives, their dating — things my kids wouldn't tell me. It helps me to understand what my own children are going through."
Parris has been impressed by many of her millennial and Gen Z co-workers. She says, "I love how empowered and strong the younger women I work with are. I feel like they are freed up from some of the expectations that I had for myself when I was their age."