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Thinking About TomorrowReinventing Yourself at Midlife
By Susan Crandell
WARNER WELLNESSCopyright © 2007 Susan Crandell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWork That Works for You
THE FIRST GENERATION to go to college en masse, we baby boomers had an unprecedented opportunity to choose rewarding work. So it may seem surprising that at midlife so many of us are dumping career number one and moving on to career number two. Of course, some of this migration can be credited to restlessness: Even in a fulfilling profession, twenty years on the job can ignite a craving for something new. But many of the career changers I've spoken with tell me that their first profession simply never thrilled them.
Problem was, back in our twenties when we were starting out, a lot of us just didn't know how to find work that works for us. I'm a prime example. Like many of my college buddies, I drifted into a profession almost at random. I adored college, but was no student. Thrilled to find myself living on my own for the first time, in a dorm filled with smart, funny women, I majored in friendship, with a minor in jug wine. Remember Almaden? I loved the lazy afternoons when half a dozen of us would gather in someone's room and talk for hours. Or the all-nighters we'd pull, not studying but playing hearts. I knew that when college ended, I would go to work, but somehow I never formed anything remotely resembling a plan. I majored in history, for no reason except that there were someterrific professors in the department.
What Should I Do with My Life?
My senior year, the reality hit-Ohmigod, I need a job, maybe even a career. My first impulse was a delaying tactic. I applied to law school. This was less about law-I had only the dimmest idea of what an attorney did all day-than about extending the pleasurable lifestyle that was school. I would have made a terrible lawyer. I aced the English portion of the LSATs and failed miserably at reasoning out the sample legal cases the test presented. This fact, along with my middling GPA-let's say I did a lot worse than Bill Clinton, a little better than George Bush-underwhelmed the three law schools to which I'd applied. I can't say I was crushed; in my heart of hearts I knew law school was a holding action, not a life plan.
A job was inevitable. But which job? On what possible basis would I choose? Like the thousands of other liberal arts majors graduating that year, I had no professional training, nothing that would point me in any direction. My roommate's father said the one thing that gave my search a point of view. Robin's dad was one of the most accomplished people I knew, a senior VP at a big textile manufacturing firm in the South. We were having dinner at their country club one evening after graduation while Robin and I were holed up at her family home in North Carolina, postponing the inevitable. The conversation turned to careers, in a desperate attempt by Robin's parents to jump-start our lives. When her father remarked that his job was routine, I was stunned. The daughter of a small-business owner and a schoolteacher, I had always figured that anybody who had an important, high-paying position like his must rush off to work every morning filled with enthusiasm for the fascinating things he would do that day. But he said that one week was largely like another, his work a matter of making the same kinds of decisions over and over again.
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After that conversation, I had one goal: Don't be bored. I'd been told by my professors that I had some talent for writing, and I knew I loved to read. So I set my sights on a job in magazine publishing, figuring it couldn't become repetitive since there'd be a new issue along every month. And that's largely how it turned out. Every time I edited an article, I learned something new. For me, the creative work never stopped being satisfying. Until I was fifty-two, I never considered any job but magazine editor, and I still haven't considered any industry but publishing.
The Career Ice Age: Before Counselors Walked the Earth
I got lucky with my career choice, but it was really a fluke. When we boomers were in college, nobody was giving us much advice. At my college, career counseling was conducted out of a single office in a building I visited exactly once. Many of us just stumbled into the next phase of our lives. After graduation, a lot of my friends moved to Boston-the next best thing to college is a big college town-and got jobs, whatever was available (one of them, who'd scored 740 on the law boards, handed out pirate garb and gorilla masks at a costume store) and would pay the rent. Nobody was giving us Myers-Briggs personality tests that would reveal what kind of job would play to our strengths. There were no life coaches or self-help books to point the way. We just flailed around. The fortunate few happened upon something they were good at and enjoyed.
Whether we loved our job or hated it, time marched on. Our lives got busy and complicated, rich and full. We married, had babies, and the spotlight shined on our families. We were preoccupied with our relationships, or with bringing up our kids. For many of us, work took a backseat; if it wasn't perfect, the dissatisfaction was relegated to background static that we lived with. Then one morning, we'd wake up and think, Wait a minute, there's got to be more. The trigger might be a raise or promotion denied, a landmark birthday or the realization that this life isn't eternal, so we'd better optimize our activities while we're here.
Over the years, the size of the shadow work casts across our lives can make a merely humdrum job seem intolerable. Our generation spends more time working than doing just about anything else. Hours at our desks easily eclipse family time, and unless we're champion sleepers, we probably log more hours at the office-and getting there-than we do in bed. Work occupies a majority share of our days, and yet a surprising number of us are not enchanted with our jobs. When we did a survey at More magazine, I was stunned to find that nearly three-quarters of the forty- and fiftysomething women in our upscale, educated audience weren't crazy about what they did for a living. These were people with options, people who'd had the benefit of college and even graduate school, along with a fair share of authority and flexibility in their chosen work. I expected them to be thriving. But the majority were just doing it for the dough. A study by a division of Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, came to a slightly brighter conclusion, finding that 40 percent of the men and women they surveyed loved their jobs-which still leaves the majority less than enamored.
What's going on? Why isn't work working for us? We were the generation with the education, the opportunity. Did we all choose the wrong profession, or are there other issues at play?
Brave New Idea: Work Should Be Fun
It's a relatively recent concept that work should be fulfilling. In centuries past, most children moved into their parents' profession, whether it was farming, blacksmithing, or running the general store. Children born into work that engaged and satisfied them were lucky indeed. The freedom to choose a career is largely a twentieth-century development, and the thought that work should be rewarding, even fun, is still newer. The idea got traction in 1980 with the publication of the book Work Redesign, in which authors Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham maintained that to do a job well, people need to find their work meaningful.
Sometimes it isn't the work itself that disappoints, but the working conditions. Maybe that fourteen-year-old boy wasn't wrong when he dreamed of becoming an architect, but three decades later he finds his workday isn't spent solving design problems and sketching soaring skyscrapers, as he'd imagined. No, his commissions more often run to cookie-cutter-design Chinese restaurants in malls, and he puts in many hours dealing with staffing and budget issues, responding to clients' unrealistic expectations, and juggling an overload of work.
In the past two decades, technology has upped the ante on time pressure, creating what I call instant-itis. Remember the old Federal Express slogan, "When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight"? These days, that would be the slow-boat service. Now that we have instant modes of communication, everything must be done instantly. Suddenly, even a fax becomes snail service; you've got to e-mail it, and you've got to e-mail it right now.
To compound the stress, there's no downtime anymore. In a world of beepers and BlackBerries, an increasing number of us are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even doctors, the classic example of "on all the time," unplug when a colleague is covering. In a recent poll of New Year's resolutions, several executives mentioned stepping away from their 24/7 addiction to BlackBerries and Treos. Many of us are asking ourselves: When did we sign up to be available to the office all the time? Wasn't that the deal we struck when we decided to become parents? Why is work suddenly oozing into our family time?
As I talked with boomers who've launched their own businesses, I realized that a big motivation to remake their careers was laying claim to their own time. Some found themselves working longer hours than they had in a corporate job, particularly during their fledgling firm's launch. But it was maximum hours with minimum stress because they approached their tasks with a new mind-set: They were in control, and they could decide when to knock off.
The New York Times reported that Americans now work an additional 172 hours a year, on average, than we did the year I graduated from college, 1973. In a survey by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group based in New York City, 37 percent of boomers said that they are chronically overworked, almost a third more than other age groups. Experts point to the high-level-and high-stress-jobs boomers are more likely to hold, as well as lifestyle issues we uniquely face, including caring for elderly parents and hosting boomerang kids who have moved back home as adults. Toss a Gen-X boss into the mix, and you've got Excedrin headache number 9-2-5-the overwork special.
What happened to those innocent grammar school dreams, when we couldn't wait to be a firefighter or a nurse or an astronaut? How did work turn into an obligation rather than a joy?
Staging a Second Act That Shines
That question has led an unprecedented number of boomers to remake their work life. Some are launching businesses, some are telecommuting to tame the time crunch, others are boldly moving into new industries, still others are downshifting to part time. Traditionally, your forties and fifties are the decades when you've earned the right to coast a bit, to cut back on your work hours, let the younger go-getters carry the bulk of the load. I remember the early days of my career when the more senior you were, the earlier you left the office at the end of the day. But downsizing and increased productivity demands have canceled all that. Now many boomers are working harder at fifty-six than they did at twenty-six.
There's another factor that makes midlife an ideal time to initiate a big change. With more years of saving behind them, boomers have more resources to cushion a risky career move. Furthermore, with a lightening of day-to-day family responsibilities, they have more time to consider a new direction.
Volunteer as a firefighter. Learn a new skill, make new pals, help your community. Need I say more?
Ironically, that very same time-served/money-in-the-bank phenomenon can make it harder to summon the courage to reinvent a career. At this stage, with two or three decades invested in a chosen field, there's a lot at stake. When you're young, it's relatively easy to opt for a big switch. In the 1990s, when the dot-com craze was exploding, I lost several talented young editors to Internet jobs. As one of them said to me, "I may be crazy, but how can I not take this chance at twenty-five, when I'm single and have no family responsibilities? I have no one to answer to but me." For her, the risk didn't feel that big; if she needed to make a U-turn back to magazines, there were a lot of jobs at her level. But for someone in a senior position, the kind you work decades to get, it's a much bigger deal to throw it all over in pursuit of a dream.
Nevertheless, more and more boomers are doing just that, seeking work that really speaks to their soul. In talking with people for this book, over and over I heard them say, "I needed to find something that felt right for me, at the deepest level." For some, discovering work that resonates was possible only now: It had taken them forty or fifty years to truly know themselves. They gloried in their strengths, understood their limitations, had logged enough life experiences to know what would be satisfying.
You Can Go Your Own Way
"My boss is an asshole, but I can work with him because I know him so well." That's the self-deprecating joke Portland, Oregon, native Steve Weiner cracks, describing his feelings about becoming his own boss after twenty-two years of corporate life. But he's utterly serious about the satisfaction of being a small-business owner. The freedom and control are intoxicating, he says; he could never, ever go back.
Steve speaks for a big share of our generation. For us, the urge to launch a business and call our own shots is a powerful motivator. An AARP study found that men and women over age fifty make up 25 percent of the total workforce, but a whopping 40 percent of the self-employed. Among the self-employed one out of three took the plunge after turning fifty. It stands to reason that the urge to be our own bosses should sharpen as we mature and grow accustomed to holding the reins, whether it's bringing up children or taking on more authority at a corporate job. We've tested our ability as decision makers. At midlife, we approach a solo venture with a heightened degree of confidence. Most of us have ridden our share of rough road, and our judgment has been honed by our failures as well as our successes.
Some, like me, may be surprised to find themselves thriving as captain of their own ship. I vowed I would never own a small business, having watched my dad run a company that sold travel trailers and camping supplies with reasonable success but no real joy. By his late fifties, he was so burned out, he retired happily to a series of what he called "nothing jobs"-working on the loading dock of a newspaper company or in the parts department of an automobile dealership-relieved to finally shed the stress of running Crandell Sales.
As a child, seeing him struggle with the anxieties and pressure of business ownership, I knew I wasn't cut out to be an entrepreneur. As an adult, I was grateful for the paycheck that arrived every other week, whether business was good or bad, and I appreciated the corporate health plan and the 401(k) with company-matched contributions. If you had asked me when I was in my thirties whether I'd ever work for myself, I would have said "Hell, no." Then at fifty-two, I became the sole proprietor of another Crandell Sales, with just one product to market-me. Two qualities I share with many of my boomer peers made this improbable shift possible: personal growth and a sizable network of contacts. By my early fifties, I had worked at half a dozen magazines and knew lots of editors to whom I could pitch article ideas. By the same token, I was confident that as a freelance writer, I understood what editors want, having sat so long on the other side of the desk assigning articles.
The intersection of those two priceless commodities-contacts and seasoning-can be a boon to midlifers who are launching businesses in the same arena. Becoming a consultant in your industry is a lot easier than making the leap to a completely different line of work. Even if you're entering a new field, your background can be important. Louisiana resident George Oldenburg is one of the Life Entrepreneurs profiled in this chapter. At first blush, his transition from bank executive to zoo owner at forty-five seems about as radical as a career change can get. But George credits his financial background with helping him manage the annual budget for a highly cyclical business, when the lion's share of revenues flow in during just a few high-season months.
Excerpted from Thinking About Tomorrow by Susan Crandell Copyright © 2007 by Susan Crandell. Excerpted by permission.
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