I have written many articles on how to change your career in midlife but I realised recently that I’ve made a mistake.
I haven’t made it crystal clear why professionals in their 40s and 50s NEED to start taking action if they’d like to continue working beyond their next few birthdays. This mistake became very clear when one of my clients asked my opinion on career options post-50 within big corporates. I drew breath before responding “If you are in your 50s in a big corporate, get ready to be toast!” Not my most eloquent moment but a typically truthful one nonetheless.
After nearly 20 years of watching silently as big corporates did everything in their power to recruit “high potentials” whilst at the same time doing everything in their power to negotiate quietly with the 50+ contingent to leave, it felt exhilarating to say out loud what I knew to be the truth.
That whole truth is that 50+ year olds are an endangered species in big corporates. Ageism has simply not been tackled by big corporations. These endangered 50+ year olds are usually positioned in general leadership and/or very specialist roles where they have been shrunk-to-fit. Both positions are extremely time-limited. No matter how “high potential” you were considered in your 20s and 30s if you are facing or have already faced the “BIG 5-0” birthday within a big corporation…your days are numbered.
Continuing the corporate toast analogy, in my experience, there are four dominant varieties of 50year old “Corporate Toast”:
- The “Golden-toasted” variety: The luckiest of these rare creatures have amassed a pension fortune for when they decide that they’ve been perfectly toasted. They can press their own eject button at any time if the company starts to turn up the toaster’s heat setting. They have almost full control of the toaster. This allows for a speedy and relatively burn-free exit as long as they are self-aware enough to pop themselves out before the company does.
- The “Almost-toasted” variety: These self-aware leaders have their fingers crossed that they’ll be able to keep working until a pre-set point when they can afford to release themselves. There are two different pairs of hands on the toaster setting so anyone could press it at any time. These “almost-toasted” varieties hope to have enough time to leave the toaster with a lovely glow and a bag of either pension/redundancy/exit treasure. While all fingers are crossed for a hopeful redundancy, their impact on the business is very slowly declining.
- The “I’m-in-the-wrong toaster” variety: These leaders have a long-term focus and often enjoy work for its own sake. They are clear that their future lies in smaller businesses (or their own business) and have already begun to think through options and perhaps even test those options out. They have always been great at serious networking and taking actions so that it won’t be a shock when their toaster’s heat setting is turned up. They fully understand the toasting game. Often they very proactively position themselves for their future, long-term career and many have job offers before the toaster pops them out. Many forgo possible redundancy packages as the long-term benefit of 10+ extra years of an enjoyable career (almost) on their terms is so attractive. Time on the golf course is not their goal.
- The “Almost-burned” variety: The trickiest situation is that held by the 50+ leaders who are keeping their heads down so that they can continue to be amazing at what they do for as long as they can. The short-term looks fabulous, doesn’t it? They feel valuable and valued. They enjoy work but have no time to have a serious look beyond the toaster to see what’s happening outside the machine. But someone else is controlling their career toaster setting and has been turning up the heat without their knowledge. When this variety of toast burns, it will scar deeply and will take a great deal of time, effort and support to recover from.
I write this article not to instil fear but to highlight the choice element in our midlife careers. I feel so strongly that we, as individuals, cannot change the realities of the corporate world today. But we can start to change the realities of our personal career situation today. We can choose to either accept our special variety of toast, to change to a different variety of toast, to swap our toaster or to design our own toaster.
If you are planning to retire in your early 50s to your yacht to sail the Caribbean, I have nothing to offer you…I make a great Negroni though!
However, if you are in any of the other toaster situations please consider taking a long, hard look at your career longevity and possible work enjoyment from a different angle.
In my humble opinion (based on insights gained from over 1500 leadership interviews over the last 10 years plus intensive psychological research into the ingredients of a fulfilling career), taking time to evaluate how you could re-design your career to fulfil more of your life goals is time well spent.
Choose not to be toast. Choose to let your midlife be the jam years in your career.
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