How to Change Careers at 50 or 60 (Steps to Take Before Quitting Your Day Job)

The idea of changing your career at fifty can be fraught with fears. What if you can’t land the position you’re hoping for? What if you end up competing with 25-year-olds, and never getting noticed? What if HR never passes your resume onto hiring managers?

There are many people who find great fulfillment in changing jobs or industries. According to a survey of former executives and journalists, 60% said their sense of self-worth increased after making the switch.

But some level of fear is justified. The closer you are to retirement, the more caution you should exercise when approaching big job changes.

The key is: making a career pivot in your 50s or 60s doesn’t need to be done in one fell swoop. You can and should approach the transition with baby steps rather than leaps. We outline the tangible steps you can take to set yourself up for optimal success without quitting your day-job yet.

Before you hand in your two-week notice, try our more even-tempered approach first.

Risks of an Encore Career

The fact is, making a bold career change late in life does come with some real risks.

In 2012, the New York Times ran a piece that cites a scary statistic: “The prospects for the re-employment of older workers deteriorate sharply the longer they are unemployed. A worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unemployed for 17 months has only about a 9 percent chance of finding a new job in the next three months. A worker who is 62 or older and in the same situation has only about a 6 percent chance. As unemployment increases in duration, these slim chances drop steadily.”

We don’t bring this up to scare you from pursuing your dream. Instead, we want to preach optimism and realism. To mitigate risk, invest a lot of time into properly researching how you will make the change. Judy Nelson, who transitioned to being an executive coach says, “There are also a few things I wish I had done more of when beginning my encore career. If I had to do it over, I’d use my network more effectively. Had I identified and narrowed my niche and then tested it out on potential clients, I would have saved a lot of time and money on marketing.”

Identify the Type of Change You Want to Make

The first thing you need to clarity on is, what type of career move you want.

There are four types of changes. They are determined by whether you want to change your function or your industry (or both!) Your function is your role in your company whereas your industry is the field you work in.

  • Change Function but not Industry: You currently work for a medical devices company selling nebulizers, but want to move to the marketing department.
  • Change Industry but Not Function: You work in sales for a medical devices company. You want to work at selling software instead.
  • Change Function and industry: You work for a medical devices company in sales and decide you want to be a teacher.
  • Work for Yourself: You work for a medical devices company and decide to open your own online store selling gift baskets.

It is important to figure out what kind of change you’re hoping to achieve first because the next steps you take depend on what type of move you’re looking to make.

For example, if you want to change your role but not necessarily the industry, you should concentrate on networking within your field. If you want to change both your role and the industry, you’ll need to identify the industry you want to be in and come up with a plan to get the training and certifications you need to break in. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ll want to figure out what type of business model to pursue.

Research, Research, Research

Change Function but not Industry

If you are primarily changing your role, then your research should focus on identifying 1) which skill-sets you need to succeed in that role 2) what, if any, prerequisites you need to fulfill. If the role you want requires you get certain certifications, figure out where, when and at what cost you will do this.

Even if you don’t need any additional degrees, are there classes you can take that would strengthen your resume?

Proactively taking relevant classes will help compensate for your lack of experience. It also allows you to build a future-facing resume.

Research How to Pay for Classes

  • Your Current Job
    • You may find that your current employer features education assistance benefits for undergraduate/graduate courses. Talk this over with your HR department and find out if they have anything on offer.
  • Community Colleges
    • Many state universities and colleges waive tuition for people who are 60 and older.
    • For example, California residents who are 60 and older can take classes for credit at any California State University for free. The university also waives application, health services, and IRA fees for these students and drops student body center and health facility fees to $1 each.
    • Florida similarly requires all state universities to waive tuition and fees for students over 60 in compliance with Section 1009.16 of Florida’s K-20 Education Code. However, you won’t be able to earn credit for these classes, they are for educational purposes only.
    • You can find a comprehensive list of tuition waivers here

Change Industry but Not Function

Have you identified the industry you want to work in? If not, let’s start there. There are several ways to go about researching different career paths.

  • Publications like CNBC, US News & Report and Fortune routinely put out listicles of the “best” jobs such as “Top jobs of 2019.” You can also find an exhaustive list of over 100 careers here. Identify a few industries that are sound interesting and (more importantly) are growing. Add them to your to-research-further list.
  • Ask Around
    • It’s easy to have rose-colored glasses on when you are looking in from the outside. A lot of jobs can seem glamorous when you aren’t dealing with the everyday headaches of a 9 to 5.
    • Who better to get a reality check from than people that actually work in the field you’re aiming for?
    • Figure out where people hang out online and ask about their experiences.
    • You’ll need to Google around to figure out where the big industry forums are, but here are some examples we found.
    • If you want to go into real estate, there’s no better forum than BiggerPockets.
    • Want to become a freelance writer? There are many Facebook groups full of helpful people you can consult.
    • Thinking about selling insurance? Try asking on Reddit, a popular online forum. There are already several answers addressing compensation and lifestyle for a new broker in his or her first year. For example, here is a conversation about setting salary expectations for the first year working in insurance.
  • Consult a Career Coach
    • Google “career transitions career coach for people in midlife” and you’ll find there are career coaches who specialize in just this. This is the most expensive option, but if consulting a professional helps you switch to a higher paying gig, then the ROI is well worth it.

Grow Your Network

You’ve heard it a thousand times. “Network, network, network.” But we can’t emphasize enough how important it is for those of us over 50 to get out there.

Meeting someone face to face and knowing the right people can open doors that even the perfect resume can’t.

Get Pass Automated Screening

If you are switching careers later in life, then taking the conventional path of submitting your resume through online job portals probably won’t be effective for you. HR departments use application tracking software that automatically screens for past experience. In other words, the software is going to look for keywords that indicate you’ve already worked in that role or field.

Unfortunately, the non-traditional application will have a hard time getting past this screening step.

All About Referrals

Your best bet past this is to get referrals from a current employee. Referrals are the recruiters’ most preferred method for filling positions. In fact, companies value referrals so much that they pay employees bonuses for bringing qualified candidates to the table.

Meeting more people in your desired role/industry translates to a higher chance they’ll refer you to the company they work at.

We’ll be blunt: you’ll need to put elbow grease into networking. And while starting by re-connecting with people you already know is a good strategy, you need to expand to meeting new people as well.

Post midlife, your friends and coworkers may be winding down their careers. That’s why it’s crucial to expand your social network. Don’t focus all your efforts behind a computer screen.

Here are a few practical tips you can use to grow your network.

  • Go to Alumni Events
    • Has it been a long time since you’ve thought about your alma mater? Alumni groups are a great networking resource and the first place you should start. By definition, you already share a common interest with members, so they are more likely to be receptive to requests for coffee.
    • Most universities have alumni chapters throughout the country. Start attending some events and get to know people.
  • Cold-Email
    • Find people in the job you want and invite them out for an “information gathering” coffee.
    • Does cold-emailing actually work? Yes! We’ve had many readers report success stories from shooting over a polite request. People are surprisingly willing to extend a hand and share their knowledge. Create a quick and to the point “reaching out” email and start asking for advice.
    • LinkedIn
      • Before you can cold-email, you need to gather a list of names. LinkedIn is the perfect platform for targeting the right people.
      • Do an advanced search by job title, navigate to the “People” section to see the results. For example, someone considering an encore career in teaching might search for elementary school teachers near them.
      • LinkedIn does not share email addresses, so you’ll need to message them through LinkedIn. Unfortunately, this does cost money. You need to sign up for the Premium Service to contact people you don’t know.
  • Drafting a Message
    • Once you determine who the manager is, check their profile for their phone number or email address. If those aren’t available, send them an InMail through LinkedIn.
    • Keep your message short and to the point.
    • For example, you can send a message as simple as: “I currently work in medical sales but I am very interested in transitioning to a teaching career. I am in the information-gathering phase of the process. I’d love to either set up a 30-minute call with you or meet for coffee to hear your insights. Please let me know what date/times work best for you.”
  • Conferences and Trade Shows
    • If you are thinking about starting your own business, going to conferences and trade shows is a great strategy to connect with industry specialists.
    • EtsyUp is a conference just for Etsy sellers who want to sell home-made goods like candles and soaps on the platform.
    • There are dozens of e-commerce conferences, many geared towards smaller sellers who are just starting out, like Seller’s Summit.
    • We found over 25 conferences for franchise owners.
    • There are no fewer than thirty different conferences for freelance writers.

Acquire Some Experience, Dip Your Toe In

The best way to de-risk your job change while at the same time adding relevant experience to your resume is to try out a similar function on a limited basis.

Here are some examples to help you brainstorm how to get a footing in the relevant industry.

  • If you want a second career as a teacher, you can test the waters by substituting. Most states are much more lax about the credentials required of a substitute teacher. For example, in California only requires that emergency substitute teachers have a high school diploma or GED. You can also try teaching English online. There are many sites now that will match native English speakers with elementary-age students in China and Korea.
  • In a similar vein, if you aspire to be a nurse, try volunteering at a hospital.
  • If you’re looking for careers that support a social cause, consider applying for an Encore fellowship. Encore offers mid-life professionals paid internships at non-profits.
  • Intel Encore Career Fellowship is a similar program that matches older employees with nonprofit organizations.
  • If you want to transition to a consulting or freelance role, consider temporarily offering to work for free in exchange for testimonials. You can create a profile on job-matching site like Upwork. This allows you to build up a hefty portfolio (and references from happy clients).

Remember, in the beginning, you are in it for the experience, not necessarily the pay. But as you build up a client portfolio and make new connections, you may find that it’s far better for your career than you might have imagined.

Update Your Resume

  • When you are ready to start applying to new jobs, the first thing to do is age-proof your resume.
  • Remove college graduation dates and replacing them with newly-minted degrees or certificates.
  • Keep your resume to one-page. That’s considered best practice by HR.
  • Condense old, out-dated or irrelevant position descriptions. If you have a really long resume with lots of qualifications, great. But the longer your list of jobs goes, the more your resume reads like an old dog who won’t want to learn new tricks. Focus on your key relevant positions and include those. After all, a resume shouldn’t be longer than is worth reading.

Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

Your LinkedIn profile serves as a business card, a resume, and a list of references. If your LinkedIn profile is not optimized and you’ve neglected it for years, updating this profile should be one of your first steps in starting a new career path.

  • Complete the basics. Make sure you make your own customized profile URL so it’s easy to link, for example. You might balk at simple options like this, but consider that it only takes a few seconds, and it will make your life a whole lot easier as you send out your LinkedIn profile to countless new potential employers.
  • Add an introduction. Sharing an introductory video on LinkedIn is a fun thing to do, and it announces your presence to the LinkedIn community.
  • Seek out LinkedIn groups in your chosen field. If you want your LinkedIn feed to be far more relevant, consider what groups you belong to. LinkedIn can be a great way to interact with other people in your shoes and get a sense of what the industry is like.

You don’t have to do this all at once, either. You can simply make a note that you should make one small improvement to your LinkedIn profile every day—even if it’s just to email a former colleague and ask for a recommendation. Over time, these small improvements add up to a completely overhauled profile. And if you want more advice, Social Media Examiner’s tips on optimizing your LinkedIn profile for better visibility is a great resource to start tinkering around with.

Making Sense of Your Next Move

Making a career change at 50 can feel a bit like the last day of school. Or the first day of school, really. You’re moving on from an old period of your life with all sorts of fear, worry, excitement, and joy about the possibilities that come next.

In the end, you may find that life is too short for regrets. A journalist for the Atlantic recounts, “For two years, I listened to people who sought meaningful work in midlife. Few regretted the attempt, even if they failed and returned to their prior work. Failure just sharpened their appreciation for their previous trade. The people who voiced the most regret, I found, were those who never tried.”