Career change/job search in late forties - all kinds of advice sought
January 6, 2022 6:45 AM   Subscribe

So, I have a job which I like but which is unlikely to see me through the next twenty years to retirement (let's pretend society is going to hold on that long). It is a low-mid-level numbers job. I am at a loss as to what to do now/next, whether retraining is worth it at my age, etc. Have you changed jobs/fields while an Old without a professional degree?

My current job has a lot of moving pieces but is not intellectually difficult - I need to do a lot of little different recurring things in a timely manner while also doing some big one-off things, but the challenge is more in remembering the many, many processes involved and keeping up with process changes than in puzzling out tricky stuff or making decisions. I like my co-workers and my working conditions, but technological change means that I don't see this job lasting for too many more years. I do not know when it will go away - almost certainly not before mid-2022 and even then 2023 or beyond is more likely.

This is a billing/reporting/numbers job. In some ways, it's actually easier than my older, lower-ranked jobs because in those jobs I had a lot of latitude to study new things and add new responsibilities; this job is highly structured.

I'm at a loss as to what to do next - I'm too old and too experienced to be a good candidate for the jobs I had before this one but it is proving difficult to get into the next rank since the next rank is mostly for younger people with a specific degree. Not all jobs in the next rank are this way, but obviously I could only be hired into an outlier job.

I work at a large university and had intended to stay here but I'm not sure that I can.

My favorite job things: Helping people with one-off problems, which used to be most of my job; running and fooling around with reports; helping people with visa applications and other stress-inducing, complicated stuff.

Worrying factors: Age discrimination, gender discrimination, discrimination against me for being gender-non-conforming. Would prefer to transition but feel that I can't in this political climate at this stage in my career since I need to keep earning.

I began an accounting certification program before the pandemic, but the program itself was cut by my university so I haven't gotten very far.

All advice welcome, from "clearly you need to be a concierge" to "get a totally new degree, being old doesn't matter in this instance".
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Can you get the specific degree with the educational benefits at the university you work for?
posted by bq at 6:51 AM on January 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Some random tidbits:

I have no idea about the bonafides of these orgs, but they may give you leads as to "what do university administrators at a certain level do next"

Looking at higheredjobs in the admin section might be useful.

Good luck!
posted by lalochezia at 6:56 AM on January 6, 2022

Something I considered before jumping into a masters program in my forties was to do the math. What is the cost of XX degree? If I spread that cost over my remaining work years, can I reasonably expect future job prospects to provide enough extra money to cover these costs? Doing this math exercise helped me clarify my priorities.

Another thing to consider is how much longer you want to work. Are you someone who hopes to be working at your desk when you keel over and die? Do you want a long retirement with time for travel, grandkids, etc. You are old enough where thinking about the end game should be part of your thought process. I retired at 60 and zero people ask or care about the masters degree I got at 44.
posted by eleslie at 6:59 AM on January 6, 2022

First, I do want to encourage you that there is a future. I am on my third career. I got my bachelor's degree in my 50s.

As another numbers person, I will mention that you might want to consider being a data analyst. Data science is a growing field.

Option 2 is some type of field that plays to the strengths you listed of helping people with one-off problems. Off the top of my head, I am thinking of helping people deal with bureaucracy, such as helping people access benefits for seniors or disabled people. That would most likely be your on business.
posted by NotLost at 7:10 AM on January 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am on my second career. I think it is reasonably likely that I will need a third career before retirement, or at least to make a significant shift in the last 10-15 years of my working life.

Your description of what you enjoy makes me wonder whether you might enjoy some kinds of non-profit sector work, specifically casework but also maybe working for a grant-giving body. I also wonder whether procurement or similar might be a good fit, and potentially a sideways transfer. Your current employer probably has a procurement team, they might be willing to chat with you about what they do. Otherwise from a 'generically, a wide range of jobs tend to exist in this area' point of view then your skillset looks like a potential match with HR.

The main thing I think is that unless you're making a complete switch to a new career, it's probably easier for you to make a sideways move (plus/minus a half-step) than to get an entry-level position in a new field. You have a lot of transferable skills. It's also not necessarily the case that you need to complete an additional qualification.
posted by plonkee at 7:27 AM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I twinged on the helping people with visa applications bit and wonder if you might be interested in becoming a paralegal. In some jurisdictions, immigration paralegals can take on their own clients. It might be difficult from a discrimination standpoint, although since your clients are often outside of the country, they might not need to know you are gender non-conforming. In other jurisdictions, they work exclusively for lawyers, which has its own potential discriminations, of course.

Depending on where you are, you may be able to get a paralegal certificate without first getting a bachelors degree or get it as a post-graduate diploma if you have any bachelors degree.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:40 AM on January 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a job with the federal government? I don't know your exact skills, but you can go to and search jobs by keyword. Obviously, there are more jobs available in DC, but there are positions all over the country. In case you don't already know this, civil service jobs are apolitical (that is, there's not an expectation that they will turn over if a different party takes power) and although I'm sure the actual execution is lacking in many ways the federal government is vocally committed to nondiscrimination along the axes you're concerned about. Rather unusually these days in the private sector, listings will usually also detail what experience can substitute for a professional degree if one is a prerequisite (but it's also uncommon for jobs to require more than a bachelor's unless they are highly specialized).

I also wouldn't give up on your university, especially if it's larger. In my prior experience, middle-level jobs at universities are pretty clubbish. I'd be working my internal networks hard. If you're genuinely anticipating that tech will obviate your job, that's an explanation for leaving that everyone can understand.
posted by praemunire at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

(BTW, I don't know if you are interested in gender-affirming surgery, but at least some of the federal employee health plans cover the major surgeries.)
posted by praemunire at 7:55 AM on January 6, 2022

I don't have time to post a more thoughtful answer, but do want to challenge your perspective a bit. Typed fast between meetings, please forgive the rough edges.

1. You're not "an old" you're super fucking smart and have broad interests and flexible perspective and are capable of reflection and growth. I know this because while I mostly lurk around here, I read your answers / posts here word-for-word entirely and you've earned a credibility with me (and plenty others) solely on the strength of your words (ie, I don't know you or your identity or your real name or how you present live, etc). Stop focusing on old and start focusing on your awesomeness.

2. Academia skews young. I know this because I went corporate at 40 and was surprised to find all kinds of ages at all kinds of career stages are present at this mega corp. Adults need to get paid, and uni doesn't pay. However, and relatedly, at corp, you might end up working for someone (young MBA) that a mefite might be inclined to feel superior to. If you can knock that shit off and find something to like about the person and choose to work together then it's fine or even gasp enjoyable.

3. Gender identity. I don't have a great perspective on this, but in my view as white, middle aged, cis-het normie... professionalized, large corporations take equity and inclusion seriously (but may get it wrong or be a bit behind the social front) and also care more far more about results and outcomes and also not getting sued and also being an attractive place to work than they do about identity. That said, that's the instution and individuals vary.

4. It's a great job market in general. There is likely more flexibility in selling your transferable skills and a willingness to try out people aren't the perfect fit.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 7:57 AM on January 6, 2022 [14 favorites]

I'm in my early 60s and wish I'd changed careers in my mid-40s. Twenty years to retirement is a long time.
posted by FencingGal at 8:16 AM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I want to speak specifically about going back to school.

A professional degree can work wonders and be a great investment even for someone in their 50s, to say the least of their 40s, but you have to be surgical about it. Unless it's a check-the-box credential for promotion, you need to be at in-person selective-admission program. It needs to have reasonable tuition or you need to have a high probability expectation that you will get a large and sustained salary bump to justify big quantities of debt. (Read The Wall Street Journal's truly infuriating story about some very big name universities ripping off people with non-selective online versions of some of their professional programs.) Drilling down to specifics, a regional state school MBA can be relatively inexpensive and still be incredibly productive even if won't get you to a trading desk on Wall Street.
posted by MattD at 8:31 AM on January 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

I work in grant contract review & reporting/compliance at a mediumish regional non-profit. The bulk of my work relates to government funding but can include foundations as well. We definitely hire people with your sort of experience from universities. And work with people in city/county/state/federal level + foundations doing similar work from the other side.

Given what you describe, it sounds like you would bring a lot of knowledge/experience to that sort of job. It's the sort of thing that requires attention to tedious details and communicating complex rules with a heaping of problem solving imperfect systems. My team is a mix of backgrounds and while we might help write budgets, we are not the finance people.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2022

I have a friend who was a department admin at a university until her early 40s, and then moved into finance. I think she supports the same department, and is able to maintain a family life and creative pursuits while having some upward mobility and more job security. She’s a super smart person and seems like she’s able to use different parts of her brain at work, which is nice.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:54 AM on January 6, 2022

Unless this is something you really want to do for its own sake and can easily afford, I would strongly advise against getting another degree or new certifications or whatever the hell. It's simply not necessary for you to spend more money on this stuff just to get a new, better job. What you need is spin - spin and a snazzy new resume with all the right jargon and to package yourself correctly and market yourself to targeted employers. Presentation matters much more than extra qualifications at this stage of your career.

My advice to you is:

1. Aim high. Let us agree right here and now that you are HOT SHIT, okay? You're highly qualified, you have just the right amount of experience and skills, you're in great demand, and you not only get to aim as high as your dreams but you also get to write your own ticket and name your price. Employers are dying, dying, dying to have you, and so you have all of the power. If any part of this doesn't sound quite realistic to you, well, reality can wait in the wings for a while. Right now, what you need is delusional self confidence, if delusion is what it takes to give you it. Why? Because today you're going to pledge to ASK FOR TWICE AS MUCH MONEY AS YOU THINK YOU CAN GET. Six years ago, I was going around hat in hand asking for $20 an hour, and many unemployed months later, a recruiter let slip that they were offering $38. I landed a job within two months when I started asking for $35: nobody had been taking me seriously when I had asked for $20. Five months later I had been poached by another company for $48. I promise you, you cannot aim too high.

2. Target your job search and your resume. Identify your target/dream role. It's great that you're asking for ideas for new roles or sideways switches on here, but at the end of it all, you're going to have to pick on your own, because you know your life and your needs best. It doesn't have to be just one kind of role, you can pick two or even three. It's more work that way but what the hell, right? Whatever you do, don't just shotgun job postings - keep your target role firmly in mind. Research it well by combing through job postings outside your search area, write down all the keywords, find a way to use their jargon in your resume, and rewrite your resume to showcase the common bullet points you find on these ads.

3. Use your friends and colleagues and professional contacts to your advantage. Networking sucks for introverts, but it is also one of the main advantages you have as a mid-career professional. Schmooze away. Call people and ask them about their families and chat with them. Start putting the word out that you're looking for a job. Lots of companies offer commissions to their employees when they refer new candidates for open positions, so you're not imposing on anyone. Reach out and ask.

4. Tell stories. Your work experience and projects should be written about as short, sentence-long stories that illustrate that you match up their bullet points exactly. Practice telling these same stories in a slightly longer format during interviews. I have an arsenal of 6 or 7 stories that show-not-tell my qualifications in different work situations or projects - I've literally prepared these stories as if I was going to do stand up on stage, or maybe go on Moth Story Hour, but you know, just worded more naturally. I highly recommend storytelling as your go-to interview trick. Practice them on your IRL friends and family.

5. Invite reality back into the conversation after you're all settled into your new job. The stuff you're talking about is super important: how your age, your gender presentation and identity, your [insert everything else] impacts the way employers in the job market see you - this shit is real and it's not a joke. You can't afford to let one single thought about all this enter your delusionally confident brain during your job search, that's for sure. But after you get the job, you get to invite reality back into your life and do everything you can to change what things are like from within and outside of your job. And you'll even have much more money to help people with.

This is a great market for job seekers. You've got this, Frowner.
posted by MiraK at 12:29 PM on January 6, 2022 [12 favorites]

Can I just chime in and say that I have always had a high opinion of your thinking, Frowner, and believe any employer would be lucky to have you?
posted by praemunire at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

Does your university job come with free access to classes and degrees? That would change my answer. I got a doctorate mid-career and it worked out for me, but many of my classmates are saddled with debt they cannot recoup. My particular mix of luck and experience made it pay off but it’s much more risky than I’d thought.

You said that tech changes may replace your job. Any interest in working for one of the vendors of that tech? User requirements, system implementation, support would all require your skills.
posted by 26.2 at 2:07 PM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

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