For 20 years of stacking shelves and manning the tills at his family’s supermarket in Pollença on the Spanish island of Mallorca, José Luis-Reig, known as Pep, never gave a thought to the world of academia. It was only when visiting the classrooms and corridors of mainland universities with his two teenage daughters that he suddenly felt himself at home among the books and atmosphere of learning.
After school Pep had intended to do a degree in biology at Barcelona University but had been called on to help run the family business instead.
Even now it didn’t occur to him that he might study. But still a question kept coming back to him: “What’s my role in life? Where am I going?” It was another year before the answer suddenly struck him. When he was at school, other children used to come to him with their problems. He developed a reputation and was invited on to local radio, where the interviewer said, “You’re like a young psychologist.”
Pep was no stranger to change. The family business had originally been a sawmill, but when Pep, then 27, was asked if he wanted to take over, he decided to convert the mill into the town’s first supermarket. Now, in the shop one day, the radio presenter’s comment came back to him. After running the idea past his wife and family, he applied to university in Palma to study psychology and, aged 46, was accepted.
Pep rose at 5 a.m. each day to get the store in order before handing it over to staff and heading to the university, 35 miles away, to start the four-year degree. “I had to get used to being so much older than all the other students,” he says. “In fact, I was older than my professor. But I ended up helping the others because I’d had more of life’s experiences that carry psychological impact, which could reflect classroom theory. I couldn’t go to all the parties, though!”
Pep came top of his year and so impressed his tutors that he was offered a job researching and teaching, which he still does while studying for a master’s in neuropsychology. Now 52, and in his new job for two years, he adds, “My only regret is not having done it earlier.”
The traditional view used to be that, while a bit of chopping and changing in your youth was acceptable, you should then settle on a career and stick to it. But today record numbers of fifty- and sixty-somethings are choosing to take on new challenges. “Job satisfaction becomes increasingly important when you’ve got a few miles on the clock,” says Carolyn May, who left a career in education at age 58 to set up a business in Wales helping others to have second working lives. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life regretting that you haven’t followed your dream,” says May, who has since moved on and set up a company specializing in marketing diagnostics and copywriting.
France and Britain seem to be leading this revolution, with official schemes to counter wariness about hiring older people. The French government gives employers cash incentives to take on applicants over 45.
“It’s part of a broad mission to promote not just the employment of seniors but the integration of young people into the workplace too—to ensure the vital transfer of skills between generations ahead of the retirement of the Baby Boomers,” says Jeanne Strausz, of the Ministry of Labour. “Older people are the key to a company’s future competitiveness!”
In the United Kingdom, the abolition of the fixed retirement age has helped change perceptions about working lives. And the option to take some of your pension as a lump sum at the age of 55 has opened financial doors for those wishing to make a mid-life change.
Likewise, some are turning the fragile economy into a positive, using redundancy as an incentive. “If you have some money after leaving a job it is possible to create a new opportunity for yourself,” says Dr. Vincent Giolito, a research fellow at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management—who himself switched into the academic world, aged 50, after working as a business journalist for 20 years. “Many management-level workers are becoming freelance consultants or investing in a start-up.”
It’s not just the self-employed riding this wave. Employers are realizing that older workers can bring valuable perspective to a position. British DIY giant B&Q has an official age-neutral policy. “Twenty-eight percent of our workforce is over 50,” says a B&Q spokesman, “which is great because as homeowners there’s a lot they can offer customers and younger staff.”
A career change might require retraining, and some people are put off, either by being without income or the fear of going back to school. But, as Pep found, being more experienced can actually give you an edge in the classroom. From a financial point of view it is a big decision, but with children having left home and perhaps the mortgage paid off, it could be the least risky time in your life to try it.
Barclays Bank has a scheme aimed at encouraging the older workforce to take up an apprenticeship. “It’s a commercial decision and there’s no ceiling to how high anybody can go,” says Mike Thompson, head of the apprenticeship program.
Modern apprenticeships last one to five years and combine paid on-the-job experience with some study each week. Last year in England more than 32,000 people over 50 started one.
Even if you do need to retrain, it doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Many people make a career change that enables them to use skills developed in their old career, but in a new way. While teaching and researching his PhD in psycholinguistics Marek Brzezinski from Lód, Poland, also wrote pieces of travel journalism for local magazine Odglosy.
Marek continued to write after he finished his studies at 30, married and started a family. He later moved to London, then to Paris where he taught psychology and anthropology at the Schiller International University there, supplemented by work for Radio France International and Polish Radio in Warsaw.
But all this time Marek also had a love for food. In Paris, he walked by the renowned Cordon Bleu cookery school every day on his way to the university. One day, with a vague idea about writing an article, he went in. But when he saw the kitchens with their immaculate pots and pans he felt they were offering a change in direction.
“At 57, I could combine my journalism skills with my passion for food and become a culinary critic. And if I do something I want to do it properly, to know everything.” So he signed up for a nine-month course.
It was a big change for Marek. “At the university I was used to everyone saying, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir,’ but at Le Cordon Bleu it was me saying, ‘Yes, chef, no, chef,’ being shouted at with all the other students, most of whom we’re my children’s age. More than once I was close to throwing down my knife and packing it in, but you’ve got to be courageous.
“I would recommend to people wanting to make a change to know themselves, to recognize their potential and be realistic,” he says. Marek graduated in September 2012. Now 61, he hasn’t looked back, writing a weekly food column for Angora, a magazine published in Poland, Germany and the United States.
At the schools it operates in several European countries, Le Cordon Bleu welcomes older applicants who join after many years in another profession. “Most of our older students are passionate about food and want to bring that enthusiasm to a new food-related career,” says Marketing and Communications Manager Sandra Messier. “Their management and organizational skills are better than the younger students and, as our courses tend to be short and precise, they can move very quickly into a new career.”
For some, the key to a change is not a new skill but something they’ve always done for pleasure: when they can turn a hobby into a career. Tallu Konttinen spent 30 years as the art director of an advertising agency in Finland, designing logos, posters, brochures, packaging and more. When she was made redundant in 2014, her first instinct was to find another job in the same industry, but then she realized this could be her chance to take her long love of textiles to a new level. Years earlier she had worked in a factory editing designs for printing onto fabric. And she had always spent her spare time on crafts, particularly textiles and furnishings, partnering unexpected materials and combining new and traditional components.
Konttinen took the plunge and enrolled at the Ikaalinen Arts and Crafts Artisan College. She is now, aged 57, engaging in design projects as a full-time student and expects to graduate this year. “I’ve learned that you should be brave and open-minded when facing new opportunities,” she says. “Go ahead: you may be wonderfully surprised.”
While some people, like Pep, change career to satisfy a long-held yearning, others may have been perfectly content with their old careers—but find themselves responding to a sudden change that gives a new perspective. Primo Sule settled in the United Kingdom in 1974 from his native Chile, studying first to be a PE teacher before switching to Computer Science at Birmingham University.
The computer age was in its infancy, and after Primo graduated he was in demand. He moved around Europe and up the career ladder before being headhunted by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 1998, where he had 1,500 staff and responsibility for 25 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “I was quite happy because no two days were the same and 99 per cent of the time I was on the road—New York, Hong Kong, everywhere.”
But in 2008, when his ageing father-in-law began to deteriorate mentally, Primo saw how difficult it was for his mother-in-law to find help with cooking, cleaning and providing meals. “Different people arrived at different times each day to do different things, but there was no continuity of care,” he explains. “And I couldn’t find anyone else who was happy with their provider or would recommend the agency they used.”
But it wasn’t until 2009, when his grandfather began to need care, and he started to look at residential homes for him, that he had a light-bulb moment. Visiting one care home, he spoke to a lady for over an hour. It made her feel better to think someone was interested in her, and that made him feel better. He came away believing something had to be done to improve the quality of care of the elderly.
At the end of that year he took the monumental decision to leave PwC to research the elderly care sector and try to come up with a solution for people in his situation. It was a strain for all the family. “Before, I’d only be at home for two or three days a month and now I was there all the time,” he says. “I was used to executive travel and five-star hotels, not having to cook or do the washing-up. My wife Diana worried about the financial security we’d lost, especially as I had no experience of the care sector.”
But Primo discovered Home Instead, an American provider with an emphasis on offering companionship as much as care. It works with clients—or “friends”, as it prefers to think of them—at home, matching them to suitable carers to ensure compatibility. Primo set up a Home Instead franchise in Nottingham that has now been running for six years. “The first two years were incredibly hard work with lots of 16-hour days,” he says.
But it’s all been worth it. In 2013, Primo ran the first of a series of free workshops for relatives of people with dementia. A woman thanked him at the end; as her father’s only caregiver she’d been struggling to understand his condition and how best to care for him and look after herself. In fact, Primo gets so close to the families that he regularly attends clients’ funerals.
“Although my previous life was fantastic,” he says, “the satisfaction that I get every day from directly influencing people’s lives is so much more fulfilling.”
8 Tips for Career-Changers
1. Be ready to change your way of thinking: You will need to learn to sell yourself anew
2. Formulate Plan A, Plan B and then a contingency plan
3. Make decisions based on instinct as well as logic
4. Learn to surf the challenges
5. Enjoy the change
1. First think about what you really want to do
2. Don’t jump until you’re ready. Explore before you leave your old job, talk to people in your new field, learn as much as possible
3. Involve those around you. Family and friends are good sounding boards