Computer and information technology jobs are expected to grow substantially in the coming decade, faster than the average for all occupations.
That is good news — for your grandchildren.
If you are an older adult thinking of making a second career in the high-tech heart of the new economy, however, be prepared to face skepticism as to whether you can even turn on a computer, much less master the latest software.
“There are a lot of barriers to older workers moving into that industry,” said psychologist Neil Charness of Florida State University, who has studied issues related to aging and technology use for two decades. Pervasive stereotypes about older workers, he said, include the perception among employers (and even among many older adults themselves) that “they’re not tech-savvy, and that they can’t learn new things.”
Not true. Although aging brains might take a little longer to learn new tech skills, Charness said, “they can still do it.”
Some older adults are proving his assertion, not only in mainstream high-tech careers but also in “tech-enabled” positions. These are jobs — often part time or done remotely, with flexible schedules — that do not require an advanced degree in computer science or years of experience but do involve some digital proficiency.
“That’s an important distinction,” said Sara Sutton Fell, chief executive and founder of FlexJobs, an online service specializing in remote and flexible employment. “These are really viable professional opportunities, especially for retirees.”
Following are older adults who have found second careers in jobs in which technology is the common thread, drawing on their backgrounds and experience to flourish in rapidly changing industries.
The virtual assistant
In 2004, when Geri Lafferty accepted a severance package from E-Trade Financial rather than relocate, she wanted a job that gave her more flexibility. “I stumbled on the idea of virtual assistant,” said Lafferty, now 67, who lives in San Francisco. A new field at the time, this involves working remotely to help small, typically one-person businesses — solo-preneurs, as she calls them — with their administrative and marketing operations.
Lafferty figured her new job would involve doing most of the things she used to do as an executive assistant in marketing. She was wrong about that. “I had to learn a lot of technology,” she said.
Her business thrives. “She keeps up with the changes,” said one client, Lisa Tener, a writing coach based in Rhode Island, who has worked with Lafferty since 2009. Tener said her virtual assistant had mastered “a very complicated and often consuming customer-relationship management platform” to help her marketing efforts. “I am almost helpless with it myself,” she said.
Lafferty, who took webinars and tutorials to learn the latest digital tools of her trade, dismisses the idea that the job is beyond the grasp of her cohort. “You can’t be afraid of the tech,” she said. “That’s what I’ve learned. You really can’t break the computer by pushing the wrong button.”
The program manager
At Manufacturers Hanover bank in the early 1980s, Ann Donnelly was a management trainee involved in the rollout of what was then a groundbreaking technology: ATMs. When the bank merged with Chemical and later Chase, she ended up becoming a higher-level program manager, involved in many tech-driven initiatives.
She left the corporate world about 10 years ago and eventually took a part-time job at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Ostensibly a cashier, she has recently been lending her expertise to the store’s management, looking at ways to improve efficiency during peak sales times. Right now, she says, this work — which inevitably involves technology — is on a small scale and informal. She is fine with the situation.
“I certainly don’t need to run big programs like I did in the past,” said Donnelly, now 64. “I’d be more interested in helping introduce some younger people to the concept of program management.” (Program managers have been defined as “super” project managers, focused on the strategy and accomplishment of major organizational initiatives.)
Although the technology has changed, she said that some of what she experienced as a young manager in a giant financial institution still applies. “There’s a way to manage projects and programs that will always be usable, regardless of technology,” she said. “You have to live that to learn that.”
The ‘code wrangler’
When he was in his 30s, Earl Fong returned to school to earn a graduate degree in computer science. For the next decade, he worked for software companies on the West Coast before shifting to volunteer and nonprofit work. Among other jobs, he taught basic computer skills for three years in Tanzania. Now back in San Francisco and working as a software developer for the nonprofit Kiva Microfunds, Fong, now 67, prides himself on being a “code wrangler”: someone who is adept with all kinds of software code.
He may be decades older than many of his fellow wranglers, but Fong says they all face a similar challenge when it comes to staying relevant. “Anybody in tech has to be constantly in learning mode,” he said.
Marcy Brown, 65, retired from a career as a paralegal to become a “gray nomad” with her husband, touring the country in an RV. While on the road, Brown started a new career as a transcriptionist. “It was typing depositions, and I’d been in a law office, so I knew the format,” she said.
Brown was not daunted that she would need to become fluent in a professional transcription program to do the job remotely. Her business eventually expanded beyond the courts, and she now transcribes everything from oral histories to college lectures.
Although she and her husband sold the RV and now live in what she calls a “sticks and bricks” home, she continues doing her transcription work and has expanded her digital competencies. For one recent legal project, she had to put audio time stamps on portions of the transcription that were inaudible. This required another advanced program that she mastered.
Yet she is modest about her tech skills. “I posted a video on Facebook the other day that I made out of photos and music, and someone said, ‘You are so smart,’” she said. “I said, ‘No, it’s mostly trial and error.’”
The web developer
William Jones, 55, started his computer career in the 1980s, working in mainframes for a credit card company in his native England. In 2005, he and his wife, Kimberly, made a radical lifestyle change for themselves and their four children. They bought a 76-acre farm in rural Virginia, where they raised free-range pigs.
When his children grew older (they range in age from 18 to 24), Jones decided to return to the tech world. He took an online web development course at the Flatiron School in Manhattan. “I thought technically I could pick it up,” he said. “But I didn’t think many employers would be interested in someone in their mid-50s.”
After completing the eight-month course last year, he found a job in web development for D’Artagnan, a food company based in New Jersey. Jones compares the coding he is doing in his new position, and the mainframe code he used to write, to learning German and Italian (Italian, like today’s computer languages, being less formal and rule-bound).
Regardless of experience, he thinks many older adults are capable of learning the skills needed for his job. “Intellectually,” he said, “there’s no reason someone my age couldn’t be doing this.”