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Midlife reskilling is a revolution we need

The government's reskilling initiative is perfect now that we're all reconsidering returning to our old lives.

Our Noon founder Eleanor Mills has written about reskilling in a Telegraph article: Why now is the perfect time for a midlife career reboot. Read the full version of the article here:

Boris Johnson has announced a “revolution”; it didn’t involve tanks or flag waving or Brexit but to those feeling on the scrapheap in midlife, it might prove just as radical. “We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs,” he said. “I’m revolutionising the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.”

The Queen’s speech outlined a new “lifetime skill guarantee” entitling everyone to a flexi loan, equivalent to four years of a student loan to allow everyone to retrain so they can get a well paid job, more details will be revealed in the Skills and Post 16 Education Bill on May 18, but the direction of travel looks promising.

We need reskilling now

This new reskilling initiative couldn’t have come at a better time. A year of home-working has caused many of us to rethink whether or not we want to return to our old lives. Many don’t have the luxury of that choice. A couple of months ago I wrote about how unemployment rates in those aged fifty plus had doubled during the pandemic; how a generation of strivers felt put out to grass long before they felt ready to retire, with senior women being hit particularly hard. The response was overwhelming, an outpouring of anxiety and frustration but also an abundance of resilience and optimism.

For every despairing email, there were several stories of determined midlifers getting back on the horse, retraining, reskilling and realising that at 45 or 50 we are actually only half way through. Just think of the Duke of Edinburgh, or Major Tom or our own dear Queen, still working hard at 94. The Lynda Gratton book The 100 Year Life says that in lives that can span 10 decades why should we assume that the job we qualified for in our teens or the profession we entered at 22 will still be offering us meaningful employment 50 or even 70 years later?

As we all live longer we need to accept that life will mean starting lots of new chapters and that we will need to constantly reskill, or re-angle ourselves to remain relevant. Education, like youth, is wasted on the young – learning something new when we are older re-energises us, keeps us fresh and hungry. It’s something all of us are going to have to learn how to do.

Midlife transformation is now…my life

This kind of midlife transformation is now my bread and butter. Last year I left the place I’d worked for after  23 years. It was an immense life jolt. Painful and discombobulating. When I looked around, there was a total lack of a conversation about starting again in midlife, what it took or how to do it. So I set up a new platform to help people do just that called www.noon.org.uk. We run inspirational stories about transformation; the aim is to provide a map out of the dark wood to light the way to their next act. Every day I am amazed by what Nooners have done – a 60-year-old who became a stand-up comedian, Kirsteen Stewart who published her first novel at 78, perhaps my favourite story of all, that of Dr Vicky Whitford OBE.

Going from diplomat to junior doctor in midlife

Four years ago she was a top diplomat in the Foreign Office negotiating with the Pakistan government. “I wanted to be a good mother to my children but I wasn’t sure if I could do this while living overseas. I didn’t want to fall prey to the three Ds of expat life – drink, debt and divorce. I wanted a life connected to friends and family. I felt trapped. I did a course in psychology and said to my tutor I wanted to be a doctor. He said – “all metamorphoses happen slowly”. I brought some A-level science books and studied biology and chemistry while my baby son napped. One evening I filled in a UCAS form and went back to university, more than 20 years after I had done so the first time.”

It wasn’t all easy. “It was humiliating and humbling being on a ward with a bunch of twentysomethings, but slowly I realised there were things I did know: I could listen, I was used to adversity, I knew where patients were coming from unlike my fellow students.” In her first year as a medic she worked in the ICU holding the hands of patients dying from Covid. “My salary has been cut in half but I can honestly say that becoming a doctor has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I think about what I do and I feel happy.” She has found her true purpose.

More people are reskilling in midlife…

Whitford is far from alone. The Open University has seen an increase of 15% in uptake of its online courses.  Popular options amongst those reskilling in midlife include anything around sustainability – green energy is a hot ticket area for post-pandemic investment – and computer coding. The huge exodus of largely female workers from retail jobs are reskilling as customer-service focussed logistics or call centre experts which plays to their developed sense of EQ, others are retraining as carers, teachers, hairdressers, counsellors, nurses or pivoting into the ballooning local economy as there is a post-pandemic exodus from cities. Some are taking up practical skills such as carpentry or training to be electricians. One black cabbie I met is retraining as a plumber, another is installing green-friendly insulation in people’s homes.

…or refocussing their existing skills

Rather than doing something completely different an often easier route is refocussing your old skills. Having been a journalist, I had a wide network, an ability to talk to anyone and a capacity to get a lot done in a short time – all I’ve discovered excellent skills for being a digital entrepreneur. There are now more fifty-something entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses than younger ones. I admit there have been times when I’ve had to get my teens to help fix technological snafus, but I’ve discovered its fun to be out of your comfort zone – and every day I am inspired by my new go-getting tribe of midlife adventurers.

Professional women returning from career breaks

Lisa Unwin is Director of Inclusivity.co.uk which specialises in helping professional women, many of whom have taken lengthy career breaks to raise their families, get back to work. She has never been busier. “Confidence, a lack of it, is often their biggest problem,” she says. “Take Christine – she had been living in Hong Kong as a housewife looking after her three children. Then she divorced and came back to England. Before the children she had worked as a lawyer. She was considering retraining as a psychologist but I convinced her that things have changed.

“Even City firms now understand that careers can be non-linear,” Unwin says. “We run a returner programme for former lawyers and other professionals; we brushed up her CV and got her an interview. She is now back working full time. It wasn’t plain sailing. We had to talk her round two or three times on the journey when she worried her kids wouldn’t cope without her and that she wouldn’t be good enough. But now she loves it and says her children don’t take her and all she does for granted anymore.”

Don’t forget about your existing abilities

Unwin saluted the government’s skills revolution, particularly its extension to the older cohort, calling it “fabulous” but also counsels midlifers not to underestimate their existing skills. “You are five times more likely to get a job through someone you know than by applying blind through a jobsite,” she says. “Remember you already have useful skills, social capital and a network.” What about changes in technology? “Tech these days is intuitive or it doesn’t last very long. Just take a deep breath and follow the instructions, everything you could possibly want to know there is a Youtube video which will show you how to do it. Just keep trying till it works.”

That “can-do” mindset is perhaps the most important quality anyone trying to start a new chapter later in life needs. Whenever I feel tech-terrified I think of the former CEO who confided that he didn’t know how to book an EasyJet ticket. I downloaded the App for him and said follow the instructions. It worked. Often our trepidation is a fear of trying, not ineptitude. It’s amazing what you can do if you try; the only sin in this reinvention malarkey is not giving something a go.  I can personally attest that learning new skills, doing things for the first time in your fifties, is hugely exciting and rewarding. It makes you feel renewed, giddy, young again.

Wondering how to start reskilling yourself?

If you are worried about where to begin, I recommend a new book by Frances Edmonds called Repotting Your Life. At 60, she went to Stanford University to do a post-grad. Her book breaks down the huge upheaval ahead into a series of easily manageable actions. Business bibles such as The Progress Principle or The First 90 Days similarly advise biting off any big change in small chewable chunks. For instance promise yourself that this week you will sort out your LinkedIn profile, or look up some courses, or reach out to a couple of people you know who work in a new area that you fancy.  Re-skilling and starting again is all about small wins, daily tasks which add up to transformation. Now, thanks to Boris, that course you’ve been dreaming about is suddenly affordable and within your grasp.

What are you waiting for?

Eleanor Mills

Eleanor Mills is Founder and Editor in Chief of www.noon.org.uk a new platform for starting a new chapter in midlife.

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