Insights • 16 ago 2018
By Rafael D’Andrea, EMCCC – INSEAD
When we are presented to someone for the first time, it is quite normal for us to ask: “What do you do?” This probably happens because part of our identity is linked directly to work – “we are what we do”. At least, that is what one of the c-level executives told me in an interview for a recent study. And if suddenly, let’s say, you do not need to work anymore, what would you do?
I put this question to the successful former executives and businessmen in my study sample. All of them had the financial wherewithal to stop working. The reply was a resounding “Continue working!”. But what if the current work is no longer so stimulating?
And what if the work environment was no longer so receptive to old-guard executives? My interviewees experienced that type of situation and decided to start over, from zero.
A pioneering study about career transitions
Even after reaching the age of 50, it is possible to learn a new profession; and although is said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the professionals that I interviewed for my master thesis research* were successful in their late career transitions. In my paper, I sought to understand how they made such transitions to drastically different careers from their former ones. And I decided not to limit myself to just understanding the sequence of events, the checking they underwent, and the challenges they faced. In truth, I sought to understand what the possible decision drivers must have been for these relatively rich people to decide to continue in different occupations from those of before, despite being perfectly able to simply stop. To do this, I adopted a psychodynamic viewpoint (in accordance with the INSEAD school of coaching approach) to analyze the mental model behind each choice, as well as the deeper motivations behind them.
Indeed, this study was somehow pioneering. There were people studying the mid-life transitions, or retirement, but no one was looking at late-stage professional career transitions in this way.
Without much prior reference, I needed to give this phenomenon a name. Thus, I came up with “Bonus Careers”, because of the similarity with a “bonus” earned at the end of one’s career.
Douglas Hall, the renowned author wrote the following: “careers give a sense of significance and purpose to life. They are a way of expressing the self.” Indeed, I had already seen this before. My very own grand-father, who died aged 100, in full employment, had 3 bonus careers after notching up 50, not to mention his new direction well into his 80’s as an artist and writer.
There are many examples of people opting to continue working – and changing career – even though they could have continued in their line of work, or indeed retire. During the study, I found in the magazine EXAME, the curious case of Jacques Lewkovitz, who at the age of 70 decided to become a trainee at Google, after selling his advertising agency, Lew Lara. And so I wondered: Why? What was that like? I became intrigued.
Could it be that early retirement is no longer the paradigm?
Thus, I went in search of answers to the following question: “Why would anyone develop a totally new career after being successful in a previous career, instead of resting on the laurels of their trajectory?”
The majority of studies I found referred to mid-life transitions, a phenomenon that led many people to seek coherence at work and harmony between their professional and personal lives. But this doesn’t seem to be what motivated my interviewees. By digging a little deeper into the matter, I discovered that the great paradigm of the 90’s had changed. Today, the consumer dream of professionals is no longer to retire early and reap the rewards of their retirement. Paradoxically, there appears to be a pro-work attitude among senior citizens. Such an attitude is being stimulated by governments and NGOs in developed countries. These institutions have realized that we are living longer, with greater physical health. And this longevity has brought a new window of professional possibilities, stretching (in general) from 50 to around 75 years of age.
The new paradigm of the times is to be economically active as much as possible. However, will any old job do? People who are successful in their careers tend to be very demanding when they get older. High level ex-executives are not satisfied with looking for bridge-jobs (transitory jobs, generally in the same line of work but with less responsibility) before heading for definitive retirement.
But what then would be the ideal “line of work”?
Work desired by this target public is something that brings a certain significance, a flexible routine, the adrenaline from a new challenge, fun, new content, new personal relationships, and also something that is more consistent with their own personal values, without threatening their social acceptance.
These professionals do not just want to be occupied, they want to be fully immersed in what they do. Certain academics explain that to be immersed in a fluid experience can neutralize the sensation of the passing of time. Now, the passage of time is related to the notion of mortality. Thus, it may be mortally unpleasant for an experienced CEO, for example, to suddenly have to stop working. More mature professionals are looking for work that is absorbing. This makes them feel reinvigorated.
Being labelled as obsolete motivates a change of area.
Why would anyone abandon a successful career at the end of their professional life? The most common triggers to leave previous careers were identified in my study as causes related to age discrimination in the work environment.
The fear of being stereotyped “as a dinosaur” was what led participants in the study to consider different fields in which to start over.
On reinventing themselves, the interviewed professionals were looking to satisfy the motivation of avoiding any possibility of becoming anything undesirable, for example, being seen by others as an “unoccupied” person (retired), or, indeed, as an obsolete professional. On the other hand – the start over in another career further fitted into the motivation of the participants’ desire of wishing to become more socially accepted.
More than money itself, it is important at this stage of life, to be seen as a person, despite one’s age, who continues to show “advancement” in their endeavors.
Both the undesired self (idle man/obsolete worker/retiree) and the desired self (the mature man who continues to progress) simultaneously prefer the decision to start over in a new profession.
One curious fact that I discovered pointed to childhood. It seems that the idealized career from childhood (or rather, what one wanted to be, when one grew up) could also have influenced the career decisions at this later stage of life. One of the respondents wanted to be like Marco Polo when he was a child. His bonus career naturally headed towards becoming a teacher. “I am a teller of stories in the classroom”, he said. Another businessman wanted to be a priest when he was young. Today, he runs a spiritual healing center.
Knowing the skills is more important than mastering the content.
The common question that participants asked before moving towards a new career was: “Do I have the abilities to learn and adapt to the new job?” I observed that the work content was nowhere near as important to participants as their necessary competence to do well in their new area of action.
The expectation of obtaining success was a fundamental driver to making the decision about which new career to look for.
As a result, the decision regarding the occupation for the bonus-career seemed to be related to the search for a line of action that demanded the same skills needed for achieving success in the former work; something that would increase the chance of success within the new context. Thus, obtaining a successful result in the new area of action seemed to be the most salient factor in the decision to change. Participants knew they could learn the required skills for the new job in a reasonable time (after all, there was no time to lose).
How did the transition take place?
Apart from the qualitative discoveries that I have cited, the interviews allowed me to create a map of hypotheses concerning the main worries, checking for family support, and triggers to leave their previous jobs, as well as the drivers for choosing a new career, and the decision strategies involved in the transition.
Mapping the process is of importance; it allows other professional to perceive that they are not alone in their own particular moments of transition.
The details of the three major stages and the divisions thereof have been condensed into the table below, which sets out to illustrate the essence of the phenomenon, without exhausting it.
Table: The decision making process in the transition to bonus careers
Curiously, after the interviews, I received some feedback from the participants, saying that the very act of narrating their experiences to me had awaken certain new reflections regarding the significance of their current activities and future steps, including that of definitive retirement.
The search for a job that has significance can only be done with a certain dose of self-awareness. Nowadays, the excessive focus by employers on content (that’s to say, job description, higher education, previous experience, etc.) does not access the full spectrum of a person’s potential to perform well in a new job. Therefore, knowing one’s strengths is much more relevant for achieving success in career transitions.
Contribution to people undergoing transition
I hope that my analysis will help executives in later stage careers to take the transition decisions that will make them happy.
With the inspiration, ideas and hypotheses generated by the study, I further hope to be able to help people who have not yet reached the end of their careers to prepare themselves better for the future. And to professionals from HR and the coaches that read us, I would like to highlight the importance of strengthening self-awareness inside organizations, using all the available instruments to do so, in whatever phase careers might be.
*This article was inspired by the master’s degree thesis: “Bonus Career Transitions” (INSEAD), written by Rafael D’Andrea and available in its full version at: https://flora.insead.edu/fichiersti_wp/InseadEMCCCtheseswave18/83965.pdf
About the author
Rafael D’Andrea works as a business leader, advisor and lecturer, helping individuals and companies to carry out behavioral organizational changes through directed consulting and coaching. Firmly but sincerely, he applies a method based upon support, encouragement and questioning of the mental frameworks, perceptions and experiences that influence decision making. His major qualification, a Master Degree in Human Development and Organizational Psychology (Coaching) from Insead (France-Singapore) was obtained with distinction. He has a 20 year career in business, half of which he acted as a business executive, and the other half as an entrepreneur, consultant and business advisor. In 2005 he founded Grupo Toolbox – a company focused on marketing services. Rafael was both coordinator and author of several books about trade and shopper marketing, a discipline he has lectured in Brazil, in graduation studies at Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), at Insper in the Marketing Channels area, and at FIA. Since 2014, he has further acted as a business advisor to NZTE – New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (a development agency for international business from the New Zealand Government linked to the General Consulate of New Zealand in Brazil).