Helping People Over 40 to rethink their Careers


Joanna Maxwell is the author of ‘Rethink Your Career in your 40s, 50s and 60s’. She ran a successful career consultancy for over 15 years, increasingly focusing on helping older Australians make effective career choices. Joanna now works as director of age discrimination in the Australian Human Rights Commission.

During my time as a career adviser, I specialised in helping older Australians rethink their careers and navigate the changing world of work. Now I work in age discrimination and so I see the picture from a different angle.

Australians are increasingly living and working longer. In 2018, Australians 65+ had a workforce participation rate of 13%, compared with 8% in 2006. 20% of people over 70 still work – including 6% of those over 100 years old.

This is encouraging and good for individuals, businesses and the economy. But many people over 50 encounter obstacles to finding and keeping work. In a recent survey of over 900 HR professionals conducted jointly by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian HR Institute, 30% of organisations say they have an age over which they’re reluctant to recruit – for most of those, 50 is ‘too old’. And numerous Australian studies say that about one-third of Australians over 50 have experienced age discrimination at work.

So what can you do as career advisers?

Many older Australians have no difficulty changing jobs or even careers and so we should never assume it will be an issue. But it’s good to be prepared with ideas and strategies to help mature clients. As career advisers, you already have the tools to help people of all ages – all I would add in this scenario is the need for some creative (maybe even cunning) strategies to help clients get around potential roadblocks such as recruiters and managers who don’t appreciate the need for age-blindness in the workplace. These strategies should be crafted to suit individual situations, so it’s hard to offer guidance in a short post. (My book, Rethink Your Career in your 40s, 50s and 60s was written for exactly this reason and has chapters full of ideas on this.)

Over my time as a career adviser, I saw many clients whose confidence in the work market had eroded over time and who struggled to visualise different possible futures. And as we know, if you can’t see something as possible it’s hard to take the steps to make it happen. So I thought I’d share my all-time-favourite exercise with you as it has been instrumental for many older people in imagining what their life might be like if they took this path, or that path - or left the path altogether.

I call it ‘Three Futures’, perhaps not surprisingly because you look at three possible different futures and really play out how your life might look after, say, 3 – 5 years of living each of them. I’ve written it from the client’s perspective so it’s easy for you to use with your clients straight away.

Part 1

Start by thinking of all the things that might get in the way of change for you – is it money, small children, financial commitments, investment in a particular work identity, status, family stuff, or…?

Now, for the moment, just sweep them aside. We aren’t ignoring them, just moving them off centre stage for a minute.

Then, imagine a world where there are NO obstacles to whatever future you might imagine, none.

And ask yourself this question: ‘What future would bring me the most satisfaction / success / happiness?’

If there is only one winner, go to Part 2A.
If you have more than one clear answer, move on to Part 2B.

Part 2A

Now, for your top future, imagine your life in say 3, 4 or 5 years’ time. Think about a typical day:

  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • What is happening?
  • What are you doing?
  • How do you feel?
  • What do  you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • What about smells, tastes, touch?
  • What do you feel?
  • What about spiritual elements, physical elements, mental elements?

Record this in whatever way you like – journal, collage, mindmap, list, a story, a recording…

Part 2B

Zero in on the top three possibilities for a future direction, picking the three that seem the most attractive or compelling or interesting, NOT the three that are most practical or easiest to achieve. Remember that for the moment there are no obstacles in the way of achieving these dreams.

Now, pick one of the three, and imagine your life in say 3, 4 or 5 years’ time. Think about a typical day and answer the same questions that are listed for Part 2A.

Then repeat for the other two futures.

Thinking about the three, which one seems more compelling or inviting?

Part 3

Taking your top pick, bring all those obstacles – money, time, kids, status, identity, fear – back into view. Make a list of them, thinking of them as logistics challenges rather than reasons not to move forward.

Looking at them one by one, brainstorm ways you could overcome the obstacles. Assume that there IS a way around each challenge without losing your dream.

I hope this is useful to you and you’re welcome to share it freely with clients.