5 April 2023

Is 50 too old for a new career?

The saying used to be; “Life begins at 40” but now you are more likely to hear; “Life begins at 50”! The simple fact is that we are an ageing population, and, with the economic cost of living pressures, our working lives are getting longer. The accepted ‘retirement age’ of 60 or 65 is great if you can afford it but unrealistic for the majority of people. Just as challenging for many is the prospect of changing careers mid-stream in your working life, or even towards the end. At the other end of the spectrum, younger people now days will generally have a number of ‘careers’ throughout their working lives and not blink an eyelid. It is the new norm and an accepted part of the millennial culture. But for a few people like me the question of “Is 50 is too old to start a new career?” is a very real and confronting scenario. 

I faced that exact question when I left the New South Wales Police Force in January 2022 after a career that commenced soon after I left school and spanned over 31 years. I loved my career and had the opportunity of both working with and leading amazing, dedicated people in top ‘command’ areas including Homicide, Counter Terrorism and eventually reaching the rank of Deputy Commissioner. But, towards the end of 2021 a process was run to select a new Commissioner of Police that ultimately ended up going in a direction that resulted in my policing career (the only career I had ever known) coming to an end 6 weeks shy of my 50th birthday.

To be honest, I had given some thought in recent years to the possibility of a post policing second career from time to time either in the private sector or with another government entity. In fact, I had discussed the whole issue of ‘value proposition and age’ with an executive coach that I had been working with between 2020 to 2021 and had come to realise that I probably had more ‘value’ to the private sector in particular at aged 50 than I would have if I was younger.  There were a number of reasons that we talked about including that at aged 50 you are still seen as a ‘doer’ with the energy and drive to get things done. Coupled with that, at aged 50 you have years of learned, lived experience that some younger people simply don’t yet possess that can be used to create a long “second runway” for a new, meaningful, and fulfilling career with the possibility of a “third runway” down the track given that people are now working longer and longer before fully retiring.

So, with the help of some incredible people, I set about spending the first few months of this year at 50 years of age working out what my “second runway” was going to be and setting myself up to transition into it by structuring my thoughts, time, and energy around a process that was akin to ‘project managing’ myself.

The first part of the process was working out what I wanted to do with myself! Seems like a simple question to answer but believe me, I found it hard. I had enjoyed all sorts of experiences in a policing career that had taken me from my roots in the central western city of Dubbo to Sydney, educated me both in life and in academia, allowed me travel the world, and had given me the privilege and burden of leadership in many ways. But more than that it had given me a deep sense of identity and purpose. 

I found myself looking back to my upbringing and really working out who I was as a person and what my values and motivations were in order to work out what I wanted to do with myself next. Once I worked that out, I had a broad sense of what type of new career would fulfil me as both a 50-year-old man with a wonderful wife and two high school aged children, and a person with a broad range of unique experiences.

The second part of the process was developing an understanding of how to take that broad range of unique experiences and showcase them in a way that was attractive and understandable to the wider range of sectors out there where I had an interest in working. In a practical sense, that meant re-writing my CV and using a different style of language and personal presentation to demonstrate and showcase the capabilities that I have.

The third part was using my network and my own initiative to identify and pursue new career opportunities that aligned with my values, motivations, experiences, and skills. This takes time and can be challenging, but it is strangely empowering at the same time. For me that was where the caring, dedicated people from Fortem Australia (‘Fortem’) were amazing.

I had a pretty good network that I had built up over the years, but I knew that Fortem had been established to, in part, help first responders transition to new careers. I knew that my seniority in policing might make me a bit different, but nonetheless I put that aside and connected with Fortem like any other person might do – I sent an email message via the portal seeking help! The response was immediate, and very quickly Fortem tailored their efforts to supplement my existing network and to reassure and support me in the journey that I was on.

While the journey had its harder periods emotionally, over time I found myself changing from someone who was looking for “a job” to someone who was actually saying to top executives in private sector firms, “why should I come and work with you?” In other words, I felt in control of my own destiny and “second runway.” 

I ended up declining a few different opportunities, including applying for a couple of interstate Police Commissioner roles (because I had worked out that my values didn’t align with disrupting my family and moving them interstate), and had some very productive conversations with a well-known company before an off-chance conversation led to me meeting an executive from the global consulting firm Accenture. The work that I had done on discovering who I was and what my values were led me to saying to the executive, “I want to be valued, I want to be in an environment and culture that is supportive of each other and I want scope to grow.” That is, it.  I didn’t ask for anything more than that!

Within two weeks I was made a very attractive offer to join Accenture in an executive role that was to be created for me as a Managing Director with responsibility for leading and growing their ‘national security’ practice area across Australia and New Zealand. It was a position that was perfectly suited to my background and ambitions, and more importantly my research on Accenture led me to know that it was a huge organisation that lived and breathed values that are aligned to my own. That was a critically important part that led me to accepting the offer and starting an exciting new career as a 50-year-old with a wonderful first career already in the bank. 

So, while I understand that everyone’s experiences are different, the answer to the question of; “Is 50 is too old for a new career?” is a resounding “No!” from me. Depending on how you approach it, being aged 50 can be a distinct advantage, given the empowerment that comes from understanding who you are as a person and the very real value that you possess with the broad range of skills and experiences you have accumulated to that point in your working life. Life can most certainly begin again at 50!

By Mick Willing

Managing Director, National Security – Accenture

Former Deputy Commissioner, NSW Police Force