By Suzanne Cook

How to approach career transitions among workers age 50 and older

The only constant is change. This is certainly the case today. Within Canada’s socioeconomic context, more and more people appear to be in a career transition. Those age 50 and older are no exception. In fact, they represent a large and growing proportion of those who seek employment services and career counselling.

In the CERIC-funded Redirection Project, I examined older adults who were shifting into new occupations, pursuing second or third careers. My focus has been on Canadians age 50 and above. My research and the research of other scholars points to how older adults are eager to remain engaged, active and productive in society. Furthermore, these older adults want or need to work.

I chose to study work, aging and later life career development for two reasons. First, as a gerontologist and adult educator, I spoke with older adults in different communities about their experiences looking for work and their desire for later life work options. These individuals were not planning to retire to a life of leisure as they approached the later stages of their career. They did not see an end to “working life.”

Second, the generation of baby boomers is a large population. They are entering their later years and are now older workers. I was very interested in their occupational choices.

The growing proportion of older workers is a growing social issue, as well as a significant social shift away from previously held expectations and perceptions of later life. For practitioners in the field, it is important to develop and share best practices that address the changes we are seeing in society.

Changing careers is difficult, and there are barriers during the transition process. Older adults can have occupational and career crises. They require employment assistance. Because they make up a large and growing proportion of the people entering employment agencies looking for guidance, it is important to me that I share this research with the broader career development community and people working in the field. In other words, I believe it is critical that information and knowledge gained through the research be translated into theory and practice. Furthermore, it is important to develop relevant tools and resources for practitioners working with older clients.

My research indicates we can group older adults who change occupations or find a new career into a few different categories. In this way, a typology of later life career redirection can be developed. This can be a useful resource for practitioners in the field who are assisting older clients. Several sub-categories describe the individuals who redirect into new occupational pursuits. I have developed the terms “Movers, Shakers, Shifters” to describe them. Those who are seeking redirection are: “Strivers, Stuck in Transition” (SiT), and a third category for which I have coined the term “SNAAFU.” The dictionary states that “snafu” is “a confused or chaotic state,” and currently this is the best concept to describe this category of redirection seekers.

It may be helpful to provide this typology to clients so that they can see where they fit in the Redirection model. Awareness of the process and understanding of their experience and situation, can be very helpful to someone at the beginning or in the middle of a career transition. It is also beneficial to acknowledge the accomplishments, and success of someone who comes through the Redirection process.

I want to share three of my personal learnings and reflections that can be developed into best practices to assist older workers with career transition. These ideas are not new to the field; however, they need to be restated and highlighted because they are central tenants for work with older clients.

1. Every person is an individual. This must be reflected in a later life career development model. What is required is an approach that adapts to individual needs. Therefore, the career development model needs to be flexible. It should be an approach that begins where people “are at” when they come in the door. The model must be both broad (for diversity) yet specific (for practicality). Above all, the model must validate older adults and their experiences. In other words, the career development model must be both non-judgmental and empowering.

Where to Learn More About Redirection Project Findings

  • A free CERIC webinar with Dr Suzanne Cook on January 12, 2017 will be recorded and posted online.
  • At the Cannexus17 National Career Development Conference, Dr Cook will screen her Redirection: Movers, Shakers and Shifters documentary film on January 23. In addition, she will facilitate the session “Experienced and Greater than Average” during Cannexus Connections on January 24.
  • The documentary film Redirection: Movers, Shakers and Shifters and a companion guide will be posted online after the conference for free access. The film trailer is available for viewing at:

Check for links and the latest information.

2. The career development model must recognize career as lifelong (and this is important to discuss with all age groups). In other words, the model must recognize that older workers may work another 20 years (or more). It must acknowledge their life experience and their learning needs. It must be a model where work and occupation are embedded in the kaleidoscope of life so that career counselling and employment services consider the whole, entire life of the client. Furthermore, it must recognize lifelong and life-wide vocational experiences.

3. Finally, this is a social transition and a social issue. Society should be paying more attention to work, aging and later life career development. Furthermore, older adults need to be aware that they are not alone. Relatedly, peer support is critical to the process. Older adults need other older adults. Work is a social experience and looking for work is similarly a social experience, requiring social interaction and support. Having other older adults talking together about their experiences as older workers is critical.

I believe these three objectives are important for work with older clients. In my research and application, I believe I am accomplishing these key goals. Working on the Redirection Project has been wonderful and I invite you to join me as I share the findings of this research in various ways.


Dr Suzanne Cook is a social gerontologist and Adjunct Professor at York University in the Department of Sociology and York’s Centre for Aging Research and Education. She is a leading-edge researcher who studies career development and older workers, with a particular focus on second careers. Her research bridges theory, research and practice.