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Challenges of Mid-Career Transitions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brynne VanHettinga
July 7, 2015

Jumping Graduate - Van HettingaMany workers anticipate that a return to school for a postgraduate degree (masters or doctorate) will either give them an edge for promotion or broaden their career options. While there are benefits from the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, additional education does not automatically translate into better outcomes in the job market.

For those who work in the public sector, this is especially true in an era of fiscal austerity, political demands to shrink government and the ongoing assault on legal job protections for public workers. The reality of so-called “overeducation” or the diminishing return of additional education in the job market has been documented by labor market researchers, although it has received scant attention in the popular media.

An additional problem noted by economists is a U-shaped curve of career satisfaction, which has been found to occur across all socio-economic levels and cultures. Young people begin careers with a high degree of optimism, believing that they will somehow beat the odds, rise to the top and achieve career and financial success. When these overly optimistic expectations do not materialize, this results in disappointment and disillusion in midlife. Around their middle 50s, when workers bottom out on the life and career satisfaction curve, they begin to re-evaluate their expectations, coming to terms with reality and formulating strategies for the remainder of their careers and their lives.

Female Graduate - Van HettingaIn addition to this very real psycho-social “midlife crisis,” midlife career changers face equally real structural challenges in the job market. One structural factor is that many jobs are designed to be dead-end. The jobholder is selected to fill a particular skill set in the organizational hierarchy and most jobs are not designed with upward mobility in mind.

Some fortunate employees work in so-called “learning organizations,” places where employee learning and growth is built into the organizational structure and the employer may even help pay for continued schooling and advanced degrees outside of the workplace. However, for most workers, upward mobility is a self-improvement project and often involves a complex strategy of job-hopping and continuous networking.

A 2014 AARP survey in eight states found that one-third of respondents had either personally experienced–or knew someone who experienced—age discrimination in the workplace. Another AARP survey finds that job uncertainty is the most pressing economic issue among workers age 50 and older. The irony is that as older workers are postponing (or plan to postpone) retirement for economic reasons, they are being short-changed in the job market. A second obstacle faced by midlife career changers is age discrimination. Unlike gender or racial discrimination, age discrimination is harder to detect because there is no specific animus against older people in general. Everyone loves Grandma and Great Uncle Joe; they just don’t want to hire them. Younger workers are viewed as being cheaper and less demanding, as well as more familiar with technology. Indeed, some employers even post job announcements requesting applicants who are “digital natives,” or code for “no older than 35.”

Graduation Cap and Diploma - Van Hettinga

So, as a mid-career worker with a new postgraduate degree, what kind of future can you reasonably expect?  You now have the benefit of a recent degree (evidence that your training and skills are not obsolete), along with some record of experience (which your younger classmates may not be able to claim). Even with the unfortunate reality of age discrimination, in the ever-escalating arms race in the competition for jobs, you have some advantages.

If you are in the process of a job or career change, the first step will be to identify so-called “transferable” skills. You may need to enlist some outside help to do this effectively. Job placement centers now have programs that assist military veterans transition to civilian jobs. There is expertise out there in this type of career reframing. As one career transition expert advises, “Judicious self-promotion and a healthy assessment of one’s personal as well as professional strength and skills are the first steps to effective self-marketing.”

In summary, a successful career transition will require older career-changers to find ways to reframe their skills and experience, deal with age discrimination and possibly even manage their own anxieties. There is also the reality of job market deficiencies as well as the use of over-exclusive skills criteria and job-matching algorithms by employers. For many of us, it will require time and effort to find (or create) the ideal career match. However, we can take comfort that our new degrees provide evidence that we have the tenacity and persistence to set goals and achieve our objectives.


Author: Brynne VanHettinga obtained a J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1992, followed by a varied career representing middle and working class employees and families (Arizona and North Carolina), regulating/prosecuting financial entities (Florida), and legislative analysis and lobbying (Texas). In February 2015, Brynne was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University. Brynne’s email is[email protected]

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