MID-LIFE CAREER CHANGES AND RISKS
JOHN BELL IS a 62-year-old financial adviser who started his working life as a police officer, detoured into the civil service to work in crime prevention and switched gears after the 1987 market crash when everyone was clamouring for financial help. In his 50s, he started thinking about his pre-retirement plan.
“If you’ve got a five in front of your age, you’re pretty much cooked in the banking and corporate world,” he says. “You’re perceived as not having enough runway left.”
So he bought two financial service practices east of Toronto in Whitby, Ont., which he will sell within the year and embark on his fourth career – as a long-haul truck driver.
With Canadians living longer, widespread labour-market uncertainty, a lack of pension plans, not to mention growing piles of personal debt, it’s no surprise that baby boomers are either unable or unwilling to retire. Indeed, a 2017 Statistics Canada report on labour market participation and aging concluded that, by 2026, four of every 10 working Canadians could be 55 or older.
This has given rise to what some call the “second-act industry,” with career counsellors, courses and schools clamouring for the hard-earned dollars of out-of-work, underemployed or just plain unhappy middle-aged workers who want to reinvent themselves. And as a recent New York Times article on the “snake oil” of the second-act industry pointed out, all these books, courses, workshops and counsellors that target the mid-life career changer are designed to maximize revenue, to the tune of as much as US$50,000 at the high end.
Like anything, switching careers in mid-life is not without risks, and top of the list is protecting retirement funds or assets. The problem is boomers, who are highly educated, naturally gravitate toward school and getting more accreditation, says Ann Sutton, a career coach with a Master in Business Administration who runs Catalyst High Performance Coaching and Management Consulting in Ajax, Ont., where she supports mid-life workers who want to switch jobs – including Bell, her husband.
“The idea of a course becomes very appealing,” says Sutton. “It’s a great way to avoid networking for a year because you think you’re going to upgrade your skills and instantly get something.”
In Canada, there are many paths to a new career via the education system, from continuing education classes to eight-week courses to one- or two-year post-graduate certificates or degrees. One of the most expensive options is the 13-month executive MBA, which will set you back more than $110,000 at the University of Toronto’s prestigious Rotman School of Management.
“When I’m coaching people, going back to school is never my goto for them,” says Sutton.
A 2015-2016 report on student loans from Employment and Social Development Canada provides the latest data on how many middle-aged students resorted to federal government assistance to pay for full-time studies that year: though they represent just
under two per cent of almost 500,000 borrowers, there were 8,388 loans with a value of $56.2 million to people aged 45 and older. The same year, there were another 20,000 students aged 45 and older who registered for the government’s Repayment Assistance Program, which means that they were having trouble paying back their loans and qualified for reduced payments.
Suzanne Cook, a gerontologist and York University adjunct professor who owns a business called Carpe Vitam, works mainly with those nearing retirement who are seeking what she calls redirection.
“We have this wonderful gift of longevity,” says Cook, the leader of the 2017 Redirection Project, who surveyed almost 300 people and interviewed four in depth for a documentary on later life career development. “This is the happy part – yay, we’re all living longer! – but it’s what we do with these years.”
She has heard anecdotally stories about people who hired career coaches or took courses that didn’t pay off. “You need to do the research and not just take what someone says for granted,” she advises. “It’s competitive to get students into these programs, and you may get misinformation.”
Both Cook and Sutton emphasize the need for research and networking – talking to hiring managers, looking at labour market predictions for occupations and even interviewing alumni of programs you are interested in – before making any big changes.
Before deciding on his fourth act, Bell did everything both Sutton and Cook recommend: he thought hard about what he loved to do (drive), researched the job outlook (he says truck traffic on Ontario’s busiest highway, the 401, is projected to double in the next seven years) and spoke to a trucking company manager about credentials, salary and working hours.
The average truck driver makes about $70,000 a year, while an owner-operator can make $150,000 a year, though they must buy a $180,000 vehicle or lease one for about $3,800 a month. The college course he needs is eight weeks long and costs $8,300. An airbrake licence is $400. “That was a barrier to entry,” Bell says. “If I didn’t like it and I put out $8,300, then the return on investment is not good.” But when the trucking company told him the provincial government would pay for his training, that sealed the deal.
“There’s such a demand for truck drivers,” he says. “If you’re on unemployment insurance, they’ll pay 100 per cent (of the course), but if you’re working full-time and retraining, they pay 85 per cent. I said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”