Why Wait?

Rand Spero

THE OLD ADAGE SAYS it’s never too late to change. Yet, once folks over age 50 decide they need to change careers, moving early has some key advantages:

  • It takes time. Career transitions can be slower than anticipated.
  • It legitimizes the move. Switching before the traditional retirement age may demonstrate your commitment to a new career.
  • It’s enjoyable to switch. If you know things aren’t currently working, why not make the change?

I faced my own career-change decision at age 51. Working as a strategic planning consultant in the telecommunications business had lost its appeal. My primary focus was the maturing cable and programming industry—which, to my dismay, started rapidly consolidating, losing its entrepreneurial flavor along the way. Constant travel made the job even less fun. As an alternative career, I wanted to help individuals tackle financial issues, but without selling financial products. The key question: When should I start this transition?

While continuing to work as a consultant, I took evening courses for two years, studying to become a certified financial planner. I also worked on a detailed business plan, which required time-consuming research. Thanks to this early leg work, I was able to develop the new business, even as I continued to consult.

Now, I often help my financial planning clients with similar career decisions. Some take no action, while others see the handwriting on the wall and adapt.

Kate, a successful print advertising executive in her mid-50s, told me a decade ago that print advertising would experience declining revenue, and would be replaced by rapid growth in digital and social media marketing. While she anticipated the trend, Kate stuck it out in her print media role. Now, she feels trapped and counts the days until retirement.

Tim, age 58, was more proactive. He was a sales manager who worked long hours and had stressful goals to meet each quarter. He understood that, for financial reasons, he would need to work past the traditional retirement age. But he also couldn’t see running a big sales team for much longer. He wanted to shift to a new role, where he trained and developed sales teams.

Potential employers initially questioned whether he had the necessary experience to develop curriculum and deliver sales training materials. But Tim understood that delaying the change would only diminish his chances of a successful career switch. He worked to gain the needed expertise—and today, at age 64, he has the new career he wanted.

People may delay career shifts for legitimate reasons. Switching during peak earning years can have a financial cost. Some haven’t yet figured out what the alternative is. But for those who have the drive and vision to reshape their careers, taking charge sooner has distinct advantages.

Rand Spero is president of Street Smart Financial, a fee-only financial planning firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. His previous article was Help Yourself. Rand has taught personal finance and strategic planning at the Tufts University Osher Institute, Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Management and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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