Over 50? What are your career options?


BMGP68 Closeup of a lonely senior man lost in thought , looking away. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

The new year is the traditional time to try and reinvent ourselves, with couch potatoes all over the UK resolving to lose weight, give up smoking or join a gym.

Many resolve to make far more fundamental changes: writing that novel, for example, or starting their own business. But is this really feasible if you're over 50, or have you left it too late?

The government recently announced plans to raise the pension age so that today's younger people will have to work until they're 70 before they can receive their state pension. Today's 30-year-olds, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports, will on average work until they are 66 and live to 87, with nearly one in five reaching 100.

In this context, 50 looks pretty young - certainly young enough to still have dreams for the future. And, according to research from Scottish Widows, older people are increasingly seeing their later years as an opportunity to do something new.

Half of British retirees are using this time as a chance to reinvent themselves, found the researchers, with eight percent changing careers and five percent setting up their own business after becoming officially retired.

"More and more people are seeing retirement as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, re-claiming time to focus on doing things they might not have had the chance to during their younger, working lives," says Robert Cochran, key accounts pension development manager at Scottish Widows.

What form those changes take depends to a large extent on financial security. It's all very well returning to university out of pure academic curiosity, but many of us will still have a mortgage to pay.

"As our society adapts to an ageing population, the way we perceive and plan for retirement has had to evolve. The reality is that we are not all able to stop working at 65, and this is likely to become even later in the future," says Wendy Loretto, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

"The Oxford Dictionary defines retirement as 'the action of leaving one's job and ceasing to work' but these changes are so stark that this definition may have to be rewritten."

For those that do need to bring in an income in later years, setting up a new business can be ideal. But be warned: it's a lot of work, and it's important to be realistic - the country is littered with loss-making pubs and cafes, for example, run by exhausted retirees who thought they were signing up for an easy life.

As Dianne Bown-Wilson, co-founder of In My Prime, says: "It's held out by government and others as a bit of an unrealistic panacea for everything. It's very easy to start a business, but actually making any money is challenging."

On the upside, retirees are often more financially secure than younger people, meaning that there's less pressure to start making big profits immediately.

And there's plenty of advice available. The government has a website designed to help anyone thinking of starting their own business. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales has established an organisation, the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise (Prime), specifically aimed at helping the over-50s become sustainably self-employed. It offers a range of free workshops, networking events, online resources and mentoring at venues around the country.

As many as one in five workers say they want to give back to the community in retirement, and many people looking for a change in direction opt for voluntary work. Indeed, the 2008-9 Citizenship Survey found that 30 percent of those aged 65-74 do some formal volunteering, as do 20 percent of over-75s. Volunteering Europe has advice for anyone considering this route, with links to databases of volunteering opportunities.

For those wishing to pursue further study, the best place to dip a toe in the water is the University of the Third Age (U3A). Over 900 local groups offer courses on everything from philosophy to knitting. There are no exams or qualifications to be gained.

Many people, though, go the whole hog and head off to university - indeed nearly 6,500 50-to-60-year-olds started an undergraduate degree last year. Last summer, in fact, 91-year-old Bertie Gladwin completed a masters degree in military intelligence - to add to the two undergraduate degrees he'd already acquired since retiring 25 years ago.

There's help for mature students from UCAS, here, and from the government, here. Grants and loans are available, although these depend on where you live, what you want to study and whether you've studied before. As there's no requirement to start paying back a student loan until you're earning £21,000 a year, though, many mature students can effectively study for free.

For those that have something more vocational in mind, there's the option of an apprenticeships. While most people associate these with much younger people, the government's keen to attract oldies too. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), as many as 12 percent of new apprentices are aged 45 and over - and the number's rising. There's information about how to apply on the National Apprenticeship Service website, here.

All in all, older people have far more opportunities than ever before - and are starting to make the most of them. "People are thinking 'this is a whole other stage of my life," says Loretto. "It's partly dissatisfaction, but it's also often a much more positive thing - people realising that they've got another 30 years to go, and asking themselves what they want to do."

Free annuity calculator

7 ways to improve your retirement

7 ways to improve your retirement

Related stories