But what about the increasing number of people who, by choice or necessity, work well beyond traditional retirement age? As people live longer, healthier lives they face new career decisions that were not even possible when forced retirement at age 65 was still legal. The increasing number of people who change careers in their 50s and continue to work into their 70s and beyond are changing the way we think about work, retirement and living a meaningful life. There are no reliable models or best practices to guide our steps in this new career terrain, leaving employers, workers and the government agencies who support them in uncharted territory. So how do we navigate this new career terrain?
We can begin by having the humility to recognize that even the most experienced and well trained among us become beginners when we enter uncharted territory, and that can be both exhilarating and unsettling. Shifting from fear or trepidation in the face of the unknown to a wayfinding mindset that emphasizes exploration and curiosity is not always easy for seasoned professionals who are used to waymaking. As a result, we can become stuck or disoriented in the face of uncertainty, which leads to binary thinking rather than creative problem solving. Fortunately, we can combat this by learning to stop, ask and explore.
Uncertainty and change can spark uncomfortable thoughts, incendiary emotions and knee-jerk reactions, especially if we don’t have a clear and immediate sense of how best to respond. Left unchecked, this can result in further interruption and disruption and compound feelings of threat. By pausing to acknowledge the shift from known to unknown territory, we can practice self-regulation and intentionally create space to consider new possibilities before choosing a path forward. Of course, stopping in the face of a transition can feel counterintuitive—especially for people with lots of experience who are used to being decisive. Stopping, even briefly, to settle our emotions and create space to make sense of new terrain can help us shift from focusing on the unknown as a threat, to considering it as an invitation to inquiry.
Opening up space to ask new questions, consider new possibilities and accept new lead to increased feelings of agency, hope and motivation in the face of change and uncertainty. This dispassionate curiosity can be a countermeasure to falling into the threat response when we enter uncharted territory. This might involve considering what a new position would mean beyond money and title or considering working at a new level of responsibility. It also prompts us to consider career questions in the context of other areas of life and sets the stage for learning in action through exploration and experimentation.
If the inquiry raises new and important questions, there are a number of ways to explore new possibilities. This may involve experimenting with new roles or position on a trial basis to determine if it is the right fit or considering a new industry or cross-training in the wake of a job loss or change. Exploration through time-boxed experiments can be a means for further learning in intermediate steps that allow for a time of discernment before making firm commitments or decisions.
This orientation to wayfinding rather than waymaking in the face of uncertain transitions and uncharted territory can lead to unexpected possibilities for creating a rigorous and exciting next chapter that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It also is a practice rather than a set of steps or procedures, so it can evolve, change and adapt to unfolding circumstances as career aspirations change over time.
Joan P. Ball is an associate professor in the Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in New York City and the author of Stop, Ask, Explore: Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty. She is also the founder of WOMB Service Design Lab, an action research consultancy where she works with individuals, teams and organizations to help people learn to thrive in uncertain times and help others to do the same.