My husband Rick started work as a patent attorney this week. He was trained as an aeronautical and mechanical engineer, worked as a NASA engineer and later a Boeing executive, then went back to school in his early forties to launch a second career. This isn’t typical today, but according to Virginia Postrel, perhaps it should be. In a time of increasing life expectancy and good health in old age, we need to reframe the way we think about career evolution:
But changing that picture means exchanging today’s architectural metaphor, “building a career,” for another one: adaptive reuse. This is the human-capital equivalent of turning industrial lofts into apartments, factories into medical schools, power plants into art museums, or saw mills into shopping centers. Your original career may be economically obsolete, or you may just want a change, but your knowledge and experience still have their charms. Instead of equating success with a steady progression of better-paying jobs, each related to the previous one, this model emphasizes taking on new challenges and making new contributions, even if that means going back to school, taking a pay cut, or starting as a trainee when you’re middle-aged.
I’m engaged in some human capital adaptive reuse myself, as I upgrade my statistical education from master’s to Ph.D. level. I’m looking towards a second career that combines my experience in software development with new expertise in research design, psychometrics, and the latest in statistical modeling.
Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg, writing in the Harvard Business Journal in 2008, suggest that midlife career change is not just desirable but existentially necessary. It’s important for financial risk management too, they say:
Hanging on for dear life is usually the wrong strategy. In terms of long-term risk management, it might be much better to start a new career at a relatively young age. Many people need to start thinking about alternatives that suit their abilities and personalities when they still have two or three productive decades ahead of them. In this way, they can discover the possibilities that will allow them to work much longer and thus ensure their financial well-being.
It’s scary, for sure, to be doing this. It’s exhilarating too.