Laura Walker is a learning and development expert, specialising in midlife career reinvention. She talks to workingwise.co.uk about the challenges and the benefits for individuals and businesses.
Laura Walker had spent years working in talent development and learning and development in large organisations from GSK to Aviva when she started to notice that she was having more and more conversations with people who were further into their careers. She realised that most talent programmes tend to focus on the beginning of people’s careers and not the part that comes later down the road. “We are always talking about future talent and seeing future talent as new talent,” she says. Yet people are working longer and longer. That realisation coincided with a master’s course she was doing in coaching and mentoring. She was looking for a project for her dissertation.
Laura was interested in what might be useful and where there were gaps. There was very little research into midlife career reinvention. “I knew of so many people who had 10 to 20 years left of their working lives and didn’t want to continue what they were doing, but didn’t know what they wanted to do,” says Laura. She became fascinated by the subject and won an award for her dissertation. Since then she has set up as a midlife coach [her website is here] – she says she has found the words ‘older worker’ put people off because of the negative connotations we all have about being old – and she has written a book about the subject. Dancing with fear and confidence: how to liberate yourself and your career in mid-life came out in 2020.
Yet Laura says it has been very difficult to get midlife onto employers’ agenda, which means that, even though the business case for employers addressing midlife issues is compelling, she has to maintain a parallel career as a learning and development consultant alongside her midlife coaching to pay the bills. Why is that? Part of the problem, she says, is ageism and the myths and assumptions there are about older workers, most of which are unfounded – the idea that they are coasting, that they are not the future, that they are resistant to change and are focused on retirement, when all the evidence points to the opposite. Laura argues that midlife has always been a pivotal part of our lives, but we have mainly seen it as a negative in recent decades. It’s a time when the brain is still developing, when we continue to learn, when we tend to be more entrepreneurial [often to get greater flexibility, but also a greater sense of control]…Laura cites a study which shows 91% of over 50s want to progress, although their idea of what progression is may vary, at a time when doing meaningful work becomes even more important.
Initially, Laura talks to the individuals who come to her to gauge what they want and to get to know them. She says midlife reinvention only works if people are sufficiently dissatisfied with their current situation. Typically career change takes three to five years typically so they have to be sure they want to make the change, she states, although she acknowledges that when people come to her they have often been thinking about it for a while. Often they have been going round and round in circles in their heads. Talking to her gives them the structure they need to make progress.
Laura starts by finding out about their career to date, their strengths and weaknesses, the things that make them feel fulfilled. Any career pivot needs to be built on a strong core of self-knowledge, she says. She also explores the social systems and demands that lie outside their working lives, for instance, caring responsibilities. “People in midlife are often the lynchpins of society,” she says. “It’s important to pay attention to their social systems – their various roles and the expectations on them. They act as gravity and may hold you back if you are not aware of them and if they also don’t shift.”
Laura says a lot of people make a decision about what they want to pivot to too quickly. She prefers to talk about ‘the next chapter’ as it sounds less radical and daunting. A lot of the change that needs to happen is psychological and gradual, she says. It’s about people’s attitude to work and what they want from it and from life. Indeed, some people go through the whole process and find that they don’t need to change very much. They may change the hours they work or do the same job but in a different setting or sector.
Then there is the problem of persuading employers that you are employable if you have been working in a different sector or doing a different kind of job. Recruitment agencies can be resistant to putting non-traditional candidates in front of employers, although Laura says employers have become more open in recent years, particularly as labour market problems have increased and there has been more interest in diversity and inclusion.
On the policy front there has also been more of a focus on older workers of late, particularly in the wake of Covid. The Government has, for instance, announced an expansion of midlife MOTs, particularly online ones. Laura is in favour. She says they bring multiple issues together, ranging from financial and health ones to career development, which are often dealt with by different parts of an organisation. Even if they are only digital, they can start a conversation, she states, although she favours a multitude of ways of learning – from one to ones to cohort groups. She says cohort groups are particularly effective as they make people feel less isolated and alone and individuals can support each other.
Laura, who is about to embark on a PhD, hopes there will be more and more interest in midlife careers. She says the business case is very clear, but she is well aware of the ageist attitudes that can act as a barrier, having experienced some herself, for instance, people thinking that because she is older she might struggle to understand statistics. She says that, ironically, given the focus of future of talent tends to be on young people, employers are missing out on the talent that will be more dominant in the next decades and which is right in front of their noses now. “The ageing workforce is not a looming thing,” she states. “We are already in it.”