SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
If you've been in the workforce for two or three decades, you may be near the peak of your career. Yet only one-third of veteran employees say they're actually engaged in their work. As our former colleague - and always our friend - Barbara Bradley Haggerty found for our series this week on midlife, the solution may be to rethink your career in the middle of it.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: This is my first impression of Nancy Augustine - self-possessed, accomplished and weary to the bone.
NANCY AUGUSTINE: You know, increasingly I feel like time is slipping away.
HAGERTY: If this sounds like an existential midlife fear, it is also a professional one. Augustine is a 48-year-old visiting professor of public policy at George Washington University. She is not on tenure-track. Her contract runs out in nine months, and she has no idea what comes next.
AUGUSTINE: I don't want to coast through the rest of my life. I could work for another 30 years, and I'd simply want to take an active role in deciding what that's going to be.
HAGERTY: Which is why she's sitting in Beverly Jones' home in Washington, D.C. Jones is a career coach. She says many of her clients come at this stage when they've spent a couple of decades furiously building a career.
BEVERLY JONES: You wake up one day and you say, I have all these things and what now? Either you feel despair or boredom or loss because you realize you're not as happy as you thought you'd be.
HAGERTY: Then Jones gets down to the business of changing Augustine's life. In this, their first of six meetings, Jones asks about her client's upbringing and her career so far. What would she do if money or status were no barrier? Augustine has never scanned to the horizon like that. She thinks of her career as a ladder with one acceptable direction - up.
AUGUSTINE: On the other hand, I wonder if I really have the energy for it.
JONES: It's easy to think, gosh, I'm getting old. I don't have the energy I used to. What's the matter with me?
HAGERTY: But it may be as simple as boredom.
JONES: Or a lack of excitement or a sense there's nothing new here. I'm not learning.
HAGERTY: Augustine nods. She's in a rut, she says, and she needs to get out of it. I sit still as a stone holding my microphone. My heart is pounding. You see, I'm asking myself the same questions, for different reasons. I'm not bored, but at that time, I've developed chronic pain in my vocal cords, and under stress or deadlines, the pain is nearly unbearable.
And so, like Nancy Augustine, I am wondering if I can shift my career at midlife to something that's sustainable and meaningful for the next two decades. Toward the end of the hour, Jones drives the conversation into unsettling territory. Augustine needs to start thinking of herself not as an employee but as a business.
JONES: What's your brand? What do you have to offer? Who are your potential customers? How are we going to market? Do you need a social media strategy of any sort?
AUGUSTINE: That's hard (laughter).
JONES: It is hard. It is hard.
HAGERTY: Augustine looks stricken. My amygdala is going berserk. Many middle-aged people like Augustine and me have worked for organizations their whole careers. The idea of creating a personal brand and a social media strategy to survive on your own - sure it's exciting. It is also terrifying. I would learn just how terrifying.
While researching my book and this series, I heard from many people who left or lost their jobs and took months or years to find another. And yet, most career experts say even if you're employed, you should rethink your career in your 50s or even 40s. It's the new math of midlife career. Mark Freedman heads Encore.org, a group that, among other things, connects middle-aged and older people with meaningful work.
MARK FREEDMAN: In the past, many people who hit their 50s, if they were ready for a change or if they'd been laid off, they could try to hang on for a year or two and then duck into retirement. But you can't do that for 10 years or 15 years.
HAGERTY: Quick update of Nancy Augustine - it's been four months and she's been busy. She's developed an online course to teach at GW. She's looked at jobs, taken people to lunch, created a personal brand. And a government consulting contract she had bid on...
AUGUSTINE: Suddenly, out of the blue, about three weeks ago they called me and the project is going. So this might not be what I plan to do for the rest of my life but boy is this an in.
JONES: That's how it happens. That's fabulous. So you have your first client.
AUGUSTINE: I do, absolutely.
HAGERTY: Nancy Augustine is fortunate. She still has five months before her job ends and a spouse who will support her. Now, please take note. Augustine is not abandoning her experience. She's repurposing it.
In fact, career experts caution against, quote, "fantasies of reinvention" - the banker who goes to Hollywood, the lawyer who opens a restaurant. Rather, they say, you should change your career within the boundaries of your natural talents and skills and personalities.
JONES: Come in, spring.
AUGUSTINE: Hi, Bev, how are you?
JONES: I'm good.
AUGUSTINE: Oh, great to see you.
HAGERTY: At the last session of coaching, Nancy Augustine is trying to suppress a grin. She's been so active in developing online classes and made herself so indispensable to her department that the university has offered her a permanent teaching position, as well as a graduate program to run. Honestly, I didn't expect it would work out this well. I ask her if she remembers that first session.
AUGUSTINE: I remember feeling lost. I don't know if I had - boy, did I even have particular ideas?
JONES: You didn't know you wanted another job. You didn't know if you wanted to teach. You didn't know if you wanted to look at another university. Consulting was not on the table so much. Really, you've come a long way.
HAGERTY: After watching Nancy Augustine and countless others shift gears in the middle of their careers, I've done the same. I'm pivoting on my reporting skills for longer form writing without the tight deadlines and the vocal cord pain - books, radio stories like this one. I am slightly terrified, but I am not bored. For NPR News, I'm Barbara Bradley Haggerty.
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