How Old Is Too Old to Not Have a Career?

How Old Is Too Old to Not Have a Career?
by Kit Warchol
March 17, 2016

I met my best friend over a counter when I was covered in coffee grinds and rogue splashes of steamed milk.

I’d graduated in 2009, which most of us know wasn’t exactly an ideal time to try entering the workforce. And so that day I was in my usual place: behind the espresso machine at a local coffee shop.

This wasn't as terrible as it might sound. It was a good coffee shop in a cool neighborhood full of cooler people, a fact that certainly helped ease the job hunt frustration. Ultimately one of those people would connect me to my first full-time job—but that comes later. That day, I was young and hungry, sure, but mostly I was just having fun. So when my [future] best friend, a morning regular, showed up right on cue, I worked up the nerve to ask her to hang out in real life. Unbeknownst to us, a new and lasting connection was forged.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Over the years, my best friend and I grew consistently closer while watching each other evolve in dramatically different ways. When we first met, she had her sh*t together in this way I couldn’t even comprehend. A few years older than me, she’d spent her early 20s living alone in Italy, hopping trains between countries. Now she'd settled back in Los Angeles, but was living in an equally idyllic world—with her boyfriend in a great loft with great furniture, a great cat, a great dog, and a KitchenAid mixer. 

I wondered why things weren't happening fast enough, told myself to push harder. 

Her career, too, was on point and coincided with her strong sense of place and self. She had a stable job working with children on the autism spectrum and was in school part-time studying Speech and Language Pathology because the degree would set her up for higher paying work in the field.  She spent mornings with clients, afternoons in classes, and then she’d come home, invite me over and just, like, whip up an amazing homemade soup out of nowhere. 

Meanwhile, I knew as much about what I wanted to do as I did about making soups. Pretty much the only thing I was confident about (personally and professionally) was that I liked to write—and I guess that I could make a good latte. I idolized my best friend’s strong sense of who she was and her conviction about her professional direction. I wondered why things weren't happening fast enough, told myself to push harder. 

NO ONE IS A CLOCK

Then something shifted. I got hired full-time at a photography museum (hated it), then snagged a web design job I definitely wasn’t qualified for at a music start-up (hated it less), headed to a ritzy university job where I got to write, had lots of vacation days, and incredible health insurance (kind of liked it), before I plunged back into the dynamic culture you only find at start-ups (oh hey, Career Contessa). I was on the move, and I liked it.  

But as I trudged forward, she halted. Finishing her degree took longer than she anticipated. She broke up with her boyfriend (hated him) and met a new guy (love him) who occupied more of her free time than she expected. Her work with the kids, as fulfilling as it was, was also indescribably hard, emotionally and physically. She confessed that after every session, she’d get in her car and sob. 

We trade on our adaptability and yet, like true hypocrites, we always feel rushed to "get there" and worry that we've fallen behind. 

Finally, she decided to step back. She left her work to take a job in retail, telling herself that with those extra hours off, she’d finish her degree and figure out what she wanted to do. Just shy of age 30, my best friend had walked away from any semblance of a career and was back to hourly pay. And never, not for a second, did I consider this the wrong choice.

SO HOW OLD IS TOO OLD?

We’re in a culture where we bide our time, waiting for the “right” thing to come our way. We carve out our own careers more often than not. Many of us will launch businesses along the way. Most of us, at some point anyway, will answer the “What do you do?" question with “I work for myself." 

We trade on our adaptability and yet, like true hypocrites, we always feel rushed to "get there" and worry that we've fallen behind. As our thirties loom, we inevitably confront where we are professionally. We ask ourselves whether we’ve come far enough, whether we’ve accomplished enough in the last decade. We wonder whether we are enough. 

Here’s what I’d say: 

You’re never too old for anything with one exception: you’re too f*cking old to let traditional notions of a “career” disrupt you. It's time to grow up. 

SURRENDER ALREADY

"You change when you want to change. You put your ideas into action in the timing that is best. That’s just how it happens." As I started this piece, that sentiment, from a recent Medium article by Jamie Varon, resounded. We've all wondered if we're falling behind. In fact, sometimes we're just certain we have. But telling ourselves we're lagging in our lives (careers included) doesn't help a god damn thing. 

I’ve got friends who will always work in restaurants or bars because what they do after hours (music, art, whatever) is what matters most. For some of them—the chefs and general managers—working in food is the thing. No change needed because no change wanted. They make rent; they maybe don’t sock away money in a 401k. It works for them because, by and large, they know it's what they need to do to feel content.

But when I consulted them about this article, they were quick to acknowledge their own hang-ups about not doing it "right." Their concerns tended to overlap: as they watched their friends "get it together," they felt self-conscious about their own non-linear paths. Some had partners who worked traditional jobs (and typically made more money), and they wondered if, some morning in some not-so-distant future, their boyfriend or girlfriend would turn over one morning and wonder why they'd put up with a "deadbeat" musician in their bed for so long.

What is it that makes us nervous about our choices even when we're fulfilled creatively? 

You’re never too old for anything with one exception: you’re too f*cking old to let traditional notions of a “career” disrupt you. It's time to grow up.

Maybe the breakdown stems from the fact that we often think of success in terms of the whole. Consider the articles on "millennials in the workplace" and the generalizations we make about start-up culture and solopreneurs. We like talking about the morning routines all successful people follow, the ways our tech-savvy generation propels itself forward separately, yet together. We like thinking holistically, rather than on a case-by-case basis. It makes us feel supported.

Pause. There's a major issue with all this groupthink "community" stuff that we rarely acknowledge: we care too much about what other people think, but also, we care too much what other people do.    

So before we fret (yet again) about how an entire generation will never be able to afford to retire, let’s acknowledge a simple fact: this generation, us, you, redefined what a career looks like so chances are, we’ll redefine how retirement works as well. There are going to be a ton of tattooed septuagenarians out there someday, and we’ll do just fine. This is a generation that's shown itself capable of breaking boundaries and molds. We're self-made and we'll keep on evolving, on our own terms, if we let ourselves. The biggest threat to our individual success? Our tendency toward shame. 

REALLY, THOUGH, JUST DROP IT

As Varon puts it, "You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best. You need to stop listening to people, who are in vastly different life circumstances and life stages than you, tell you that you’re just not doing or being enough."

I used to feel self-conscious about explaining what I do to people because I couldn't figure out the "right" answer. But I realize now that I'm just not really sure how to simplify it. And that's OK. I’m the Managing Editor of an online publication for women full-time, but I also write concept for women’s fashion brands regularly. Occasionally I do some design work. It’s a career in flux, and I like it that way.

And my best friend? She’s making her way as a dialect coach, teaching actors how to speak with or without accents and, occasionally, helping comedians hone their impressions. You have her to thank for last season’s finale of Nathan For You. Yeah, she’s still pretty cool.

Neither one of us could've guessed where we’d be today, and neither one of us is done finding our careers. We’re just getting started. The only thing we’re sure of is that we fully expect our experiments to keep us on our toes. And that we’ll be there for each other (with a bottle of wine) any time our careers seem all wrong if only to tell each other that, really, "wrong" isn't the word we need. 

Have you encountered some bumps along the way? What do you think about throwing out the idea of being "too old" to not have a career?