This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review.
I was manning a booth at the Harvard Club of New York’s authors’ night when an older woman approached and picked up a copy of my book, Reinventing You. She paged through it for a moment, then put it down. “Too late for me,” she said abruptly, and walked away.
Over the past six months of my book tour, it’s a question I’ve heard often. Isn’t professional reinvention just for young people? What if I’m too old? How can I spend years training for something new, when I’m already near retirement? It’s true: reinvention is different later in your career. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
In fact, it’s increasingly essential for any professional who aspires to remain in the workforce for any length of time. Steven Rice, Executive VP of Human Resources for Juniper Networks, told me he specifically asks job applicants, “How are you adapting, and approaching your next reinvention curve?” The reasons, he says, is that, “People have to reinvent themselves to fit into the new context of work.” After speaking with hundreds of Baby Boomers (and beyond) who want to reinvent themselves but fear it’s too late, I’ve identified several key points for older workers who hope to make a transition.
Understand you do have enough time. Some people think it’s not worth it to undertake any major changes later in life. Others disagree — such as my mother, who decided to get braces in her 50s, because she could be “either two years older, or two years older with straight teeth.” If money isn’t a concern, there’s no reason you can’t explore wildly new areas. (One friend’s father recently received his PhD at age 66.) If you’re still earning for retirement, you can absolutely pursue reinvention, but may want to consider more subtle shifts, such as taking classes on the side to expand your skills, rather than taking several years off to get a doctorate.
Of course you’re overqualified — own it. I’ve heard from many over-50 “reinventers” who have been turned down for jobs in new areas because they’re overqualified. Frankly, you can see why. Once someone has been a powerful executive, it’s flummoxing to understand why they’d settle for anything remotely less prestigious (short of true economic desperation). Wouldn’t they be resentful all the time? Instead of ducking the issue, I advise older professionals to lead with it. “You might wonder how I’d respond to being managed by someone younger than me, when I used to manage a large staff,” you could say. “That’s exactly why I want this job and part of the value I bring. Having been a manager, I understand the pressures and frustrations they face, so I can be an even better employee. And I’m eager to learn about this new area from someone with real expertise in it.”
Get with the times. Why should you be active on social media? Because — for better or worse — it is no longer optional. It’s even more critical for executives over 50 to have a social presence because it’s increasingly viewed as a proxy for staying current professionally. If your digital footprint is lacking and you don’t have a presence on basic sites like LinkedIn or Twitter, you’re likely to be dismissed as a Luddite. Indeed, even the basic notion of writing a resume is becoming antiquated; your “shadow resume” is Google.
Connect with your past. We all know professional opportunities are likely to come from our existing network of contacts. But many don’t realize some of the most valuable information and opportunities come from “dormant ties,” or people we’ve lost touch with from the past. As Wharton professor Adam Grant writes, “Just like weak ties, dormant ties offer novel information: in the years since you last communicated, they’ve connected with new people and gathered new knowledge. But unlike weak ties…the history and shared experience makes it faster and more comfortable to reconnect, and you can count on them to care more about you than your acquaintances do.” It may be time to reach out and reintroduce yourself.
Surprise people. On the other hand, your strong ties – the people you currently work with closely – may have developed fixed ideas about who you are and what you’re capable of, especially if you’ve been working in the same company or industry for a long time. If you want to reinvent yourself, you need to upend those assumptions, and hopefully do it in a dramatic way, so they’re sure to notice. Make a point of taking on an unexpected leadership role, taking a class in a new subject like computer programming, or explicitly requesting an assignment that intrigues you (your boss and colleagues may have grown to feel over the years that they “know what you’re interested in,” so it’s time to prove them wrong). Make them stop and question their assumptions about you.
Reinvention after 50 is more than possible; it’s critical to keeping your skills fresh and your work fulfilling. Between staying current with social media, owning your history, reconnecting with old contacts, and shaking up the ossified view that current colleagues may have of you, you’ll soon be ready for the next chapter in your professional life.