It’s no secret that the economic upheaval of the recession wreaked havoc on many Americans’ retirement plans. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans 55 and older grew by nearly 8 percent — the only group whose workforce participation rates increased. Couple that with many baby boomers’ desire to keep working later into life for personal fulfillment, and you’ve got a cohort who are planning to stay in the workforce for the foreseeable future. And quite naturally, they’re starting to ask: Is this what I want to spend the rest of my career doing?
Reinvention can seem daunting, but so can spending the rest of your professional life doing a job that’s no longer fulfilling.
Reinvigorating the later years of your career can happen in a dramatic way (changing industries) or more subtly (learning new skills or moving to a different job within your company). I spent several years studying and interviewing people who had successfully managed to get out of their professional ruts, and I found eight strategies that are particularly useful for older “reinventers.”
Get clear on your timeline. If you’re planning to retire in 15 years, you have a lot more latitude to experiment than someone who’s planning to retire in two. Of course, if finances aren’t a concern, you can make professional leaps with abandon at any stage. But if they are, the first step is to calculate how many years you plan to continue working full time and decide whether you ultimately want to set yourself up for part-time or more flexible work. If your retirement horizon is shorter, you may want to consider a smaller reinvention — such as shifting to a new position within your same field — rather than retraining for an entirely new career.
Borrow ideas. Now set your timeline aside for a moment, and think of 10 people you know who are doing really interesting things. Maybe your sister has started a side business as a consultant, or a colleague heads up a project at work you find intriguing. Your future opportunities, and even your ideas about what’s possible, often come from your network. Look through your list for any commonalities. Do many of them set their own hours? Are many of them learning a new skill? How many of them are in your current field? Then reach out: Immediately invite at least a few friends or colleagues for coffee.
Develop feasible new skills. Once you’ve loosely mapped out a range of opportunities that could fit both your timeline and your interests, make another list: this one should be of three things you can do in the next several months to enhance your knowledge base. These could include taking an online course, seeking out a new assignment, joining a nonprofit board, or even simply reading five books on a related topic.
Turn “old” skills into new assets. Instead of fixating on how you can fit a different mold, think about how you can fill a void. Write down one or two sentences identifying the knowledge or skills you have that others in your new domain might not. For example, you may not have years of experience in human resources, but your time in the sales department probably gave you a valuable perspective about how to hire the right people that you can bring to a new career in HR.
Don’t be afraid to go backward temporarily. Sometimes, the way forward is by taking a step back. If you’re shifting fields, you may need to take a job at a lower level so you can “learn the ropes” of the new industry, yet often your past experience will then help you leapfrog ahead quickly. Be mindful, though, that you have enough time as a worker still ahead of you to see the payoff. Ask yourself: Will this job help me learn new skills or gain a new perspective? Will I be making useful connections? Is there a clear path to advancement, and how long is it likely to take?
Get online. Increasingly, your professional reputation is shaped by your online reputation. After all, the first thing a potential employer will do after receiving your resume is an Internet search to find out more about you. Don’t leave that impression to chance. Even if you have no interest in starting a blog or a Twitter account, at the very least take a few hours to build a robust LinkedIn profile. It’s a standard assumption these days that any professional has one. Make sure to include your photo and fill out all the fields for education and job history. People can find information about you online whether you put it there or not, so you’re better off crafting the image they see.
Find people to hold you accountable. You’re less likely to be successful if you try to handle your reinvention alone. Make a list of your most thoughtful friends and colleagues. Reach out to between 3 and 6 of them, and ask if they’d like to get together periodically to trade ideas. Schedule a meal with at least one of them, once a month, to keep yourself fresh.
Overcome self-doubt. You may worry it’s too late to reinvent yourself, or think you’ve locked yourself into your current path. But people can — and do — take on new professional challenges all the time. My colleague’s father just completed his Ph.D. at age 66, and another person I know started a career as a political campaign manager after she retired. The most important step is realizing you can do it and projecting that confidence to others, so they’ll feel motivated to help you along your path.
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and author of the newly released Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.