Older than 50, and under no illusions

3 people seize an opportunity to remake their careers

Caitlin Kelly / New York Times News Service /

Published Feb 1, 2013 at 04:00AM

It's a baby boomer's nightmare. One moment you're 40-ish and moving up, the next you're 50-plus and suddenly, shockingly, moving out — jobless in a tough economy.

Too young to retire, too old to start over. Or at least that's the line. Comfortable jobs with comfortable salaries are scarce, after all. Almost overnight, skills honed over a lifetime seem tired, passe. Twenty- and 30-somethings will gladly do the work you used to do, and probably for less money. Yes, businesses are hiring again, but not nearly fast enough. Many people are so disheartened that they've simply stopped looking for work.

For millions of Americans older than 50, this isn't a bad dream — it's grim reality. The recession and its aftermath have hit older workers especially hard. People 55 to 64 — an age range when many start to dream of kicking back — are having a particularly hard time finding new jobs. For a vast majority of this cohort, being thrown out of work means months of fruitless searching and soul-crushing rejection.

To which many experts say, “What did you expect?”

Everyone, whatever age, needs a Plan B. And maybe a Plan C and a Plan D. Who doesn't know that loyalty and hard work go only so far these days?

“Shame on you if you're not thinking every single year, 'What's my next step?'” said Pamela Mitchell, a career coach and author. “It's magical thinking not to do this.”

Mitchell, who has reinvented her own career a few times, says everyone should think about options, alternative job paths and career goals, just in case. She recommends talking over job possibilities with family members and, if possible, building a financial cushion.

Constant networking is crucial, too. The idea, she says, is to prepare in case a big change comes.

“If you're thinking about it, you'll be doing all this piecemeal along the way,” she said.

All of which, of course, is easier said than done. But some people who have gone through the emotional and financial strains of late-career unemployment say that with skill, determination and a bit of luck, the end of a job doesn't have to be the end of the world. Changing jobs or careers can be a good thing later in life, despite the many risks. Many agree that a willingness to push beyond the comforts of location, lifestyle and line of work is vital.

Though there is no single path, there are success stories that offer hope.

Like the story of Bonjet Sandigan, now of Delray Beach, Fla. An information technology specialist, Sandigan was laid off from Dun & Bradstreet in August 2011. But Sandigan, now 51, has since carved out a new career with ShelfGenie, a seller of custom home shelving.

It was a big switch. Sandigan grew up in the Philippines and has a computer science degree from Texas A&M. For years, he worked in I.T. support, helping customers over the phone. But he never managed to move up. When Dun & Bradstreet offered him a severance package, he figured that he could finally afford to take a little time to figure out his next move.

“I did some soul-searching about what's important to me,” he said. “As you grow, your priorities change.”

His father had been an entrepreneur in the Philippines, and Sandigan was attracted to the idea of working for himself. With the help of a consultant, he looked into buying a franchise in the I.T. or health care industries. Then he considered a ShelfGenie franchise, which appealed to him partly because it was a turnkey operation.

“The infrastructure is there, the market is there, the policies and procedures are there,” he said. “You just have to follow the procedures.”

He eventually spent a low six-figure sum to buy four ShelfGenie sales territories and, after living for decades near Dallas, moved to Delray Beach for his new career and new life. He says his experience in I.T., working with cross-cultural teams in India and China, has been surprisingly useful in his new job, which requires a focus on customer service.

“It was a very diverse culture, so my experience there, trying to understand where people are coming from” proves helpful in his current work, he says. He says his old career taught him to listen closely — a valuable skill in his new work.

“I'm right where I'm supposed to be,” he said.

The adventurer

Clare Novak is more than on track with her new career. At 58, she is making twice as much as she did in 2008, when her previous work dried up.

But Novak didn't just change jobs. She changed countries and cultures. After 18 years working in Chester Springs, Pa., doing management training for a range of businesses, she moved to Islamabad in November to work as a human resources adviser to nine power companies. Her first contract will last through this year, and possibly through 2015, a prospect she is happy to contemplate.

How did she end up making such a leap? She had formerly done work for someone in Egypt, who emailed her a job description and asked if she knew anyone who might fit the bill.

“The only person I know who would go there is me,” Novak said. When asked if she was interested, she said, “I was thrilled and said yes.”

Today, her life is vastly different. Once an avid hiker, she now spends more time at home, given that she is a foreign woman in a patriarchal society. She lives in what amounts to a rooming house and no longer enjoys the privacy she did in Chester Springs.

She is accustomed to adapting, and to using her networking skills. In the economic downturn, “networking and word of mouth were how I developed my business,” Novak said in an email interview. “Volunteering and networking kept me in business quite nicely, including overseas work in Egypt and Ukraine, and later Canada and Kuwait.”

When U.S. businesses began automating the training that was her specialty, a shrinking profession shrank further. Several of her large clients ended projects.

Moving to Pakistan has meant big changes. “There is considerably less autonomy for any foreigner of any age here,” she said. Novak says she loves the adventure of living abroad, and the satisfaction of “being able to make a difference in people's lives.”

The inventor

After 15 years selling men's clothing for a national retailer, Jeffrey Nash, 58, was earning $90,000 a year and was often the top salesman in his company. But as the recession deepened, he began referring his customers to struggling co-workers. His sales commissions took a hit.

“I kind of softened up,” he said. “My sales went down because I was sharing them.”

His income fell to $65,000. And as shoppers became more cautious during the recession, he knew that it would soon fall even further.

“I was doomed,” he said. “I knew I had to come up with an idea.”

Nash, who lives in Las Vegas, had invented a device he called the Juppy, a sling that helps toddlers learn to walk more safely and confidently.

“I had already touched base with a patent attorney and had started the ball rolling,” he said. He took three weeks of vacation to see if he could make a go of his invention, telling only a few people about his plans. Their opinions were “really negative,” he recalled.

Undaunted, he drove to Los Angeles and San Diego, selling the Juppy from his trunk and on a televised sales show, and earning $12,000 in three weeks.

“I never went back to work,” he said.

Investing $35,000 of his savings and an additional $9,000 from his father and a friend, Nash had the device manufactured in China.

“I needed a massive change. I needed income of several hundred thousand dollars. I knew I had to take a risk, a massive risk.”

Nash has since sold $500,000 worth of his product, netting $200,000 in two-and-a-half years, an annual average of $80,000.

“It's unbelievable to me that at my age I recognized a need and filled it,” he said. “We're having a hard time filling orders right now, we have so much demand.”