Career Trend: Finding Meaningful Work at Age 50 & Over Changing Priorities & Careers Later in Life
Career Trend: Finding Meaningful Work at Age 50 & Over Changing Priorities & Careers Later in Life

If you’re 50 or older and not ready for retirement, you might be wondering what’s next for your career. According to an AARP survey of Washington state members, you wouldn’t be alone. More than 40 percent of respondents said they were employed or looking for work. And, while some planned to stay in their current jobs, retraining for a new career, starting a business and switching to part-time work were all options that respondents were also considering.

Perhaps the most notable trend for professionals in this age range, though, is the kind of jobs they want. More important than financial compensation or climbing the corporate ladder, people at this point in their lives want to do meaningful work. Work they enjoy. And they want to do it on their terms, in an environment where they feel valued.

Making a Move to Meaningful Work

“The key thing I’ve seen, as people get later in life, is that there is a trend toward doing something more meaningful,” said Matt Youngquist, founder of Career Horizons, a Pacific Northwest career counseling firm.

For Diana Coletta, that move became clear while caring for her father after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Coletta owned a successful retail store, but the experience of taking care of her father and interacting with social workers in the health care profession led her to re-examine her career choice.

“It was that moment in life where you stop and think, ‘What are my priorities? How am I really contributing to the world?’” said Coletta.

So Coletta closed her store and went back to school, graduating with a Master of Social Work from the University of Washington. She’s now a program manager for Girl Scouts, working with underserved populations, such as girls who are refugees living in public housing or foster care.

“Being connected, having responsibilities and making a difference are important to me,” Coletta said. “I feel I have so much more to give.”

Doing Work You Enjoy

Out of high school, Donna DiStefano went to college and majored in accounting. “Everybody said there would always be jobs for accountants,” she said. After college, DiStefano became an accountant and stuck with it for 20 years, but she never really liked it. So when it came time to re-enter the workforce after taking a break to raise her children, she decided not to go back to accounting.

“I have a minor in fine arts, and in college, all my art classes were my good grades. The accounting grades were the low grades,” DiStefano said, laughing. “But it never dawned on me then that I should be doing something in the arts.”

DiStefano decided to go back to school to study interior design. And, with her best friend, she recently launched a house staging and event planning business. “Granted, if I went back to accounting, the money would be better,” she said, “but I wouldn’t enjoy what I’m doing. And I want to get up and go to work and enjoy it. Not feel it’s a job.”

Kayce Hughlett, a Seattle-based life coach with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, sees a trend in her older clients wanting their careers to be more fulfilling. She also knows firsthand about making a career change in midlife. Like DiStefano, Hughlett’s first career was as an accountant. Then, during a difficult period with her teenage son, she was introduced to a therapeutic community and became intrigued. So she did some research on jobs in that field and decided to go back to school. “I discovered I was really drawn to psychology. I just ate it up. I felt myself coming alive,” she said.

Now, in addition to working one-on-one with people, Hughlett speaks at events and facilitates group work, things she would have found unimaginable earlier in life. “That I would actually want to speak in front of people?” she laughed. “It would have been ludicrous. I used to break out in a rash in my college speech classes. And the way I was raised, I was the shy girl.”

Hughlett finds this sort of personal development common in her older clients as well. “We have those stories that we’ve been told. And I think when we get into our 40s and 50s, we can start shedding those,” she said.

Finding a Better Fit

Rather than a complete career change, many employees 50 and over want what Matt Youngquist calls a career shift — doing the same job in a different industry or a different type of company. “A lot of job dissatisfaction comes more from the workplace culture and surroundings than from the actual work,” he noted.

This was the situation Tim Meighan found himself in. After a long, satisfying career in software engineering at a large corporation, Meighan hit a point where his career goals no longer matched the company culture. The company he worked for enforced a very structured career advancement model, he explained. “I didn’t want to advance to the next level, where you’re basically a manager of managers. You’re doing very little technical work. And what I really like to do is the technology,” he said.

After a couple of years of deliberation, Meighan decided to leave his corporate position and take advantage of the high demand for his expertise by doing contract work instead. “They expect you to show up at a job and hit the ground running,” he said. “Now, I walk in as a contractor, I have the skills, and I do a specific job. There’s lots of positive feedback. That’s a high motivator for me.”

With contract work, Meighan can focus his career on what’s important to him — working with technology, engaging with people who are passionate about it and feeling valued for what he contributes. He’s also negotiated part-time hours and has time during breaks between assignments to pursue his hobby, restoring pinball machines.

“If I’ve got 20 or 25 years left on the planet,” Meighan said, “I really don’t want to be clicking through years at a job where I’m not happy. I’m so glad that I made that change.”

Exploring What’s Next

Ready to make a change? UW Professional & Continuing Education offers a variety of programs that can help you move into a career that’s meaningful to you. We have certificates for career transitions, nonprofit and public sector programs and, of course, options in a range of other areas — from arts and culture to science and technology.

If you’re looking for a smaller step to take, and you’re 50 or over, consider joining the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Washington, which offers affordable courses and events specifically for people over 50. OLLI-UW programs cover topics like medical ethics and the ecological history of the Pacific Northwest and are all led by current and former UW faculty and community experts.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

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