Articles > Going down: Dealing with demotion at midlife

Going down: Dealing with demotion at midlife
Globe & Mail, December 07, 2011

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

At a recent dinner, two friends who have hit midlife lamented they are now back to doing the same kind of work they did decades ago. A third confessed that she was being paid significantly less than younger people doing the same job elsewhere.

Whether because of decisions by bosses or as a result of the twists and turns of the job market, all three had effectively been demoted - forced to accept less responsibility or lower salaries.

They weren't bitter about these career turns but they were rueful. And they worried about whether this meant they had taken themselves out of the game. Were they settling? Or should they fight for more money and responsibility?

Age discrimination and a difficult economy have sobered the career expectations of many older workers. The dilemma for some: Should they just go along with a position that represents a demotion, or chase the one they think they deserve? Here are some factors to weigh, and how to handle it.

Your financial situation

Obviously, you need to factor in the financial effects of a demoted position. Shrunken investment portfolios, a lack of savings, and having adult kids still on the payroll may force a need to continue to produce a decent income. But many people operate as if they require a certain threshold without having actually looked at their actual needs. If your new financial reality is not going to cover them, consider taking on other work, such as freelancing, to add to your income.

Your life-stage psychological needs

Reflect on what is important to you now. At midlife, many people prefer to devote time and emotional energy to non-work-related activities, such as volunteering or participating in sports, finding that their real life has become more about what happens outside the workplace.

In my research, many forty- and fiftysomething women said they took smaller jobs so they could look after elderly parents or children facing difficulties. Not only did the women have no regrets, but they described it as a major source of satisfaction. Others wanted to give back to the community by working for a not-for-profit organization or mentoring younger people. Still others sought to test themselves in new but less remunerative ways, such as turning a passion into a business.

For some, a demotion might actually open up the time and "head space" to go after such pursuits while still holding a job that a past, more senior role, didn't allow.

Unfinished business

Other midlifers might still have unfulfilled professional goals, and want one more kick at the can to prove themselves. One fiftysomething executive acquaintance, dismissed when she was at her career peak, refused to settle for less than she believed she could achieve. She spent more than a year finding a job that would provide a fitting swan song to her career.

Your employability

By virtue of her professional track record, my acquaintance could afford to be picky. But not everyone is as well-positioned. Much depends on your skills, personality and career history. If all of your experience has been with one employer or your skills are tied to one industry, it will be difficult to make a lateral or upward move into a new company or industry. You may have no choice but to accept a demotion.

Your challenge will be to overcome any bitterness, and look for ways to derive satisfaction from what you are doing. Before concluding this is the best you can do, test the market. Look at ways to repackage your skills.

Your ego needs

A man I know lies about his job title. He'll tell you he "runs" an organization when, in fact, he is doing mid-level professional work, several rungs down from his previous employment.

Taking a significant downward move can be a big ego assault. The same goes for reporting to a younger boss, or to a previous subordinate. Usually, as people get older, their status needs decline, but some still evaluate themselves by their job titles and the size of their salary. They cannot come to terms with being a "formerly important person."

Remind yourself of what people value about you beyond your job pedigree. Detach your identity from what you earn. Find ways to shore up your ego through non-work activities.

Accepting this may be 'it'

Once you take a smaller job, it is more difficult to move back up the ladder. Can you accept the knowledge that this may be how you spend the last chapter of your career? For some, this is depressing. But many find it liberating - they reconnect with what originally attracted them to their profession, free of managerial stress.

One friend who had an accomplished career in film and television is now doing the kind of professional work he did when he was in his 20s, for not much more money. But he loves the camaraderie of working with "a whole bunch of smart kids," and being the go-to person when they have a problem. He also appreciates not having to worry about the budget, staffers' egos, and timelines.

Dealing with the unfairness

At the dinner, I asked my friend who is being paid much less than younger counterparts whether she resents it. She said it obviously didn't please her, but accepted that reality is sometimes not fair. And what was most important was that she loved her work - fair pay or not.