Your 50s require as much planning as any other stage of your career, says Liz Fisher of Accountancy Magazine.
Career planning doesn’t end once you hit 40. As we have seen, few accountants of any age can afford to take their eye of the ball when it comes to their career. Once you reach your 50s, with luck you will be exactly where you want to be and will be doing what you do. But you should never forget that everyone is vulnerable to sudden and unexpected change, even at the top of their game – the turnover rate among finance directors in the FTSE 100, for instance, would turn anyone’s hair white.
‘Your 50s require as much planning as any other stage of your career’, says Max Williamson, chief executive of CareersinAudit.com. It is particularly important, he says, to maintain and continue to expand your professional network. ‘Should you decide to step out of the corporate world and into the potentially lucrative world of consultancy, then your first clients are almost certainly going to come from that network. Even if you don’t envisage a move out of corporate life, it’s still important that the network is kept fresh.’
One of the biggest problems for accountants (and other professionals) over the age of 50 is also, thankfully relatively rare. In any sector, finding a new position if you find yourself suddenly out of work can be an enormous and soul-destroying challenge, particularly if you are over 50 and well-experienced (and therefore expensive).
Senior finance executives in their 50s are particularly vulnerable to redundancies, and it’s vital to have a fall-back position,’ says Williamson. ‘As anyone who has tried it will tell you, re-entering the job market from a standing start in your 50s is exceptionally difficult and can be extremely frustrating. I guarantee that your biggest hurdle will be age discrimination.’
Martin Lloyd-Penny knows this only too well. The experienced accountant (who has worked as a finance director and a partner at BDO Stoy Hayward) was laid off at the age of 52, and a year later, in spite of a concerted effort to find a job, was still out of work. An article in a magazine about mismatch between the shortage of qualified accountants in the UK and the difficulty older accountants have finding work prompted him to write to the editor, thanking him for giving him the inspiration to fight back. Within two weeks he had received 62 emails from accountants in a similar position.
‘If you fall off the corporate ladder in your 40s or 50s it’s very difficult to get back on,’ he says, adding that if anything, the Age Discrimination Act has made things worse for older accountants seeking work. ‘It’s fine if you are already in employment because it gives you more protection, but it has made it harder if you are looking for work because companies have become more risk-averse.’
The result of Lloyd-Penny’s experience is matureaccountants.com, a website that matches experienced accountants, of all ages but generally over the age of 40, with vacancies, as well as providing advice for those looking for work. Lloyd-Penny currently has 2,400 members registered with the site and has placed people all over the UK and overseas, mainly in industry and commerce positions at financial controller, finance director and CFO level. ‘It’s about experience, not age,’ he says.
Lloyd-Penny argues that mature accountants can offer invaluable experience to their employer and particularly to the SME community and owner-managers. These experienced accountants need minimal training and supervision, are used to dealing with suppliers, banks and customers, are flexible and above all, they really want to work.
‘Employers are looking for people who can add value straightaway, who have experience, who aren’t going to go clubbing on a Thursday night and who won’t go off backpacking to Indonesia next summer,’ he says. ‘These are people whose stage in life allows them to be much more flexible and adventurous.’
He adds that the current economic downturn has been a salutary lesson for some employers that experience pays. ‘A lot of businesses are having trouble but many of the people on my books have been through this before, in the early 1990s. They are battled-hardened. If you’re in a tricky situation you don’t want a hot-off-the-press, newly-qualified accountant. You want someone who has been through this before.
Many of the vacancies Lloyd-Penny fills are for contract or interim management work, and he says that while the permanent market can be tough for older candidates, ‘grey hair is a big bonus if you want to be an interim manager.’
Phil Scott, a director with accountancy and finance recruitment specialists AFR Consulting, agrees that the interim market is an ideal way for accountants in their 50s to get job satisfaction and success in the later stages of their career.
‘You need to remember the huge amount of experience and knowledge you have to offer at that age,’ he says. ‘Over-50s make up the biggest percentage of our interim candidates, but this doesn’t mean they are undervalued or can’t sustain a successful career. Employers like to choose over-50s as interims because they are loyal, and being able to call on years of experience means they can hit the ground running. Many of our over 50s have secured financially-rewarding short-term contracts, often being hired by companies looking for an experienced accountant to solve a specific problem or to provide guidance and mentoring to an inexperienced management team, for example.’
Scott makes the point that interim contracts are a rewarding choice for experienced accountants who are looking for variety, and also perhaps for a better work-life balance at a time when you perhaps have fewer responsibilities. ‘Interim posts are an ideal lifestyle choice for those who want to enjoy breaks between contracts,’ he says. ‘And having a series of contracts removes the routine element to the work, allowing you to experience different surroundings and job satisfaction.’
Take the Leap
Even if interim work is not for you, your 50s can be an excellent time to finally fulfil a long-standing dream. The kids may have left home and your responsibilities, after years of hard work, are not as great. If you are happy and fulfilled where you are, enjoy it, but if now, what is holding you back? Why not take the leap?
‘It’s important that people see their 50s as an age where they can try something new,’ says Williamson. ‘Retiring partners from public practice often find a move into a non-profit organisation extremely rewarding, and for frustrated entrepreneurs, the 50s can be a great time to draw on a lifetime’s experience and finally put that great business idea into practice.’
Written by Liz Fisher for Accountancy Magazine.