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Ask HN: Good Career Alternatives for 50+
112 points by Gustomaximus on Jan 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments
I'm in my 30's doing marketing and am starting to feel like the old man of the teams I work with. I look around and there is hardly anyone over 40 and no-one 50+ unless they hit executive level. The industry is about new technology and working long hours. While there are exceptions, generally it doesn't seem a good career to age in and I figure I have ~10 years...

..so as someone that likes to plan ahead. What do you think are good career options for the 50+? I've been trying to think of jobs were age is an advantage. The best I can think of is financial planning. Most people visit their planner when retirement is on their mind, so you'll likely be meeting people of a similar group and mindset. Whereas in this industry being 21 and enthusiastic wont go far with many older people.

What does HN think are good options?

Do your own company. Hire people. Do projects for clients. I did this and I'm pretty happy. Most projects have been interesting. Some clients have been difficult, some are great and with those we stick. The team is happy. We hire young and old; finally hiring without discrimination (or so I hope) and happy about the results. Now we're in a stage where we can be picky about which projects to accept. We start having some time for our own ideas as well.

Just expect a very tough first year :-)

> just expect a very tough first year

Can you elaborate a little bit more on this? Was it tough because you couldn't find clients and had to live off savings or was it tough because you were working long hours + stress. Or was it something else entirely?

Can I ask your background and what type of company you started? Were you able to leverage you skill set for your company or did you just completely pivot?

My background is computer science and programming. I usually take on the CTO or lead tech position - but very hands-on and as little managing as necessary. First thing I did after university was joining two guys with fitanalytics.com, a size recommendation platform for clothing, doing well meanwhile. I was very inexperienced when we started :-) later I teamed up with a former colleague to start a software-boutique. Now we're ten people.

That sounds interesting, good for you taking the leap. Thanks for sharing.

One of the best hires I ever had was someone that was 50+ about 10+ years ago. He didn't have a technical background but wanted to be a programmer. It was a big risk but in two years time he became my top developer out performing those with 10+ years more experience. Now I primarily look to hire those with a few white hairs as they are much more stable and cause a lot less personal issues than those right out of school. If I was hiring and you really wanted to be a programmer I would certainly give you a shot at it. If you want to be in technology I don't see anything stopping you.

This, old guys don't get enough respect. When I was a young coder I had several over 50 co workers who showed me the ropes. Now that I have gotten old myself I have come to realize that there is a wisdom in age.

The only thing thats stopping you from writing code is you, pick up a book, take a class (think community college don't spend a ton of money on it) -- if you have made it this far in business your probably fairly pragmatic already a skill most young coders have to learn.

Most of the older (50+) programmers I've worked with can code up a storm and are virtually drama free. Not sure what all the shade is about!

A lot of it is the toxic Silicon Valley "everyone-is-a-rebel-rockstar-Ruby-hacker-with-purple-hair-and-a-skateboard" bullshit perpetuated image of what a "programmer" should be. A 50+ guy in nice slacks who is perhaps not even a (gasp) Bernie Sanders supporter might find himself out-of-place in the typical Silicon Valley shop.

It's a culture thing, not a skills thing.

If you are not a Bernie supporter I suggest staying away from Silicon Valley period.

So I shouldn't dye my hair before running the interview gauntlet?

I won't let go of my Just For Men until they pry it from my cold, dead hands!

Shave your head instead.

Blasphemy. My locks are impressively full.

But if you do shave your head, you must get some of those stylish glasses. So says the fashion guidelines of the Programmers of the Middle Age.

What made you want to hire that person?

Start cultivating your own public image in the internet circuit of your field / industry and aim at becoming an internationally recognised expert in say 5-10 years. That way, your 50+ career might be made of a number of consulting opportunities and advisory roles. I'm in my early 40s and in the process of converting my three static websites for three different industries into blogs, one at time within this year.

I'll give you my perspective as I'm nearing 40; I think there's no problem being an older developer as long as you stay up on current technologies and trends so that you can talk to your teammates and potential employers in their own language. If you interview and you constantly sound dated or have to ask for explanations on terms you don't recognize that will be an issue.

I honestly am the best developer I've ever been. I am constantly learning new stuff and usually know more new frameworks and languages than young developers I interview. I don't rest on my laurels. I think that's key.

Marketing I agree with you is probably harder, depending on the industry you're marketing for and the company you're working for. Ultimately, though there are objective aspects to marketing (e.g. running tests and seeing what works) but if you are having to be a source of ideas, as we get older it may be harder for us to come up with marketing and product ideas that truly interest a younger generation. So if you really enjoy marketing and want to stay in it, you may want to move to a company who is targeting people in your age group. I think that's true for anyone, though. A 20 year old may not know how to market to 40 years olds as well as a 40 year old.

If you want to get out of marketing and are looking for other career choices that you can age gracefully in, I think the firs thing is to ask yourself what you would enjoy doing and then from that list pick what you think you'll have the opportunity to age gracefully.

If the goal is to stay in marketing yet develop deeper skills, why not move toward analytics -- esp. data mining? There has to be a huge potential market for marketing analysts who understand marketing AND analytic metrics.

All the marketing people I know at large companies have little or no knowledge of how metrics are acquired or whether they're accurate/precise. If someone like the OP added skills in data mining and probability distributions, especially if they could conduct experiments on databases to shape marketing campaigns, they'd be worlds ahead of a) pure marketers or b) pure data miners.

In general, neither expert (a or b) knows enough to properly propose and explore new marketing ideas. Someone who can 1) walk the analytic walk, yet 2) speak the language of business and 3) understand consumer psychology and sales priorities, ought to be an essential contributor indefinitely in a business niche that should outlast us all.

I'm in a similar boat, but I don't think you need to give up marketing. Sure you may not be leading creative campaigns for Beats, but there are decent paths to follow:

+ Work for less cool companies: If you've worked for some impressive tech companies, there are plenty of less hip companies that would like to learn how "the big guys do it."

+ Build up superb expertise in a specific niche: I've met many more senior folks that survive just by building an maintaining a specific niche. Often this relates to some arcane domain knowledge.

+ Go into consulting: Building off the previous bullet, if you can develop a niche, e.g. Healthcare + tech marketing, often startups will pay you a premium for the "greybeard" advice.

I think the key thing is to maintain your technical skills. Sure, there will be specific things like SnapChat that just befuddle "olds," but those skills are a fairly small part of the mix. Good luck and let me know if you come across any other good ideas.

Work for a big/established/old company, where your experience will not count against you. I'm 30, and at my office everyone calls me 'kid'.

I can second this. I have started my own company (twice), worked for start ups, mid size companies and now large companies. I turned 50 this year and can tell you larger companies are where it is at as you age. It's forty hours a week with great benefits and mostly static responsibilities. They value your experience and have no issue with the fact that they are just a job. If there is a new skill I need they are happy to pay me to learn it.

You don't work on the new and exciting stuff but as you get older you will find exciting is more tiring than it used to be.

> I'm 30, and at my office everyone calls me 'kid'.

Hey, same here. Well, nobody actually calls me that but I'm the youngest at 30 on my team, working for a company that has a pretty large percentage of employees that have been here for 20, even 30+ years. I can't remember the exact number but I want to say that something like 40% have been here for 10+ years. We're a medium size manufacturing company, so that's a lot of people. It really is in stark contrast to what you tend to hear about the bay area.

I once worked at a very small defense contractor. The company was about 12 people plus the owner.

I joined when I was 30, and I was the third-youngest employee. The second-youngest was born in the same month of the same year as me, and I never got to really interact with the youngest. Everyone else was in their 30s to 50s. Unfortunately, I (along with a third of the company) got laid off a year and a quarter in, but working there was an interesting experience. I had so many interesting conversations with my coworkers.

And the owner of that company is a university professor (full professor, not an associate) with two PhDs and a very impressive academic background.

I completely agree, with one caveat. Even while you're older than average at such companies, make sure you're current with hot trends and tech. Better yet, get on those teams in the company (R&D?) that are exploring those cutting edge techniques, ideally, to serve mainstream business needs that won't go away. A good example right now is machine learning or data mining.

When working for a Fortune 100 company, it's easy to do the same thing with the same tools for years. Then one day you awaken to find your skill area there is in decline and devalued. If your skills (and personality) are not already seen as a hot commodity within the company, then when you leave, you definitely won't be prized by other companies either. If you're also older than average, that's a bad combo.

So don't let yourself fall behind technically, and try to stay toward the forefront of your skill area. But I recommend you don't get too far ahead of the curve and jump blithely into a high-risk/high-reward role, since blue chip companies are often slow to adopt novelty and do so clumsily, which often leads to false starts and poor rates of success in new ventures.

BTW, I'm almost 60. Nobody calls me kid any more. :-/

Hi, almost 60. I hope I can ask this in a kind way.

What about retirement? Are you that excited with your work that you don't want to retire? Or were there personal issues?

Ugh.. not super kind. Hope you don't take it the wrong way, but it is super interesting to somebody who is mid-career like myself and interested in retirement (whether that means gaming all day or just working on stuff that is "actually" fun.)

I turned 50 last year. I am still working as a developer, and I am still loving it. As long as you stay reasonably up to date with the shifting technology I think there will always be opportunities. For example, I started coding in a proprietary language (PLEX from Ericsson), switched to C++, then Java, now Python with a bit of ClojureScript. I get contacted by recruiters at least once a month (mostly on LinkedIn) about other job opportunities, so there is definitely strong demand.

A lot of people make the mistake of staying too long in the same place, and gradually getting less and less "hireable". It is easy to just stay doing the same thing, but you are hurting your future chances of finding a job if you have to.

Also, becoming a manager seems worse to me from an employability perspective. There is always a greater need for developers than for managers.

I also wrote about why developer is a good career here (applies to older people as well): https://henrikwarne.com/2014/12/08/5-reasons-why-software-de...

Industry analyst is a great role for 50+. I joined Gartner at 40 and it felt like the beginning of my career. I am 57 now.

The big analyst firms like to hire people with expertise and a thirst for knowledge. The job requires speaking and writing skills as well as expertise. But I can attest that you can pick those up along the way.

I am writing a book on how to succeed as an analyst. Short version: pick a space (has to have vendors in it), write about it, speak about it, be the expert.

I want this book! Can I get on a list to be notified?

Work for any large, globalized corporation, or company that's been around for a while. There are tons of middle aged folk all over the place. Startups (or companies that were recently startups) tend to have much younger employees.

I can confirm that.

I hit 55 next month. I'm a software engineer. I'm in embedded systems, though, not Web programming. Experience seems to be more valued in embedded systems; perhaps there's more to learn there than there is in Web programming.

If you're doing marketing, embedded systems programming may not be the answer you're looking for - you might want something that's more like marketing. Look around, though, for the marketing area that requires and values experience. (I am guessing in ignorance, but maybe account manager at an ad firm?)

My best advice: 1. Never stop learning. This doesn't include the workplace. If you depend on your job to train you, you will quickly fall behind. Find new and exciting technologies and think - Would I want to work on this in the future?

2. Find roles that are outside your comfort zone. If you're a developer, try sales engineering - a great mix of technology, sales and public presenting. At the very least get a role that requires presentation skills (such as consulting)

3. Network, Network, Network... If you don't go out on a limb to start something new, maybe your friends will. This will open up new opportunities. As you grow in your career your professional network is what will open up opportunities for you. Whether you start your own thing, or get poached to work on new projects it will depend on who you meet and your personal interactions with them. IF you don't interact with your peers you'll find yourself stuck in the same role with few options to change.

4. As an employee you are important, but not as important as the business as a whole. So you possibly will find yourself in a position where you need to change or leave. Embrace this opportunity to grow.

Go broad, then specialize!

1) Subject matter expert. If you know a business/customer domain well, you're a decade ahead of fresh college grads. Many folks who have run their own businesses have invaluable insight into the pragmatics of staying alive in ways that a MBA just don't teach. This is especially true in contracting (e.g. engineering serices or military procurement). Knowing regulatory hurdles and how to navigate them is invaluable in domains where products/ services are constrained by formal processes (GLP, GMP, FDA, etc).

2) Rainmaker - writer of proposals and attractor of funding for new projects. This is an acquired skill (through experience of contract writing, practice in the domain, past business contacts, and knowledge of feasible business margins). In businesses where contracts are the life blood, this role is simply the most important person(s) in the shop. And this work is almost never done by folks with less than a ~decade of experience.

Approaching 40 and starting to think the secret is smart people buy real estate with the banks money and pay it back with renters, and the rest of us work for a living.

You can skip the hassle and buy leveraged index funds. The risks & returns are similar.

It's worth noting here that if your plan is to buy and hold, it's probably not in your interest to buy leveraged index funds. The high expense ratios combined with far below-market returns in the case of volatility make them a poor choice (http://www.investopedia.com/articles/financial-advisors/0825...).

Don't do it anytime soon - we're heading into a down market.

you may have missed out on "the banks money" part

Leveraged index funds borrow money from banks and invest it. For example if you invest $100k in a 3x fund, it will borrow an additional $200k (from banks) and invest it. Each day it will be rebalanced to maintain the 3x leverage.

Though one issue with most leveraged ETF/ETNs is how they aim to replicate the daily return of the index. So by holding it longer than a day, your returns are path dependent.

So if you are holding the leveraged ETF for a month and the index has a positive return, it is still possible for you to have a negative return.

Who repays the loan if the index crashes?

From what I recall of the "leveraged" financial products I've seen. The magic is that you get leverage*returns if it goes up... but you lose ALL your money if it goes down.

I'm not saying that's how these index funds work, I don't know. Just beware of anything leveraged.

Who repays the loan if the housing market crashes and the tenants walk away?

Although it seems like there are endless start ups with 22 year old CEOs and executive, it's still easier to do business as a C level executive if you're a bit older.

Of course it's somewhat useless to tell you just become a C level executive. But building on top of what was already suggested, I think if you start your own company, you'd have better chance of closing deals, making connections or have people trust you because of your age.

With age comes trusts and experience, and you can use that your benefit.

You may have a harder time convincing venture capitalists to invest in your company, I mean at 50 years, 80 hour work weeks and ramen noodle diets are not viable options. But if you set up a consulting shop you'd probably close contracts much quicker, expand your network much easier and succeed much faster than a typical 22 year old. It's one thing to build an app and get all kids to download it, it's another to be able to sit down with a client and understand their needs and make them trust you with their money.

Experience and trust, use it your advantage.

Option 1: Play the managerial game. It's soul crushing and the farther you get up the more concentrated sociopathy you will encounter, but it is the lowest risk/highest expected value path.

Option 2: Startup. You will probably fail and this has far more to do with factors beyond your control than anything else, but you have a shot at being your own boss on your own term. Very low expected value, tons of stress, but potentially the best outcome.

Option 3: Academia. Go back and get a PhD in something you love and teach. You will probably be an instructor, as tenured positions are rare and highly competitive. There is also a lot of nepotism and favoritism in the more subjective fields. Low reward (financially) but relatively low risk and lots of lifestyle benefits if you aren't materialistic.

Option 4: Low cost lifestyle. Move to a low cost country and consult via online work. I don't have any experience with this option, so I don't know how risky it is.

As a meta-observation, only option 1 makes any sense for someone wishing to form a family, which is psychotic.

But finding a job as a manager is much harder than being a programmer. By the way this comment is very thoughtful and sad at the same time.

Finding a job as a software engineering manager is actually pretty easy assuming you can still build software. At least it is in my experience. Most great engineers don't want to be a manager...

Option 5: Buy a small plot of land in the wilderness and live in a trailer, cabin, or tent. Almost no bills or stress.

Is it sad that none of those options appeal to me at all?

I just want to be a 9-5 mid-level software engineer until the day I die.

That works fine, but make sure you switch jobs every couple of years and keep yourself up on tech.

The danger of that path is you spend 10-15 years at one company, get laid off, and all your real value is in the internals of a company you no longer work for. You don't even know how to look for a job.

Ha I get this sentiment. My dad was a barber. He didn't love it, but it was just a stable part of life for 30+ years. It was a means to pay bills, and enjoyment came from elsewhere.

I'm coming to the conclusion that while work can contribute to happiness, it can also siphon so much willpower that I've got nothing left for kids, other pursuits, etc.

It took me a while to realize most happy people don't love their work, but nearly all happy people love their family and friends.

maybe that's possible if you manage to stay current in a sane niche, frontend js is not, and build your own base of clients. it will be hard to allow for a consumeristic life-style.

> maybe that's possible if you manage to stay current in a sane niche, frontend js is not

Good thing my career has nothing to do with frontend js. Most of my background is in platform & infrastructure, and I'm currently in NMS... I'll be happy if I never touch web/social/mobile.

I can see myself doing NMS for a telecom for many more years.

> build your own base of clients

That's incompatible with the idea of being a 9-5er working for a large company, which is specifically what I want to do for the rest of my life.

> it will be hard to allow for a consumeristic life-style.

Well, I'm currently living a pretty consumeristic lifestyle right now... I just want to keep sustaining it till I die.

I am very interested in option 4 or 5. Any ideas for a good location?

Generally, http://nomadlist.com is a good source for this question.

Personally, for 4 I'd recommend Spain (Barcelona specifically) as a remote working location. Reasonably cheap cost of living, but European and not too cheap, so you still have fairly good common infrastructure, easily available fast internet etc. Plus there's loads of other expats, amazing weather & food, and Spanish is a useful, fun and relatively easy language to learn (as opposed to, say, Thai). And the Spanish lifestyle fits with the relaxed remote working lifestyle fantastically.

Nearly every country has an expat neighborhood somewhere. Lonely Planet will probably have the info. There's a cost vs safety tradeoff. Figure out the risk/reward you're looking for.

You don't know how the tech industry will be in 20 years.

It's likely that the age bands will shift as people age.

I think so too, the age bands will shift with Mark Zuckerberg.

Did they with Bill Gates?

Different era, different culture.

How big is the company you're at? There are decent big companies out there and they tend to be more attractive for older people for a bunch of reasons. Why not look for a position at a FB/GOOG/AMZN/MSFT or some other larger company?

I'm in my 30's doing marketing and am starting to feel like the old man of the teams I work with.

Ha Ha, you'd be a baby on my team. I'm 61, on a team of 20 people in a department of 100 people. Age range 21 to 72. I find little or no correlation between age and anything that really matters. Like quality of work, deliverance of value, or wanting to be on the same team.

I look around and there is hardly anyone over 40 and no-one 50+ unless they hit executive level.

That's just where you're at. I know hundreds of people in their 50s and 60s doing great work who are not executives. Lots of them are programmers, too. The happiest and most successful are doing stuff they love (or have learned to love).

The industry is about new technology and working

No. Any industry is about satisfying customers. Don't confuse what's in front of your face every day with what really matters.

..so as someone that likes to plan ahead. What do you think are good career options for the 50+?

Exactly the same as for 49-. Whatever's best for you. (More below)

I've been trying to think of jobs were age is an advantage.

I can't think of a single job where age would be an advantage. Experience maybe, but not age. I can think of a few where it would be a disadvantage: pro basketball player is one. But that belies the point: You should be thinking about a job where what you bring is an advantage: your skills, education, passion, etc. Forget age and focus on this.

The best I can think of is financial planning. Most people visit their planner when retirement is on their mind, so you'll likely be meeting people of a similar group and mindset.

Not sure I understand what you're trying to say here. If you love financial planning, by all means do it. But if you don't, finding a reason to do it doesn't make any sense. You're unlikely to find much success in any field you don't love, no matter what the other co-factors are.

Whereas in this industry being 21 and enthusiastic wont go far with many older people.

Oh yes it does! I have 18 people on my team under age 26 and I love working with them!

What does HN think are good options?

I don't know what the rest of HN thinks, but here's what I think:

Find what you love, what you're good at, and what puts food on the table and do it! Pour your heart and soul into it, get better at it, and it would be hard for you to NOT make the world a better place by doing it. Forget the rest, what others think, what's trendy, what you think may be important (but probably isn't).

I've been programming professionally for 38 years and can't imagine doing anything else. I hope I go another 38, no matter where the industry takes me.

My best advice of all: Take care of yourself now or you may not be able to do much of anything in your 50s.

I feel like an upvote isn't enough but I really don't know what to say. Thank you for this.

> The best I can think of is financial planning.

Interesting times to shift into Financial Planning, evidently 'humans' are still in demand. Betterment Adds Human Advisors, Casting Doubt On Pure-Play "Robo" Investment Models > https://www.fastcompany.com/3067717/new-money/betterment-add...

I am 47 and I have no problems getting jobs. The key is to stay current and continue improving your thinking tools. An experienced 40+ develop who stays current can totally out compete a young inexperienced developer who thinks that coding is about typing fast. No it isn't. Otherwise companies would be hiring secretaries instead of programmers.

You've described my situation poretty well.

I am in my mid-40s and have been flailing around career-wise for a few years. Here is my January "Who wants to be Hired?" post in case anyone has good leads for grey-friendly remote positions: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13344823

I work with a guy who is 70. He's a test manager and one of the smartest guys on the team. He also works on the side writing betting software. In the 80s he wrote several hit games for the zx spectrum and also worked with psygnosis. I don't see any reasons why you can't keep on programming but some people's lifestyle definitely doesn't fit with startup culture.

I think its a good option to become a mid-level manager at a non-tech company or local/fed government. Most industries need more tech tools and not many managers know much about how computer systems work. If you do you're ahead.

Its a pay cut but hopefully less stress and more job security. I dont know how you break into it.

Related discussion here - "Ask HN: Ever faced difficulties pivoting your job or career later in your life?": https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13528434

> The best I can think of is financial planning.


Sales Engineering. Lots of older folk. I've noticed the field has a good mix of older and younger folk.

To work with a small group of freelance, maybe people facing the same problems, and to try the small business path seems the only way out for me. One needs to be in the path for financial independence. The problem is real, tnks for sharing your concern.

It's hard to plan when AI is a part of the mix. How many jobs will there be for people of any age in 20 years, as primitive as AI might be now it's already wrecking havoc with employment. In a healthy economy emlloyers cannot afford to practice discrimination not even age discrimination.

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