Forty-somethings are ready to retake the wheel, accelerating their career progression or making a dramatic change of direction into a new sector, entrepreneurship or the 'gig economy'.
New MT/Vauxhall Motors research suggests many 40-49 year olds – often referred to as Generation X – feel they are approaching a career crossroads. In the rear-view mirror they see the freedoms that younger Millennials (sometimes known as Generation Y) have to job-hop, switch sectors, launch businesses and travel abroad… and they want a piece of that action.
One in five (20%) of the 40-somethings surveyed is considering switching sectors and even careers, compared with just 17% of 30-39 year olds and only 14% of 50-59 year olds – and 14% are seeking to take greater control by setting up their own business in the next two years. Almost half (48%) believe they are likely to set up their own business in the next ten years.
The purpose of the MT/Vauxhall Motors research, conducted among more than 500 working professionals during June 2017, was to explore how the career dreams and aspirations of the 40-something workforce are changing, and to gain a better understanding of how people are meeting the challenges and opportunities in the new world of work. What are the barriers, for example, that hold us back from making the next career move? And how do the attitudes of Gen Y workers differ from Gen X when it comes to seeking promotion, changing careers or starting a business?
(NB: It is important to point out that generational characterisations are as flawed as any stereotype and fail to account for variations between individuals, who may exhibit any (or none) of their peer group’s typical traits. The reality is, of course, more nuanced.)
Ready to change gears
Our findings suggest 40-somethings feel they have been squeezed out of the driving seats of their careers. While the Millennials surveyed have started and progressed quickly in their careers and the older "Baby Boomers" are reaping the benefits towards the end, 40-49 year olds have largely been feeling the pressure and few of the rewards. Only 16% of 40-49 year olds have been promoted in the past two years, compared to 34% of their younger counterparts. Just 6% have worked abroad compared to 16% of 18-29-year olds. And 9% have been made redundant, the highest among all age groups.
It’s therefore not surprising that 70% say of 40-somethings say they are looking for a 'major change'. Every morning they feel it and want it. Many are tired of the long haul, with 26% seeking easier/shorter journeys to work, higher than their younger and older counterparts (16%). Most are looking for a new direction of travel. Almost one quarter are looking to, at least, change employer. Gen X is asking the same kinds of searching questions about work as Gen Y… but for different reasons.
Welcoming the 'career cycle'
Whether you call it a mid-life crisis or just reaching your 40s, the Generation X workers we surveyed are reviewing their expectations of what could or should have been. After working for 15 or 20 years, they expect a certain level of success and happiness. Some may have achieved success, but not always the happiness. Others now have family commitments that put serious constraints on their career. Either way they face the same dilemma: should they continue to climb the corporate ladder or jump off and experience life?
They sense that the traditional, linear career path is dead and many are excited by the 'career cycle' that is taking its place. Their lives, increasingly, feel less like a locked-in, one-way trajectory and more like a set of recurring cycles, offering them the chance to have multiple careers, mixing and matching their interests and passions with the need to pay the bills and put food on the table. Many are considering taking a mid-career 'left turn', whether that’s starting their own business, embracing slash careers or leaping to a different industry/sector.
Era of every-age entrepreneurs
Our research suggests that the image of an entrepreneur as a 20-something in hoodie and jeans needs updating – despite media focus on the entrepreneurial spirit of younger generations, other surveys have revealed the average age for starting a business is not mid-20s, but mid-40s.
This seems to makes sense. For many, being a 20-something is characterised by career uncertainty and debt, while a lack of experience working for other companies could make starting your own a risky business. The 30s age bracket is, typically, a decade when children and mortgages demand attention – responsibilities and pressures that can rule out taking a leap into the unknown. By the time many workers enter their 40s, however, they have accrued a valuable combination of financial security and business experience – they possess 20 years’ worth of working knowledge that gives them competitive advantage and greater freedom to design the next chapter of their career.
Three in five 40-somethings in our research say they like the idea of being their own boss – though many are daunted by the task of being an entrepreneur. Yes, Generation X was the last generation to be able to afford home ownership and get a mortgage. But they can also remember the days of three million unemployed, and when interest rates hit 17%. Almost nine in 10 (88%) of the 40-49 year olds we questioned think that starting your own business is risky and stressful. However, many are considering mitigating that risk with a strategy of developing a sideline while continuing on the same path for now.
Embracing 'slash careers'
Carving out a second career in this way from a hobby or personal interest is highly appealing: 6% of our 40-49 year olds already earn an income from a hobby/interest outside of their current job. One third like the idea of combining work with their passions and 30% say they have a hobby they would like to develop as a second income – another 29% say they wish they had.
In the main, Baby Boomers faithfully followed a career path to earn a living and hoped happiness would follow. Generation X is not so trusting. Our survey suggests they see more attraction in the philosophy of Millennials who prefer to pursue their passion to attain happiness and the monetary success that will follow.
So-called 'slash careers' – from being a salesman-slash-documentary filmmaker to a management consultant-slash-interior designer – give 40-somethings a means for meeting their financial responsibilities while integrating and expressing the multiple passions, talents, and interests that a single career often cannot accommodate.
Loving lifelong learning
Generation X-ers are typically industrious. They have a reputation for knowing how to work hard and play hard. And from health to attitudes Generation X is pushing back the envelope of old age. They can 'adult' all you like – paying the mortgage, ordering the shopping, saving for retirement – but are still kids at heart, reading comic books, playing video games, entering marathons… and posting about it all on social media.
And they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, challenge and new experiences. While our survey results suggest younger workers are predominantly driven by money, personal development and status when seeking their next career move, 40-49 year olds want more – they seek interesting work and better work-life balance, alongside the better income and personal development. More than a third (36%) are likely to pursue further training or professional qualifications.
In many occupations it is becoming essential to acquire new skills as established ones become obsolete. Since 2010, cuts to the UK’s adult learning budget mean the days when we could learn languages or computer programming at our local college in the evenings - for a subsidised fee or even free - are long gone. Instead, ambitious 40-somethings are making use of 'Moocs' and 'pop up" classes to upskill across a range of disciplines, from entrepreneurship and cybersecurity to teacher training and creative arts.
Globally, the number of users who registered for at least one Mooc – short, free or inexpensive online courses, offered by universities or platforms like FutureLearn and Coursera, to grant "microcredentials" and "nanodegrees" – reached 58 million in 2016, a 66% increase on the previous year. Locally, some 150 Costa coffee shops currently play host to "pop up" night classes, where local experts and businesses teach a range of skills from Spanish to building apps.
And almost half find the idea of a fresh challenge of setting up their own business appealing.
And the good news is that those who have gone before them prove that can be the case: 76% of the existing business owners we surveyed relish being their own boss and cite the interesting work (46%), fresh challenge (40%), better income (33%) and fun (26%) as top reasons for its continued appeal.
The MT/Vauxhall Motors research lifts the lid on the career aspirations and concerns of Gen X workers, but also suggests that this is a generation on the move, ready to make bold choices and grasp the opportunities that exist. Capable and curious to explore all avenues, the findings show that Gen-Xers have itchy feet and are no longer content to follow a career "path", but are ready to pursue an ongoing and ever-evolving career "cycle". With digital technology powering new entrepreneurial possibilities, the research suggests Gen-X are turning their personal passions into viable career paths And the good news is that they have a growing number role models already starting new ventures, accelerating up the corporate ladder or taking radical career left-turns – and making a nonsense of the idea that 40 is past your prime.
To coincide with the launch of the new Insignia Grand Sport, Vauxhall Motors has partnered with Management Today to produce Changing Lanes – a report looking at trends of the UK workforce. Visit www.vauxhall.co.uk/Insignia to discover the stylish new flagship vehicle.
 Once is not enough: Tracking the human consequences of multiple experience peaks by nVision Research / RAPP (2014)
 Portrait of successful business founders revealed, published by Sandler Training UK (2015)
 Knowmad Society, edited by John Moravec and published by Education Futures (2013)
 One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success by Marci Alboher and published by Grand Central (2007) Generation X More Addicted to Social Media Than Millennials, Report Finds by Jonah Engel Bromwich in New York Times, January 27th 2017
 Review of Mooc Stats and Trends, published by Class Central, December 2016
 Pop-up classes bring a buzz to adult learning, published by The Guardian, February 21st, 2017