Your Next Move: Think Like a Transitionist

What must professionals over 50 do now to shape their careers before retirement? The key: Become a skilled transitionist.

Tattoo it on your arm. Embroider it on a sofa pillow. Write it on a giant stickie note to hang above your desk. If you’re serious about career fulfillment, do whatever is necessary to keep this message front of mind:

“The only thing that you can be sure of about the consequences of longer and healthier lives is that transitions will become routine. We will all need to become skilled transitionists, able to learn, grow, and reinvent ourselves. Repeatedly.” That’s according to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in her piece for Harvard Business Review, “What Happens When Careers Last 20 Years Longer?”

People I talk to are not talking about traditional retirement.

Given the dizzying pace of workforce change, the prospect of routine job transitions is very real to association professionals of all ages. But the message should be particularly riveting if you’re 50 or older.

The fact is, it’s increasingly improbable that you will glide into retirement with only a brief pause to collect your gold watch. Much more likely is some unexpected circumstance that will force a career pivot. Or a change in your thinking may make you eager for something different despite, or maybe because of, your age.

For some, the change may mean climbing the last few rungs to the C-suite. Others may look for downshifting options that keep them working but at a less-demanding pace. Still others may try consulting or another form of entrepreneurship. No matter the particulars, the change will be smoother if you consciously view yourself as a transitionist—making things happen in your life, rather than just letting things happen to you.

“People I talk to in this time of my life are not talking about traditional retirement. They’re in an exciting, anticipatory mood, feeling, ‘What can I do next?’ rather than, ‘My life is going to be over in a few years,’” says Barbara Mitchell, an HR consultant and author who blogs for ASAE’s Association CareerHQ.

five-year plan

If you need to boil down that “transitionist” quote for your tattoo, use this: “Five years.” That’s the ideal amount of time you need to prepare for a significant late-career change, says Kerry Hannon, AARP’s career expert and author of Getting the Job You Want After 50.

Why? Five years is a practical amount of time to take several important steps:

Assess yourself and your skills. Entire books have been written on how to do this. But essentially, start by dreaming: What do you love to do? Next, take a clear-eyed view of what you do truly well. Get third-party insights from friends, colleagues, or a professional coach.

Then conduct the hard work of figuring out where dreams and skills intersect. “Do informational interviews,” says Mitchell. You’d like to be a sous-chef? Find one and find out what they do—and maybe work alongside them.

“I love the idea of, let’s give it a try, even for a week. It can make you open and excited about something new—rather than focused on 15 reasons why it won’t work,” says Mitchell. When she did this, she found that what she really wanted to do was write. A decade later, she has published three books and has contracts for two more.

Commit to learning. Once you figure out what meaningful work looks like to you, the five-year timeline gives you time to pursue the necessary skills or certifications. “Some people want to retire early because they’re bored. They’ve quit learning and stopped raising their hand,” says Hannon. “So raise your hand. If you’re offered training, always take it.” Technology is often a big stumbling block for older job seekers, so one course at a time, conquer it. “And make sure you have it in your LinkedIn profile.”

Get financially fit. “Debt is the dream killer,” says Hannon. Your five-year plan could include paying down credit cards, launching your kids, and maybe even downsizing your home. With less debt, “you’re nimble. You have the luxury to take on jobs at a lower salary and do work you love.”

Like any phase of life, the late-career stage is best approached with “passion and purpose,” says Donna Kastner, who, over her 35-year career, has been a high school band director, a consultant in the meetings industry, and now founder of the Retirepreneur digital community. “Strive to understand the areas where you outperform others and explore the best ways to share that knowledge.”

The 50s and 60s will emerge as creative new decades of renewal, mobility, and wisdom.

Reinvent or Redeploy?

The very conditions that make today’s workplace perilous for older execs also create opportunities. For example, they’re well-positioned to fill the talent gap between baby boomers and millennials. Kastner believes the next 10 years present a unique opportunity to share your rich experience, whether in finance, meeting planning, or something else.

“There is a need for older professionals who are truly mentors and trainers, passing along tribal knowledge to the next generations,” she says. “For example, if you need help moving a strategic plan ahead, an experienced professional can be invaluable for high-level training.”

Hannon suggests another approach: Many people in their 50s and 60s are finding ways to serve those in their 70s and 80s. An IT pro can provide home technology services. A business manager can open a bill-paying service. A healthcare expert can consult on retrofitting homes for those who age in place.

Failure-Proof Your Future

Those are some of the things you should do to become a successful transitionist. But here’s what you should not do:

Fail to update your resume to tell your story in a fresh way.

Fail to develop a presence on social media. “Employers are going to Google you, and if they don’t see you, they will think you don’t exist or aren’t comfortable with technology,” says Hannon.

Fail to get coaching, to network, or both.

Fail to stay mentally and physically fit so employers can see at a glance that you’re vibrant and ready to go.

Fail to do anything at all.

“As people age more healthily and work longer, the 50s and 60s will emerge as creative new decades of renewal, mobility, and wisdom,” Wittenberg-Cox wrote for HBR. “Aging societies may not be the sad and boring future everyone fears. They may be an innovative and promising reinvention of human potential.”


Karla Taylor

By Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. MORE

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