This online guide takes a “starting points” approach and offers prompts for thinking and talking about important aspects of your career in its mature or advanced stage.
Advanced career is a time in professional life when you have accumulated decades of knowledge and skills and you may well change your priorities about what is most important in your work. Advanced career is also a time of many challenges and complexity in the workplace and on the home front. With mandatory retirement ages now abolished, the phase of advanced career extends indefinitely until by choice or force of circumstance, you leave the workforce.
Traditionally career development focuses on early career and mid-career. After these two stages the common assumption is that you have then reached your peak and your career will plateau or take a downward path until you retire. However, this perspective ignores the value of the next stage of career for professionals in their 50s and 60s and beyond – which we are calling the advanced career stage.
The idea for a Managing advanced career stage transitions guide arose out of a research study of mature-age professionals involving members of Professionals Australia. The study investigated the motivations, workplace experiences, contributions and professional development needs of professionals in later career.
 PhD thesis: Alison Herron 2017, Male engineers extending working life: Issues in ongoing practice development, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.
Some home truths about being an older worker in the contemporary workplace
- Employment discrimination is a major barrier for older people – some people regard older workers as being past their use-by date and can either overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously dismiss your experience and abilities;
- The value of experienced professionals can be disregarded by employers with younger less experienced people representing a cheaper labour supply;
- Professionals can feel robbed of their ongoing professional life when they are made redundant with the timing of their departure taken out of their control;
- Modern intergenerational workplaces are challenging – younger managers can struggle to deal with older professionals in the workplace and can feel threatened by them when they disagree or challenge them ‒ conversely, they can be rightly frustrated if older workers default to the way they’ve always done things before or take an “I know better” attitude;
- Professionals who are made redundant find the world of work they re-enter very different to that of say 20 years ago ‒ getting their CV up-to-date, being offered a short-term contract, being asked to operate as an independent contractor and cover the costs that an employer would have formerly covered, as well as having to deal with interviews at a recruitment agency, labour hire being a standard practice and responsibility for their own skills development, just to name a few;
- It can be difficult to sustain professionalism and high standards of professional practice in modern employment settings;
- The desire to continue long professional careers and defer retirement past the traditional retirement age of 65 is at odds with older people being seen as a burden or out-of-touch and as more likely to be absent or get sick;
- While career disruption is often referred to in the context of women’s career paths, male professionals in the workforce over the last 40 years are also likely to have experienced a level of career disruption or non-linear career advancement in the form of their job changing as a result of outsourcing, restructures, mergers, redundancy and exposure to economic downturns. Reinventing themselves to suit different roles is likely to be part of their career experience.
- Employment in the contemporary workforce takes many forms, some more precarious than others. Instead of permanent or ongoing employment with an organisation, older workers may be on short-term or long-term contracts, contracted with a labour hire company, or self-employed as consultants and independent contractors. The arrangements could be full-time, part-time, casual or project-based.
- Some professionals would like nothing more than to retire from the workforce but financial and other imperatives mean they continue to work beyond when they’d like to bow out.
Do you agree with any of these statements? Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? Then this guide is for you. Read on…..
Understanding advanced career transitions
- You have reached a time in your career when you have acquired high-level knowledge and skills and accumulated a wealth of experience. From that you have developed a depth of competence and professional judgement.
- A time is likely to come when you consciously or subconsciously review what work and your career mean to you and how this might be changing.
- For many professionals the financial imperative of mortgages and raising a family are becoming less pressing while the desire for interesting and challenging work that contributes in some way to a better world are more important career motivators.
- For others, the financial imperative remains strong when their financial future appears fraught, particularly for people whose careers have been disrupted or women whose retirement savings may have been hampered by career breaks.
- You are likely to have experienced many twists and turns in your career. The past decades have seen great changes in workplaces and you have probably been affected by upheavals and restructures from corporatisation and privatisation, outsourcing and offshoring, takeovers and mergers, and the demise of companies and industries. Cost-cutting, retrenchment and contract terminations have been common in workplaces. Perhaps your career has been disrupted by personal factors such as family caring responsibilities or health difficulties.
- Advanced career is a time when people often find that they are integrating the diversity of their learning and experience from across the span of their careers. Years of experience can bring a valuable long-term perspective and the capacity to see connections in the bigger picture. You might be keen to take on roles to pass on your knowledge and mentor the next generation in your workplace or profession. You might also be feeling frustrated and cynical with an attitude of “seen it all before” that is not welcomed by those around you.
- Conversely, advanced career can be a time when you’re feeling less relevant in the workplace and that your contribution is not valued. You might be wishing you could retire but you need to stay in work – maybe because you can’t yet access your retirement savings or need to top up your super, perhaps you haven’t yet knocked the mortgage on the head with those redraws for everything from cars to renovations to your own or your kids’ education expenses, or your adult children may have moved back in with you after travel, job loss or divorce, or you may want to help your kids with a deposit for a house of their own. Lives are complicated and so are the diverse range of people’s needs in this phase of mature adulthood and advanced career. All these life experiences and motivations for working are part of reality and other people’s expectations that as a mature-age professional you should devote time to passing on your experience and knowledge to the next generation might not be on your agenda.
- You may find that at this stage of your career you are not afraid of expressing your opinion or taking a stand on issues or tough decisions in the workplace. The consequences of frank and fearless advice might not be as risky as when you had a mortgage and family responsibilities hanging over your head.
You may not think you know any more than younger colleagues but are convinced you still have a strong contribution to make and enjoy being part of a team of dedicated and intelligent colleagues.
Starting point: Thinking about the role of work in your life
- What part does work take in your life now? How might this change in the future?
- What are your financial pressures?
- Do you want work to be part of your routine and continue to provide the structure and purpose for the way you live? Do you want it to serve as a distraction or a focus?
- This stage of life can be more stable with opportunities to travel and enjoy other interests including spending time with friends, family and grandchildren. It can also be more unpredictable ‒ adult children moving out or back in, changing health and care needs of partners, parents and other family members, or maybe the death of a loved one ‒ with work feeling like yet another stress or providing a useful coping mechanism. Life is complicated and people can find themselves in a myriad of situations where they want work to balance with their unique circumstances.
- What aspects of work are most fulfilling and enjoyable to you now? And what is possible in the future?
- If you had the choice, what aspects of your work would you offload?
- What sort of influence and impact do you wish to continue to have through your work? What would this look like?
- What sort of challenges interest you? What are the professional challenges you’ve avoided or the unfinished business you’d like to resolve? What would you like to achieve before you retire?
- How important is your professional identity to your sense of who you are? Who are you away from your work life? What does this mean for the future?
Starting point: Would you like to see your professional life having an ongoing impact?
Is it important to you to make a difference through your working life that will continue after you leave? If so, what action do you need to take now?
- Many people in advanced career – but by no means everyone – become motivated to pass on their knowledge in some way to help develop younger members of their profession or organisation. Perhaps you are interested in mentoring, teaching, being consulted as a sounding board or a voice of experience. Or maybe you think it is important to document your knowledge so it doesn’t get lost to your organisation or your field of work. If you have such a sense of mission:
- What professional knowledge do you hold that you think is important to pass on to others?
- How could that be achieved most effectively?
- What do you need to be able to do to make that happen?
- Do you need to develop further skills to do this?
- How can you deal with the frustrations of your knowledge being lost when you walk out the door, or your value being ignored, or opportunities and processes not being available for succession planning?
- But don’t be a bighead! Passing on knowledge is not a one-way process. Are you still open to learning from younger generations? Modern organisations can now involve four generations working together. You need to participate in knowledge sharing and ‘thinking together’ for ongoing influence and impact.
- What professional knowledge do you hold that you think is important to pass on to others?
Starting point: Reality check – career appraisal
- What are the chances of creating the future you want in your current workplace or professional field?
- What is the value of your knowledge, skills and experience in your workplace? Do you think others in your workplace value you? If not, could you become more skilled at articulating and communicating your contribution or potential contribution?
- How can you ensure you remain relevant in your professional capacity?
- What professional development or skills training would be useful? Keep in mind that the ‘soft’ interpersonal skills are at least as important as the ‘hard’ technical skills in contemporary workplaces.
- Financial: What income and superannuation do you hope to generate over the coming years?
Starting point: Pathways – Staying the course or an opportunity for reinvention
- No change needed: are you secure and content to continue working as you are now until you retire?
- More flexibility – e.g. working from home on a regular basis to reduce commute time; reduced hours or days; reduced weeks in a year. Implications and feasibility for you? Read about options for working flexibly here:
- Role change – would you like to negotiate a new role or adapt your existing role? Can you identify other niches for your expertise? Is a change of employer feasible?
- Shift to self-employment – would this be a developmental career move, a survival strategy or a transition to retirement? Make an inventory of your strengths, skills and experience across your whole career to identify your leverage points. In what ways can you lay the groundwork before your leave your employer?
Start with our Guide to Getting Started in Business and move on to our other resources available here.
- If you are already self-employed – could you be more selective or do you need to take all work that comes your way? Are you renewing referral networks, creating new collaborations, finding new niches?
- What professional development and skills training would be useful?
- To open up your thinking, could you talk to peers who are in a similar situation or people who have reinvented their later career in ways that might interest you?
Starting point: Fitting in
Feelings of isolation or being on the outside as an older person in the contemporary workplace are very common. Not all older workers in the workplace are senior and even where they are, people can struggle to maintain their relevance and sense of place and value. Younger line managers can feel intimidated by an older employee’s level of experience. HR policies about diversity and inclusion might not be practised in daily working life. A sense of belonging is a basic human need.
Alternatively, being an “elder” in a profession or organisation with more advisory roles can involve a shift to the periphery of the main action. You might be comfortable with this shift as a transition of advanced career.
Tips for dealing with feelings of isolation
- It’s easier to change your own attitude or behaviour than other people’s.
- What can you do to improve your daily experience of work?
- Are you friendly, open, encouraging and positive towards those with less experience or different experience from yours? Do you convey a continuing interest in learning and keeping up with what is current?
- Do you need to try a different approach or do some skills training to ensure you can communicate your relevance and value to colleagues and line managers?
- The modern workplace culture of googling for information, emailing and use of social media in preference to face-to-face and telephone conversations can have an isolating effect. Are there ways you could create more direct contact with colleagues:
- Encourage or invite people to discussions over a coffee – maybe out of office for a change of scene. Are there some like-minded co-workers you could connect with?
- Contribute to or initiate interest groups or communities of practice with cross-generational or cross-disciplinary colleagues. Or perhaps form an interest group with your peers in advanced career to discuss shared issues.
- If you are physically isolated through working from a home office or in a setting with few interactions, set up strategies to bring yourself into environments where you have contact and can perhaps collaborate face to face with others.
- If change is impossible, you can still choose your attitude to the situation. If you are not in a position to find other employment or retire, you might choose to accept the work culture for what it is while you focus on an interesting aspect of the content of your job and creating a valued life outside work.
- Finally, if you believe you are being discriminated against or bullied, contact Professionals Australia for support and advice.
Starting point: Options when you find yourself in the middle of a running battle not of your own creation
While this experience is not unique to the advanced career stage, there’s no doubt that at times, younger managers may feel threatened or that they’re being second-guessed by an older more experienced professional. At this career stage, it’s possible that others will invoke ageist stereotypes and you’ll be cast as anti-change, intransigent in your views or out-of-date and an adversarial situation is created.
Older professionals in these circumstances may be unfairly targeted for redundancy, “gunned” for, sidelined or “frozen out”. These attacks may be tacitly or openly sanctioned by senior management or they may be unaware of the dynamics playing out on the floor.
Assess your options:
- Ensure it’s a pattern and not an isolated incident.
- Ensure you’re not defaulting to the way you’ve always done things and are not just adopting an “I know better approach”. Have you actively listened to what’s being proposed? Can you contribute more constructively by suggesting a compromise or win-win position rather than being negative? Can you do this in a collaborative way without appearing to undermine the younger manager? Check your entitlement mentality – are you assuming you know best and that your opinion will take precedence because you’re older and more senior? Are you underestimating the value of the views of others? Take the time for valuable self-reflection.
- Attempt to deal with the elephant in the room by having a discussion with your manager and clarifying the situation so you know where you stand.
- Consider your best course of action:
- Do the actions constitute workplace bullying or harassment? If so, contact Professionals Australia to discuss your options in detail.
- Dig in – positively – don’t let others drive your career decisions. Part of your role as a professional is to use your judgement and the evidence to hand to raise issues and concerns, assess and evaluate proposals and to have input on decisions. In the case of proposed workplace change or restructures, it may be that your view is that the changes have the potential to negatively impact quality of service, have been tried before and haven’t worked, or may compromise professional standards, ethics or the business bottom line. Those in decision-maker roles may not have anticipated these impacts or see them as important. When this occurs, you can be seen as negative and/or obstructing change rather than facilitating it. In these cases, it is critical that you take a strategic approach and articulate the issues in a way that emphasises the potential for negative strategic impact on the organisation. If others see your critique as negative and make the situation personal, ensure you make it clear that your views arise solely from concerns about strategic impact on the organisation or service quality. Ensure you conduct these conversations in a respectful and courteous way.
- Is the personal toll on you worth the stress? Depending on management’s approach, consider an exit strategy that balances your needs and those of the employer.
Starting point: A phased or abrupt transition to full retirement
- Do you have a choice about the timing and arrangements for how you will retire? Who has influence over the decision? What does that mean for you?
- Who will initiate the discussion – You? Your line manager? HR? What are the benefits and risks of entering a discussion?
- Is a redundancy package an option?
- What flexible work options and phased transitions does your employer offer? Are they feasible for you?
- There’s no “best way” to transition to retirement. It depends on each person’s preferences and circumstances. Talk to a range of people who have used gradual and ‘cold turkey’ approaches to leaving their paid career.
- If you are preparing for retirement you will need skills and resources:
- What do you want your life to look like beyond your current work arrangement?
- Does it include ongoing professional work? How would you like this to be? Shifting from salaried employment to self-employment?
- Does it include other avenues of paid work? e.g. Another career/occupation? A less demanding type of work?
- Consult some of the array of self-help books about adjusting to retirement and developing new interests. Talk to others who have been through the experience.
Starting point: Managing your energy
We have four sources of energy according to Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. They all need attention and help us cope with the demands and continual change we are confronted with in modern life.
- Become aware of what feeds your energy and what saps your energy. Can you balance these any better than you are now? How could you look after yourself better?
- How well are your health and energy matched to the demands of your work? Can anything be modified?
Dr Alison Herron
Since qualifying as a social worker in 1977 Alison has worked as a social work practitioner, program manager, retirement educator and researcher. Her career has spanned the three levels of government, the community and health sectors, academia and small business. Over the past 25 years she has turned her attention as a practitioner and researcher to how older people can lead fulfilling lives, unconstrained by negative and reductive ageist attitudes. Her qualitative research focuses on the transitions of mid-life, late career and retirement, along with how learning and creativity as leisure interests can enhance people’s sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Alison completed her PhD at Swinburne University of Technology (Faculty of Business & Law) in 2017. Her thesis investigated the experience of later working life for professional engineers. Now at the University of Melbourne, Alison continues to pursue her interest in understanding the social dimensions of ageing from the perspective of older people themselves.
Dr. Herron would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Kim Rickard in the preparation of this guide.