Think you’re too old to start over? – Next avenue | Team Cansler

Whether you’re going back to school or entering a new field, don’t underestimate what you’ll bring to the role—and what you’ll learn

Debbie Halpern, 58, from New Jersey, has been considering a career change for years. says Halpern. “I worried that I was too old or that I wouldn’t enjoy the work. And what if I went through all that effort and ended up not being able to make a good living from it? In retrospect, all the excuses were probably driven by an underlying fear of failure.”

“As you get older, you might feel like you need to approach a career change with a sense of urgency. But it’s far better to approach the switch methodically. Talk to people and do your research. Give it a try before you go all out. “ | Recognition: Getty

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 daunting, especially when you know that many of your peers are half your age.

Various reasons for changes

In the case of Halpern, she had long considered a career change. She says: “I thought about being a therapist before I went to college, but somehow I went to business school instead. Even though I’ve had a successful career in business, I always kept in mind that ‘my path hasn’t gone yet’.”

“I decided to take a course to see if I could do that, and a few years later I’m a nurse applying for jobs with people the same age as my kids.”

In contrast, Kasey Kelly (a pseudonym) from New Jersey never considered being a nurse when she was younger. A longtime advertising executive, Kelly became interested in a career in healthcare after one of her three children was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease.

“It was a combination of wanting to better understand what the doctors were saying and being inspired by the nurses we met at the hospital,” says Kelly. “I decided to take a course to see if I could do that, and a few 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 what she originally wanted. Hoffman was a journalist and reporter before becoming a staff writer and public relations officer for 16 years.

“At 51, everyone in my entire department was fired. After a year of contacting everyone I could think of and sending out over 300 applications, I didn’t have a job,” says Hoffman. “I was sinking and got depressed.”

She realized she had to change something and decided to become a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL). “It was tough at the beginning. I mourned the fact that I had skills and knowledge that the world didn’t appreciate,” Hoffman admits. “But I’m a writer and a voracious reader, so being an ESL teacher fits my love of the language.”

Anne Parris, 52, from Virginia, has made a career change after 15 years as a housewife. Rather than return to accounting, the field she worked in before having children, she chose a job in marketing.

“The type of marketing that I specialize in, affiliate marketing, didn’t really exist when I was in college,” says Parris.

Start slow

Lynn Berger, a New York City-based careers consultant and coach, says, “As you get older, you might feel like you need to approach a career change with a sense of urgency. But it’s far better to approach the switch methodically. Talk people and do your research. Give it a try before you go all out. You’ll feel stronger and more confident if you take your time.”

Halpern agrees that taking it slow is key. “I started with an online course,” she says. “It was a gentle start to my journey. I thought it would be absolutely impossible to focus on Zoom for four hours every Saturday. This course has removed one of my biggest barriers and made me realize that this is the right way forward.”

Oldest student in the classroom

A career change may require additional training. Being a student again after so many years outside of the classroom can be a huge deterrent.

Kelly laughs as she recalls one of her first nursing courses. She says: “The professor asked everyone to take out their notepads. I took out a spiral notebook and a real eraser-tipped pencil. Of course everyone else in the class had tablets and pens. Then the teacher asked if we all knew what ‘Blackboard’ was and I nodded. But he was talking about a software program, not a real Blackboard. It was clear that a lot had changed since I was a student.”

“I had a bit of a meltdown the night before I had to register for class trying to figure out the registration system. I almost gave up.”

Halpern also had adjustment difficulties. “Learning new systems and processes was overwhelming at times,” she says. “I had a bit of a meltdown the night before I had to register for class trying to understand the registration system. I almost gave up there. Thank goodness my kids happened to be at my house and knew about it.”

Dealing with age discrimination

Berger says, “It can be awkward to feel like the oldest person in the room. Everyone deals with it differently. It’s a fact, so I usually suggest acknowledging it. Maybe you’re joking, if that’s comfortable for you.”

Kelly recalls walking to class on a snowy day and struggling while carrying a huge stack of books. When a friendly male student asked if she needed help, she accepted his offer. “With my gray hair, he probably assumed I was the professor,” says Kelly. “He was very surprised when I didn’t go to the podium but sat next to him in the classroom.”

Parris says, “Everyone I work with is very professional, but I always worry that I’ll be noticed as an old person.”

Hoffman adds, “When I was working at the private language school, maybe there were some colleagues who would have been nicer to me if I was younger or cuter than people who aren’t in any workplace.”

Broaden your view

As people get older, their world can get smaller. A career change can expose them to a wider and more diverse range of people, young and old.

“My program attracts people of all ages and backgrounds,” says Halpern. “Part of social work is coming to terms with your own cultural biases, and it’s amazing to hear other people’s experiences that are so different from mine.”

“I don’t mind starting again. I feel a lot 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 of the life of her community. She says: “It is 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 children of immigrants who want to become professionals. It makes me realize how privileged I was growing up in the middle class with college educated parents.”

Benefits of Older Age

For many, being older than their peers can be an advantage. “I don’t mind starting again,” says Parris. “I feel a lot more confident than I did in my 20’s and 30’s. I am more confident in my abilities and worth.”

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 her support and advice, including telling her to have one last adventure before her due date. I was probably more assertive than I would have been when I was younger.”

“Sometimes patients prefer me to younger nurses. Because I’m older, they think I have more experience,” says Kelly. “And even though I don’t have an education, I have more life experience, and that perspective helps me have more empathy.”

Find your group

While it may feel like you’re the only person starting from scratch, most older adults find that it’s 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 said to me, ‘The people with more wrinkles find each other,’ and it’s true. We found each other day one and it’s nice to have a small cohort.”

Kelly has also bonded with the older students in her program. “We studied together and are now looking for jobs together,” she says. “We share resources and looked at each other’s resumes. We know that as new nurses in our fifties we may face ageism so we need to stick together and support each other.”

connecting generations

Part of building good working relationships with younger colleagues is being open to their ideas. Berger explains, “Don’t go in with an ‘I know better because I’m older’ attitude. Instead, listen to younger people. Be engaged and have fun learning as much as you can from them.”

“I’ve always loved the energy of people in their 20s and 30s,” she says. “When you’re with younger people, you stay in touch. It also helps me connect with my young adult children.”

“Even though they’re closer in age to my kids, the other nursing students treat me like one of them, not like a ‘mother,'” explains Kelly. “They tell me things about their lives, their dates – things that my kids wouldn’t tell me. It helps me understand what my own children are going through.”

Parris has been impressed by many of her Millennial and Gen Z peers. She says: “I love how empowered and strong the younger women I work with are. I feel like they are relieved of some of the expectations I had of myself when I was their age.”

Randy Mazella
Randy Mazella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture and life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Read more about her work at randimazzella.com. Continue reading

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