career downshift?
July 9, 2019 12:11 PM   Subscribe

At mid career, I feel like I can't keep up with the rate of change and new demands in my field. Should I keep at it or downshift?

I am a mid-30s, graduate-degreed professional in a technical non-management role that is rapidly changing and I am not sure I can keep up. I have grown significantly but my company and my role has changed and I am tired of the ground moving under my feet, but that’s just how my industry is and retirement is a long way off. I have no desire to manage or move significantly higher than I am now but I feel like I am barely treading water. There are people with fresh credentials and maybe equal or greater skill five to ten years younger than me ready to try to take my job and I feel like I have plateaued a bit; I continue to learn on the job every day but I’m not top talent and the things I am good at that got me promoted only a year ago are decreasingly valued at my company after a shake up, and maybe in the field at large as technologies change. There are newer, younger, higher paid people with a different set of credentials and skill mix at my own company who snub me; we would have had the same job titles once upon a time, and I still I see myself as a peer to them with a different perspective. They, and management, now see me as a useful means to an end but lesser than them, and I am reminded of it in minor interactions every day. I was trying to update my skills to be more on par with theirs, but it’s starting to feel like a losing battle and I’ll never have their respect or make up for having a different education and early career experience. I am also on the job market to see if I can find a company that values me more, and the response has been mixed. I got one lowball offer and some near misses but I can’t find anything that definitively improves on my current situation after searching on and off for almost six months.

I don’t know if I should take this to heart and downshift into a less keep-up-with-the-Bezoses role that I can do well without too much effort (possibly parallel or one level down role in a different industry) and get some of my energy back for the rest of my life. I can probably get one of those roles quickly if I can downplay being overqualified. It might be a 25% pay cut. I can afford the pay cut even if it stings and postpones my early retirement plans, but it won’t require any other enormous sacrifices. I'm a little worried I'll get bored, end up working on outdated systems and end up surrounded by equally dull colleagues. On the other hand, I might be much less stressed if I accept a job where I do not feel a constant need to prove myself and I might be able to leave work at work instead of having it deeply tangled with my identity and self esteem. If the only winning move is not to play, but I can’t afford that (yet), should I just play as little as possible? Or should I stay, max out my earnings while I can, accept being second or third string at my job and wait until someone tells me to leave?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For me, I wonder if it's a problem with your career, or a problem with your company? The fact that, in your mid-30s, you're already feeling squeezed out by the younger set, and that your skills are being dismissed so readily makes me wonder if it's a toxic job you have, or if you're in a toxic environment? That's where I'd concentrate first, before pulling up stakes on what you're doing (unless it's really something that is just so rapidly-changing in every practice of it) and see if you can do the same thing (with a little less craziness) somewhere else.
posted by xingcat at 12:17 PM on July 9 [10 favorites]

I was a mathematician turned programmer. Some time about 1995 a lot of the work I was doing shifted from conventional client-server apps to browser-based apps. I tried it, but I didn't really like it. (The tools were still pretty clumsy at that time.) I made the decision to stick to older technology which meant a lot of maintenance on legacy apps. It worked out well. I was about 50, so my planning horizon was perhaps shorter than yours.

Where you are, you're close to the bleeding edge, but is the whole industry? I had a consulting job with one if the biggest banks in the USA, and the particular project I was on used PC technology that was 15 years out of date.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:27 PM on July 9

Tech world can certainly be cruel but are you 100% sure everybody is constantly looking down on you?

Assuming your evaluation of your technical skills is correct (they are getting less valuable and young people are taking over), would this still be a problem on its own without the perceived lower status and interpersonal rudeness?

If not, you should try to validate how much of it is in your own head; things might not be as bad as they appear.
posted by vogon_poet at 12:31 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]

I could have written much of this question myself. I identify very hard with the stuff about not being valued, seen as a means to an end but not intrinsically worth anything (oh ux at a big ol enterprise shit house). I think both the options you present here require some zen in your mindset, but for different reasons. So which one will you be better able to stomach. It's really hard to be mentally at peace with the constant work, constant disrespect, and never feeling like you're on solid ground. If i could just exit that bullshit and be pretty ok with less money I'd do it in a heartbeat. It's much easier to be at peace with being bored if you feel stable and secure and happy in your home life. That's the one that matters.
posted by bleep at 12:44 PM on July 9

A few things you say that stick out to me makes me wonder if you need to reexamine your outlook on this situation.

You say you were just promoted last year. You say there are people with fresh credentials that are younger than you ready to take your job. You are saying anything not cutting edge and anyone working on those projects are dull.

Work is not a zero-sum game. It sounds like you are trying to be better than everyone else, constantly comparing yourself to others and seeing colleagues as competition rather than cohorts.

You just got a promotion a year ago - it is OK to have time afterwards in your same role and not be continuously climbing. Depending on how new the role or team is you are working with, it is quite common for it to take up to two years to feel confident in it again.

There is value in what you know and what you do. There is value in your experience. There is value for those of us in tech who are not on the bleeding edge of technological advances. There is value in team work and not being the front-runner in everything.

That being said, I found this video discussing career paths for technical folks aged 40 and up to be really heartening. February 26, 2019 — A. Jesse Jiryu Davis: Choosing the Adventurous Route: The Career Path for Non-Managers
posted by jillithd at 1:03 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]

I work in tech and have done so for 20 years now. I'd say don't beat yourself up too much for not being on top of the latest. Attending tech conferences can help bridge the gap so that you know the right words and frameworks but accept that you won't be able to do everything.

Instead, I'd work on skills that transcend the rapid pace of technological change, i.e. organizational skills, a big communication toolbox, knowledge about cybersecurity best practices, design thinking skills, etc. This stuff does not get stale as fast and will be relevant five web frameworks from now.

Also, I had a point in my career where it felt like my coworkers looked down on me and held me to unrealistic expectations. It turned out the issue was that I'd stayed in that job for too long and my skill set wasn't differentiated enough (and also I was in a place that was not good at managing people). I thought that knowing how to make software was something that everyone knew, but when I walked into my next company they had now idea how to organize the dev team and I was able to contribute immediately.

I think there is a better job out there for you, it's a matter of finding the right connections into a place with a better culture. Don't sell yourself short, it's a seller's market for tech skills of all kinds.
posted by Alison at 1:26 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]

In my mid-thirties I came to the uncomfortable realization that I wasn't the brilliant new kid any more. Stunning tour de forces that drew awed reactions in my twenties were now considered part of my daily job as a mature expert in my field. It felt like I was being pushed aside and in a way I was -- the spotlight was being hogged by the brilliant young kids in their twenties. I had to get used to working without the chorus applauding my every move.

And that's when I started working exclusively for startups, particularly ones with people the same age as me. We understood each other. We respected each other's skills, and (at least at well organized startups) we needed each other. Everyone was vital.

Startups can pay surprisingly well to offset the risks you're taking. I never made much ($0.00 I believe) off of stock, but I have no complaints about my compensation over the years.

You might give startups a look as a way to reinvigorate yourself and your career.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:33 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]

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