Autumn Harvest: Helping Clients Cultivate Meaningful Careers at Midlife and Beyond
By Maggie McCormick
Leaves are turning colors, temperatures are dropping, and crops are being harvested in most of the northern hemisphere. As this year is coming to a close, farmers are planning for crop rotation next year. Similarly, for some of our clients, the seasons of their lives are now changing. Often their work environments or life circumstances shift and they began to consider different futures.
Historically, career counselors simply provided retirement planning to a few clients. The assistance was focused on leaving the working world and selecting a leisure activity. Until recently, the usual (sometimes mandatory) retirement age of 65 ensured that little career planning happened for older generation. Now, retirement doesn't exist - life is being reimagined (Leider and Weber, 2013). People in the autumn of life are seeking the services of career counselors with new and purposeful questions.
In this season of life, how can we help our clients manage their careers effectively? What approaches will be most “fruitful” for them?
To answer these questions, let’s look at the story of Bruce, age 60, who has successfully navigated several employment twists and turns over the past few years. He is currently experiencing great satisfaction in his most recent role as safety coordinator and human resources director for a modular home company.
A few years ago, Bruce found himself in a job situation that was draining and unfulfilling, so he decided to take early retirement and find something else to do. Armed with a Master’s degree in public administration and a broad background that included construction, city planning, university research administration, state and federal lobbying, and work as a military field medic, Bruce looked around for new opportunities. In addition to his education and work experience, volunteer work with his church and American Red Cross Disaster Services provided fertile ground for finding opportunities by connecting him with people who could recognize and verify his talents. This led to his trying new experiences, first working as a food service manager, then for awhile as a restaurant chef, a job he had always wondered about and wanted to explore.
Thankful for his retirement benefits and a supportive, working spouse, he continued volunteering and networking, both during and in between periods of paid employment. Some months later, he came across an advertisement for a modular home company looking for someone with a construction background. He followed up and secured an interview. Bruce succeeded by convincing the interviewer to look beyond a list of job requirements to see how his experience could meet the needs of the company. He got the job because he emphasized his “unique fit vs. filling a box.”
Bruce’s success in starting a fulfilling encore career did not come by accident. Throughout this journey, Bruce sent out many resumes and completed online applications. He maintained a presence in social media, including LinkedIn and Facebook, letting others know he was looking for employment. But ultimately, those activities were not what made the difference in attaining meaningful work. Bruce’s success reflects three consistent themes in his approach to preparing for a fruitful harvest, strategies your clients might adopt in cultivating midlife career opportunities:
First, he obtained clarity about what he was bringing to the table. By knowing his product, he could effectively sell it. It is critical that career development professionals help clients identify their strengths, transferable skills, and values, as well as articulate them effectively on paper and in person.
A natural extension of this strategy is to look at the big picture. Consider all meaningful activities and experiences: paid employment, volunteer work, community activities, interests, and hobbies. Help your clients connect past experiences to envision a new future. And as Bruce proved, it will be essential for them to then assist potential employers with seeing the same big picture, aligning their skills and experience with what the employer needs.
One of Bruce’s most effective strategies was making personal contact, which he leveraged in multiple ways. Rather than making the online search a full-time job, he continued networking through community activities and volunteer work, sowing seeds for future opportunities. Bruce found it essential to get in front of people. No matter how impactful the resume or how persuasive the cover letter, these job search tools alone don’t always lead to interviews. Personal contact, early on, enabled potential employers to get to know Bruce and afford him the chance to make the case for how he could contribute to their organization. He also found it useful to attend job fairs, not so much for actually finding openings, but as he put it, “to see what your competition is.” Attendance at a job fair may provide valuable context for the job market. Those whose only job search strategy is the use of technology often find themselves isolated and without a realistic view of how they stack up in relation to other job seekers. And, of course, job fairs do provide another opportunity to get in front of people and connect.
In addition to clarifying one’s strengths, looking at the big picture, and making personal contact, Bruce’s positive attitude was a major factor in his successfully cultivating a meaningful career opportunity. If your client’s outlook on the job search is becoming a barrier in itself, this may be an area for further intervention.
By keeping an open mind as to how he could use his skills, experience, and interests in new ways, by being open to new people and opportunities, and by refusing to accept as obstacles the challenges older workers often expect to face – age discrimination, the belief that experienced workers are overqualified, less technological expertise – Bruce has found satisfying and fulfilling work. As he has taken on new job roles, I occasionally check in with him to see how he’s doing. His usual answer is indicative of his enduring affirmative attitude: “I’m having a ball!”
For your clients seeking encore careers, Bruce’s story offers strategies that will support a fruitful search. Combined with an open mind and optimistic outlook, this approach can help individuals realize a harvest of meaningful work in the autumn of their lives.
Leider, R. and Weber, A. (Summer, 2013). Life Reimagined:The new story of aging. Career Developments, 29(3), 5.
Maggie McCormick, M.A., L.P.C. is a Learning & Development Analyst for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company at company headquarters in Bloomington, IL. She and her team support leadership and employee development through workshop facilitation and development advising. Maggie has a passion for helping others find their best fit at every stage of their careers, and believes in the importance of lifelong career development. She has a B.A. degree in Education and an M.A. degree in Counseling, both from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. Her other work experience includes university career and academic counseling, inpatient and outpatient mental health, juvenile corrections, and education. She can be reached at email@example.com.