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The modern career – it’s all about freedom to change direction

Traditional ideas about career/work life stages are often thought of in terms of growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and decline.

These ideas are increasingly being disrupted, partly by the rapidly changing job market and work dynamics and partly by workers themselves wanting the freedom to move in different directions, especially mature-age workers.

Age ranges have often defined career stage.  For example, career foundation (20s), career accumulation (30s), career consolidation (40s) career maintenance (50s) then career decline (60s).

This supports the linear narrative of career life stage. But change is evident. For example, education and training have traditionally focused on young people as they establish a foundation for their career.  However, education is now considered essential to on-going employment across the life course through life-long learning.

At the same time, retirement is less and less attractive to people who want to remain connected to fulfilling work and who refuse to see a defined age as the point at which they should exit the workforce.

Older workers from their late 40s to their 60s are re-evaluating what they want to do with their lives and their careers.  This may include moving in a completely new direction, building a business out of a professional skill, passion or hobby or simply finding more meaningful work.

The great advantage for mature-aged professionals is that they can apply their many years of experience to a new venture or career, even if it is completely different to what they have done before.  This is where transferable skills come into their own. These are skills that are the building blocks of a career, and which cut across all professions and industries.

Mature professionals may seek greater flexibility at work as a result of re-evaluations or transitions.  They might also take a career break and then re-enter the workforce. This does not make them any less interested in professional development opportunities.

However, it is difficult to dispel the impression created by a linear career trajectory which leads inevitably to winding down.  While career/work life stages are changing, organisational structures are not.  This can make it difficult for mature workers to change jobs or transition into new careers.  For example, making entry level positions available to people in older age groups is rare in most organisations.

Employers overlook the possibility that mature-aged professionals, may want to improve their work-life balance and move from a demanding position with considerable responsibility to one that is less taxing on their time but still rewarding.

The point is that making assumptions about career life stage trajectories restricts opportunities.  Some mature workers may want to maintain a high level of engagement and responsibility while others may not. In the latter case, this does not mean they will be less productive.  Indeed, the research suggests the opposite. The key to effective age-diversity in organisations is to identify bias and assumptions and work to overcome them at every level.

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