How to survive a mid-life career crisis
Welcome to middle age, when you get to enjoy the fruits of your labour: growing family, dwindling mortgage, job stability. Well, maybe not that last one. The workplace is changing rapidly, and we all know the days of a job for life are long-gone. You have to work a lot harder to stay relevant in your chosen career, and you need to be flexible.
It also pays to listen to the little voice inside that is telling you to change careers. Switch before you're ditched.
"People get to a stage in their career that we would call horizontal opportunities: in other words, leveraging your skills and abilities to take into new roles, new industries and new sectors," explains Mike Stenhouse, director of executive recruitment specialists Sheffield, in Christchurch. "This could look like someone with management skills moving into a different industry, for example."
Changing the way you work can be liberating. Increasingly, people are re-shaping their careers to achieve independence, choosing a combination of contracting and consulting work, starting a business or investing in someone else's, and even working part-time.
It's called a portfolio approach, with "life being a series of engagements", Stenhouse says.
THE PORTFOLIO CAREER
Professional networking, particularly through social media, and "maintaining a personal brand" are key, he stresses, with about 80 per cent of people landing work through their contacts.
Sometimes, a more radical change is required, with a completely new career direction, requiring re-training and study.
The payback period – how long it takes to break even, offsetting lost income and education expenses with higher income after graduation – could mean part-time study options are more feasible.
"We know that workers with tertiary qualifications earn higher salaries and have lower unemployment rates than those with lower levels of educational attainment," says Michael Cameron, associate professor of economics at Waikato University.
"It is less clear that this is true for 'second-chance' learners who come to tertiary study late, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that their outcomes are not terribly different from school leavers who go straight into tertiary study."
TEACHER TO JOURNALIST
Lawrence Hamilton surely hopes so. After a decade of teaching English as a second language and travelling the world, the Kentucky native has returned to his first love: journalism. "It has always been a lifelong dream," says the 35-year-old. "I always wanted to go back."
While finishing a masters of international studies degree at Otago University, Hamilton worked in student radio, which led to a stint as a general news reporter for the Gisborne Herald.
Now he's off to work at a regional radio station in Alaska and in the future he hopes to land a job with a major broadcast network, such as the BBC, ABC or RNZ.
"One bad thing is that in my new career I work a lot longer hours for a lot less money, so that is frustrating," he says. "You only live once though."
GRAPHIC DESIGNER TO ARTIST
For Ingrid Berzins, a deep dissatisfaction with a graphic design career led her to pursue her passion for painting.
Now in her 50s, she recalls her disillusionment with the advertising industry started as far back as her 20s. "Yes, I was there to make their products look better, shinier, glossier and more edible. But it felt like a bit of a lie: I was having to do jobs that weren't really aligned with who I was. It was a strange world."
One light bulb moment came when the then-vegetarian was illustrating packaging for a meat product. "I thought, 'Why am I painting a leg of ham when I don't want to eat it?'"
A move into freelance work in her 30s was lucrative and gave her more choice over the work she took on, but within a decade, the classically trained artist was ready to make the move to painting as an artist full-time.
"Recovering" her creativity from the corporate world was an interesting artistic process, she says.
"I had to unlearn everything I had been taught. In the industry I was told, 'make this colour stronger, move that over 5mm… that's got to be shinier, that's got to be bluer.' I had become like a mechanic. I didn't know who I was anymore. I didn't even know what kind of art I liked."
"I used to work sitting down, so instead, I stood up. I was used to using little brushes, so I got rid of those and got big ones. I was used to working on a small area, so I got a big, big canvas that was so uncomfortable for me. I did everything the opposite of what I was doing."
START YOUR OWN BUSINESS
In a market that is less about jobs and more about skill-sets, the gap between high- and low-skilled labour is widening, says economist Shamubeel Eaqub.
So if you find yourself at a career crossroad in mid-life, he suggests you vigorously pursue relevant, sought-after skills or choose a dramatic change in direction.
The small business owner is starting to fill the middle ground between premium professional skills and low-skilled labour. "Starting a business is an option," says Eaqub. "Those who can, do – but it's not for everyone."
Don't discount a low-skilled job, such as cleaning or face-to-face "support service" roles. These jobs may not deliver the big bucks but they could well pay the bills while you figure which way your working life is going to turn. "There'll always be a demand for a human touch."
For those in an industry that is changing rapidly, you must be prepared to diversify. Accountants, for example, would do well to offer other "add-on" business consulting services.
PROPERTY MANAGER TO PROFESSIONAL PUBLIC SPEAKER
Bob Jones was Diana Thomson's hero: she managed large commercial property portfolios for several high-profile organisations, including Vodafone, Firestone, Genesis Energy and Flight Centre.
In the mid-2000s, she and her husband moved to Singapore for his job, accompanied by a baby, with another on the way. The demands of having very young children, coupled with several medical challenges in the family, proved to be the "death knoll" of her property career.
By 2010, aged 39, Thomson says, "I was an emotional wreck. Something needed to change and I needed to find something that was for just me."
Attending a local toastmasters group as a "get of the house" project, she found she had a talent for public speaking.
"It took me from being lost to having a new career and calling."
She went on to present workshops as a relocations consultant around Singapore until her return to New Zealand in 2014. This year, she launched her company Speech Marks, which specialises in public speaking, presentations and MC assistance.