Good news for older workers seeking new careers

Most older workers making a career change end up doing so successfully, according to "New Careers for Older Workers," a recent survey report from the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). This is good news for the many Americans who'll be delaying their retirement and continuing to work. According to the AIER report, 82 percent of workers over age 50 report they'll continue to work for pay in retirement, and 47 percent say they'll retire later than they previously thought.

To ease the transition to retirement, many older Americans take on part-time jobs or jobs that pay less money than they had been making, an option often referred to as "bridge jobs." A relatively new phenomenon is that many older workers don't want bridge jobs but want to move into permanent new careers. The AIER report defines a career change as a new job that involves learning new skills, either for the same employer or a new employer, in either the same or new field. According to the report, 1 million to 2 million workers between ages 45 and 65 changed careers between 2011 and 2012.

Changing careers has significant economic benefits, including delaying drawing down your retirement resources in order to increase your retirement income from Social Security and retirement savings, and obtaining affordable health insurance. But it has other benefits as well. Some people desire work that has more personal meaning, often moving into helping and teaching professions. Recent research also suggests that working in your later years may improve your health and longevity.

The AIER survey reports that 82 percent of older workers who wanted to change careers were able to make the move, and of these workers, an overwhelming majority (90 percent) report that it was successful. A majority of survey respondents report they're now following their passions and are less stressed, and that it didn't take too long for them to find a new job. While many report that they took an initial pay cut, half of the career changers increased their income over time.

The successful career changers relied on skills they already had, whereas the unsuccessful career changers were more likely to try to learn entirely new skills. This implies how important it is for workers making a career change to identify their current skill set and figure out how to transfer them to a new career. The report identified six skills at least 50 percent of the successful career changers transferred:

  • Problem solving
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Public communication
  • Reading comprehension
  • Customer service
  • Basic computer skills

Surprisingly, the AIER survey found that many successful career changers reported not using strategies that are often advocated as necessary to change careers:

  • 77 percent didn't take online classes
  • 97 percent didn't receive a grant or scholarship to start a new job
  • 84 percent didn't use formal networking resources such as LinkedIn or career fairs
  • 90 percent didn't volunteer in order to become a paid employee

Formal training and education programs delivered mixed results, although many respondents reported the importance of updating their skills.

If you're consider such a career change, you'll find several lessons from these respondents' experiences, especially that it's important that you prepare yourself emotionally for a career change. Of the successful career changers:

  • 87 percent reported that it takes courage
  • 71 percent said it was difficult
  • 49 percent reported that they were very nervous
  • 27 percent mentioned that their work colleagues thought they were crazy to make a career change

Family support is a critical resource, according to 88 percent of the successful career changers. In addition, before making any moves, older workers desiring a career change will need to be clear about the challenges they'll face and the resources they'll need.

The survey presents an encouraging look at older workers who've made career changes. It appears that many employers are hiring older workers, countering a commonly held belief that age discrimination exists and that it prevents many older people from being hired. While age discrimination certainly takes place in some work environments, older workers shouldn't be discouraged from seeking a new career and from looking for those enlightened employers who welcome older workers.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.