Brett Arends's ROI: If you want to change careers after 45, you need to do this one thing first

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Last year I signed up for a variety of educational and training courses at, an online “school” specializing in such things. Many of the courses I chose were just related to personal interest (I really liked Jeremy Lipkowtiz’s course on mindfulness, for example). But most taught productivity skills that might be needed in the workplace.

Turns out I was doing exactly the right thing for someone in middle age.

Ageism and long-term unemployment are major blights for those in the second half of their careers. Changing careers is hard. Getting back into work after you’ve been laid off is even harder. Those over 45 make up the bulk of the long-term unemployed, in America and elsewhere. Hiring managers admit they are reluctant to hire those over 40 or 45, arguing they probably won’t be a good “fit,” their experience won’t be relevant to the workplace, and they’ll be unable or unwilling to learn new skills.

But the one thing that can really make a difference? More education and training.

These are the results from a new study by Generation, a nonprofit founded by former McKinsey consultants and backed by the management consulting firm, among other companies. I’ve written about Generation before. They’ve just published a global survey on midcareer employment, based on surveys of over 5,000 workers and managers in seven countries.

Their findings?

“Older midcareer workers…make up the bulk of the long-term unemployed in many countries,” Generation’s analysts write in their report, Meeting The World’s Midcareer Moment. Those over 45 comprise over 40% of the long-term unemployed, for example. And if you’re out of work past the age of 45, there’s nearly a two in three chance you’ll be out of work for over a year, they find. “Midcareer individuals are finding it harder to get jobs,” they write. “People age 45+ face persistent and rising pressure in the global jobs market. They are unemployed for much longer than the median, and their age is indeed one of the greatest barriers to their finding a job.”

A substantial part of this, they report, is “rampant ageism” on the part of hiring managers. Although such managers admit that post-45 hires turn out on average to be just as good or better than younger workers, they still don’t want to hire them. “Hiring managers have a strong perception bias against 445+ job candidates—they believe that members of this age cohort have poor skills and low adaptability,” Generation’s analysts report.

The survey results are remarkable. Hiring managers are three times as likely to rate job applicants age 35-44 as “application ready,” more “experienced” and a better “fit” than those over 45. They rate the over 45 job seekers lower on average on all three measures—even experience — than those ages 18 to 34. This is true even though nearly nine managers in 10 also said their post-45 workers were as good as, or better than, younger employees in the same jobs.

Their biggest fears about hiring those over 45? Managers said they worry that older hires will be reluctant to try new technologies, and will be unable to learn new skills. (They’re also apparently worried we’ll have trouble working with other generations—although it seems they don’t care about the ability of other generations to work with us, which tells you something.)

The majority of hiring managers are also under 45—and seem reluctant to hire people older than themselves.

But here’s the good news. Older workers who’ve actively engaged in more education and training relevant to their jobs turn this pretty much on its head.

Three-quarters of hiring managers said they’d be more likely to hire an over 45 who had relevant education, training or credentials. Among those over 45 who’d successfully switched careers, 74% said training helped them get their new job. 

“Midcareer switchers overwhelmingly say that training enabled them to shift to a new career trajectory,” the analysts write. And when they asked over 45 candidates about their attitudes, they found that “those who are excited by training are unemployed for less time, receive more job offers, and are more satisfied by the job offers they receive.”

Hiring managers said training was three times more likely to get them to hire applicants over age 45 than, say, government subsidies.

What training are we talking about? Obviously it depends on the job. And, yes, managers are most likely to be impressed by industry qualifications you get in school. These things cost money, and time.

But these aren’t the only things helpful. Those who had successfully changed careers after 45 told Generation that education and training had been a big help—and that included in-person, on-the-job training, “informal learning,” and online courses—with or without certification.

If they think we’re too old to learn new skills after we’re 45, just learning some new skills may have an effect just on its own.

There’s a downside to this. The people least interested in retraining are more likely to come from historically disadvantaged communities, more likely to have low incomes, and are more likely to have the least school after getting their high-school diploma or earlier. On average, post-45 job switchers with higher incomes participate in 2.5 training programs each. Those with lower incomes: 0.9 programs on average.

Many years ago, I wrote about a study which found that employers are much more likely to hire a college graduate who has some work experience in the industry than a college graduate who took the “right” degree. A bank is more likely to hire a literature graduate who spent their summers working in their local bank than a finance or economics graduate who spent their summers surfing or traveling around Italy. They’ve learned through long experience: The person who worked in the bank is more likely ready, willing and able to be part of the team and do the job from day 1.

We can rail against “ageism” all we like. It gets us nowhere. And it’s easy to forget that employers, like everyone else, are under time pressure and are just trying to solve problems. Any and all “training,” including inexpensive and informal training, is going to help resolve their worries about hiring someone over 45. And it has never been easier or cheaper to gain instruction in new skills, thanks to the internet. Online schools like Udemy and offer sweet deals at sign up. (At Udemy, for instance, when you first join courses cost just $ 12). And courses on YouTube are free.

Bottom line? Yes, it really can suck getting a new job after age 45, let alone changing careers. One of the best things we can do to help ourselves is to go online and learn new, relevant skills. Sadly, the people who most need the help are least likely to take it—which raises a challenge for society as a whole. Not only do we not want to see lives go to waste, but we all benefit if more people are working and fewer are unemployed.