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Is 50 the New 30? How Women are Redefining Career Paths

Insights & Ideas Team •  August 25, 2016 | Focus on Women, Business and Careers

A growing number of women are accelerating their careers as they approach a traditional retirement age. After slow and steady career progress in their 30s and 40s, many women in their 50s are ready to stretch their talents to chart a new course, says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a firm that helps companies achieve gender balance.

A record number of women entered the workforce in the 1970s, according to the U.S Census Bureau, changing gender norms at work and at home. The workforce they entered, however, had a “traditional” career path designed by men. It was characterized by companies identifying high-potential talent in their 30s and developing them with stretch assignments. Unfortunately, the 30s are the same decade when many women want to pause their careers to focus on their families, which means they often missed the window of opportunity to advance.

Faced with empty nests, greater financial stability and strong work experiences, the same wave of pioneering women who redefined female workforce participation in the 70s redefined aging as they advanced in their careers, says Wittenberg-Cox.

By reaccelerating their careers when they were in their 50s, these women challenged the “traditional” career path. Now, more women are following in their footsteps, says Wittenberg-Cox, who documented the trend in a recent book called 4 Phases of Women’s Careers.

“Companies are acting as if careers are made (or not) before the age of 40,” says Wittenberg-Cox. “But this approach has never served women—or parents—particularly well.”

An Aging Workforce

The number of people who live to 100 is projected to increase 10-fold across the globe between 2010 and 2050, according to the National Institutes on Aging.  As people are living longer, this growing trend is further redefining the “traditional” career path and setting 50 as a new career mid-point, says Wittenberg-Cox.

“Our ideas of retiring around 60 or 65 are being tested,” she said. “Companies need to rethink how they define careers and measure them over time and realize that people have very varied life phases.”

Businesses that recognize these varied phases can benefit from accelerating employees later in their careers, adds Wittenberg-Cox. Data shows that happiness levels rise in the early 50s when employees learn new mental skills, like better solutions to conflict, she says.  

Fifty-somethings have figured out how to play the game and can turn their focus to impacting the outcome. “Companies get wiser, older, calmer people who tend to know themselves a little bit better, have larger and wider networks that they can tap into and are usually more experienced with relationships,” she said.

A Multi-Patterned Career

To adapt to employees’ varied life cycles, especially as younger generations demand more flexibility at work, companies that haven’t already done so can start to offer multiple career paths that provide more balance for employees during different phases of their lives, Wittenberg-Cox advises.

“People have been taught to have a vertical career, and I think we’re going to have to see very different shapes of careers that are multi-patterned,” she said.

Rather than focusing so heavily on the 30s as a “make or break” decade in people’s careers, companies that want to embrace the trend can start identifying high potential employees earlier, in their 20s and later, in their 40s and 5os, she says.

For employees who want a temporary pause in their 30s, career development can include lateral job moves and different transitions that enable them to learn new skills without adding more pressures and responsibilities to their jobs.

Changing Jobs? Top Financial Considerations Beyond SalaryMaking a New Plan

In an age-agnostic workforce, earnings may also increase and decrease with varying life and career stages, says Wittenberg-Cox.  “You may have to break this idea that you are always going to be earning more this year than last year,” she said.

But longer lives—and longer careers—will lessen the impact of short career pauses, she adds: “The longer your career, the less important moments of inflexibility will become.”

The flip side is that longer lives will also change how women plan for the future. Expenses may change, as varied career paths can require more education to acquire new skills. “We used to be able to go to school once and have a degree for life,” said Wittenberg-Cox. “That’s unlikely to be true in the future.”

Partners can complement each other’s income shifts by taking turns in pausing and reaccelerating their careers, she says. “This is where career couples are going to become increasingly useful,” she added. “You always have one of you that’s doing okay, and the other one can go innovate and play and be entrepreneurial while the other one holds the fort financially.”

Ask for It

The best way to plan an alternate career path at any age is to ask for it, says Witternberg-Cox. Know what you want by learning about opportunities and networking within your organization, and then propose innovative ideas on how to manage your career. “The more people start asking, the more companies will feel like there is a growing opportunity,” she said.

Both people and companies need to flex their minds and be open to transitions, says Wittenberg-Cox. As people live longer, old age will also start later, she says.

“People are going to be younger for longer, which means this old notion that we have of going to school, working for 30 or 40 years and then retiring is already obsolete,” she said.

As other generations follow in the Boomers’ footsteps, employees will need to learn more often and later in life—and advocate for that changing work reality, she added.

“We need to return to education and retraining and be adventurous and entrepreneurial enough to seize new opportunities,” said Wittenberg-Cox. “For a lot of people, it’s a really exciting and rejuvenative time.”

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