Yesterday, Boris Johnson called for a “revolution”. It didn’t involve tanks or flag-waving but, to those who feel they’re on the midlife career scrapheap, it might prove just as radical.
“We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs,” said the Prime Minister. “I’m revolutionising the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.”
The Queen’s Speech outlined a new Lifetime Skills Guarantee, entitling everyone to a Government-backed loan – for up to four years’ study, for part- or full-time higher education and training at a university or college – to allow everyone to retrain so they can move careers or get a better paid job. More details will be revealed next week, in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, but the direction of travel looks promising.
This new reskilling initiative couldn’t have come at a better time – especially for midlifers. A year of home-working has caused many of us to rethink whether or not we want to return to the working life we’d had for the best part of three decades.
Many don’t have the luxury of that choice. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how unemployment rates in those aged 50-plus had doubled during the pandemic; how a generation of strivers felt put out to grass long before they felt ready to retire, with senior women being hit particularly hard. The response was overwhelming – an outpouring of anxiety and frustration, but also an abundance of resilience and optimism.
For every despairing email there were several stories of determined midlifers getting back on the horse, retraining, reskilling and realising that, at 45 or 50, we are actually only half way through. In her book The 100-Year Life, Lynda Gratton asks why should we assume that the profession we entered in our early 20s will still be offering us meaningful employment 50 or even 70 years later? As we all live longer, we need to accept that life will mean starting lots of new chapters and that we will need to constantly reskill, or re-angle ourselves to remain relevant.
Education, like youth, is wasted on the young; learning something new when we are older re-energises us, keeps us fresh and hungry. And it’s something all of us are going to have to learn how to do.
Four years ago, Dr Vicky Whitford, now 46, was a top diplomat in the Foreign Office, negotiating with the Pakistan government. “I wanted to be a good mother to my children, but I wasn’t sure if I could do this while living overseas. I didn’t want to fall prey to the three Ds of expat life – drink, debt and divorce. I wanted a life connected to friends and family. I felt trapped. I did a course in psychology and said to my tutor I wanted to be a doctor. He said: ‘All metamorphoses happen slowly.’ I bought some A-level science books and studied biology and chemistry while my baby son napped. One evening, I filled in a UCAS form and went back to university, more than 20 years after I had done so the first time.”
It wasn’t all easy. “It was humiliating and humbling being on a ward with a bunch of 20somethings, but slowly I realised there were things I did know: I could listen, I was used to adversity, I knew where patients were coming, from unlike my fellow students.”
In her first year as a medic, she worked in the ICU, holding the hands of patients dying from Covid. “My salary has been cut in half,” she says, “but I can honestly say that becoming a doctor has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I think about what I do and I feel happy.”
Whitford is far from alone. This year, the Open University has seen a 15 per cent increase in student numbers for its distance-learning courses; popular options among those reskilling in midlife include anything around sustainability – green energy is a hot ticket area for post-pandemic investment – and computer coding.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of largely female workers from retail are reskilling as customer-service focused logistics or call centre experts, which plays to their developed emotional intelligence; others are retraining as carers, teachers, hairdressers, counsellors, nurses or pivoting into the ballooning local economy, as there is a post-pandemic exodus from cities. Some are taking up practical skills such as carpentry or training to be electricians. One black-taxi driver I met is retraining as a plumber. Another is installing green-friendly insulation in people’s homes. There are now more 50something entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses than younger ones.
Lisa Unwin is director of inclusivity.co.uk, which specialises in helping professional women, many of whom have taken lengthy career breaks to raise their families, to get back to work. She has never been busier. “Confidence, a lack of it, is often their biggest problem,” she says. “Take Christine. Before her children – and her divorce – she had worked as a lawyer. She was considering re-training as a psychologist, but I convinced her that even City firms now understand careers can be non-linear. We run a returner programme for former lawyers and other professionals. We brushed up her CV and got her an interview. She is now back working full-time.
“It wasn’t plain sailing: we had to talk her round two or three times on the journey when she worried her kids wouldn’t cope without her and that she wouldn’t be good enough. But now she loves it and says her children don’t take her and all she does for granted any more.”
Unwin salutes the Government’s skills revolution, particularly its extension to the older cohort, but also counsels midlifers not to underestimate their existing skills when considering career changes. “You are five times more likely to get a job through someone you know than by applying blind through a job site,” she says. “Remember, by midlife, you already have useful skills, social capital and a network.”
And now, thanks to Boris, that course you’ve been dreaming of may soon be in your grasp. What are you waiting for?
Eleanor Mills is founder of noon.org.uk, an online platform helping women in midlife find their next chapter
‘I was frustrated in my career, and knew I needed to be better’
Isabelle Mamet, 56, finance director from Woking
When my first child was born, my career as a PA took a bit of a back seat. After my fourth child started school, I was able to work part-time at a small oil and gas company, as an office manager, doing a bit of everything. When an opportunity arose to do the accounts, they offered to sponsor me to retrain. I was definitely frustrated in my career, and knew I needed to be better.
I’m so glad I retrained. I took two accountancy courses from the age of 36, until around 44, in order to qualify as a certified accountant. The combined cost would have been around £7,000, which the company paid for.
But I did all that while working full-time and raising my children. I needed to be really motivated and focused, and the children, I think, suffered a little from me doing all that extra work.
It affected the family dynamic, too, but my husband was extremely supportive. On weekends, he would take the children into London to see the sights, just to give me the time to revise.
But when the course was finished, my career shot up. Pretty quickly after that, I became finance director at Chugai Pharma UK, which is part of Roche. Retraining opened all kinds of doors.
As told to Joe Shute
‘I wasn’t unhappy at work, but things felt stale’
Nichola Venables, 43, head of a database company in Barry Island
Last year, I took a huge career leap, and moved from working as a vice president of risk at Barclays to running my own construction software business. I wasn’t unhappy in my job, but it started to feel a bit stale; I’d been there for nearly five years, and was craving a change in routine.
I fell into my new career by accident. We had just bought a new home that was missing cavity barriers – a huge fire safety issue. There were no resources available to help us, so I started a national campaign group. Over the course of a year, it evolved into a business, the New Build Database: a software solution for people who buy new build properties, where they can log any issues that they have.
I had to complete several qualifications, and am currently finishing my level seven diploma in leadership development. It feels so re-energising to be back at the learning stage, where everything is new and exciting. Initially I took out a start-up loan to finance the company, and also received lots of support from Business Wales and Enterprise Nation. It had been financially challenging, and I am aware that I have taken an enormous leap, but it is worth it to pursue a career that makes a difference to people’s lives. I’m also able to manage my own schedule, making it easier to spend time with my children, aged three and five.
I would advise anyone considering a midlife career pivot to make the most of all the free help that is out there. Business Wales taught me all the basics of running a company, from how to get insurance to finding an accountant and creating a logo. It was all completely new to me at the time, but with their support I felt confident enough to take the leap.
As told to Alice Hall
‘I’ve always had a low boredom threshold’
Kedge Martin, 55, founder of a family advisory firm from London
I feel lucky to have had various career reinventions throughout my life. Most recently I started Longbow, the family advisory firm I’m now CEO of. It wasn’t a sudden change, as the transition sort of happened on the side as I built up my company, but it’s been really gratifying.
My working life began as a researcher to an MEP, and then my husband and I moved to Poland, where I set up a chain of launderettes. After moving back to the UK in the late 1990s, I ran a number of charities and founded two businesses – one of which is Rutbusters, a consultancy aimed at midlife professionals looking to change careers.
I’ve always enjoyed what I do and have a low boredom threshold, which is one of the reasons why I’ve had lots of different roles. But I’ve always been keen to learn and to meet different people. If the conveyor belt were to end tomorrow, I’d say I’ve been extremely lucky.
Were I to advise other midlife professionals looking to change careers, I’d say clarify your values and what’s important to you, as these shift as one gets older. When you’re in your 30s or 40s, family and having flexibility in your work might be more important. In your 50s, you’re in your prime: you might have grown-up, independent children, which gives you the space to focus wholly on what you want to do.
As told to Claudia Rowan