Over-50: Congratulations, You Bottomed Out

by Jane Genova on June 20, 2012

Over-50 professionals are bumping into some nasty surprises. It’s partly because of ageism, partly a marketplace no one can read, and partly sticking with approaches that had succeeded before. What they’re shocked to find is that no matter how persistent they have been, they can’t find a comparable job in their field, don’t receive that hoped-for promotion, or can’t attract business for a solo practice. Yet, they just keep doing the same things, only trying harder.

The good news is that we’re witnessing more and more of them finally giving up hope. They bottom out. They surrender that “this isn’t working and won’t work.” Know what? Increasingly career experts such as executive coach Henry Cloud are saying that’s exactly the right emotional space to be in if they are going to get a professional life back on-track.

In his book Necessary Endings, Cloud explains, “It is hope that keeps us going down a road that has no realistic chance of being the right road or making what we want come to pass.” With the hope gone, professionals open themselves to other possibilities.

Those other possibilities don’t necessarily have to mean a career change. Often they only entail creating different strategies and tactics for searching for, say, a job practicing law. Cloud notes, “Sometimes hopelessness can be about just getting rid of the way that we were going about something, not the something itself.”

For instance, instead of chasing another job in the AM Law 100, lawyers would re-do their pitches for regional, midsized, and small firms. Along with that they would downsize their expectations for compensation and support services. Once they make those external and internal adjustments, their search would become realistic. The odds are higher that they would also be successful.

Suppose bottoming out does mean starting over. The pragmatic approach for the over-50 is to leverage the cards – that is the experience, skills, contacts – they already hold. For example, lawyers can reinvent themselves for public relations in regulation-heavy industries like energy and insurance. The field is a growth one. The trick is to be able to present themselves like PR pros, not lawyers. That means studying the culture and the players and then mirroring.

The bottoming-out school of thought is actually nothing new. Since the 1930s, it’s been the basis for 12-step programs, the only known approach in which substance abusers stay straight. Not until the addict suffers enough, goes the thinking, will there be enough motivation to change. It is also the essential premise of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which a fictional version of the poet Dante Alighieri must journey to the deepest circle of hell before he can visit Paradise.

Recently, hopelessness has entered the language of careers because of so much volatility in industries. It’s being viewed as downright insane to keep hoping that 20th century approaches will yield results in the 21st century. Also there is the new wrinkle, no pun intended, of the aging worker. The goals and methodologies of the middle years usually have to be tossed. To do that, older professionals more often than not have to hit the emotional skids. Face it, few welcome exiting what has been their professional comfort zone for decades. But it must be done if growth and progress are to be achieved.

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Jane Genova is a contributing writer at the Wall Street Job Report.

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