Going Back to School at 40+: The (Mostly) Pros & Cons

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On the first day of school, I wasn’t used to wearing my new big red backpack. Within five minutes of walking in the door — late — I had managed to swing it around, knock over a glass of water on the table behind me, send a flood toward my teacher’s materials, run out of the room to get paper towels, and somehow get lost on my way back to the classroom.

I was 54 years old and just starting my User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly.

My grandmother used to say, “If you eat a bug for breakfast, nothing worse can happen to you the rest of the day.”  I closed my eyes and hoped she was right as I sank into my seat next to a tiny 20-something personal trainer.

Grandmas are always right. The personal trainer was friendly and funny and just as new to the tech curriculum as I. General Assembly’s well-documented ethos of inclusivity went well beyond race and gender, and I felt genuinely welcomed as an older student. The course itself was a transformational one. My learnings at GA sent me into a new career in UX design that has been far more fulfilling than I expected — I’m proud to say that I’m now also part of the GA instructional team.

But my concerns about heading back into the classroom as an adult learner were real, and took time and effort to overcome. Sure, I had decades of experience in nonprofit management, even leading tech organizations… but I hadn’t been in a classroom as a student since grad school, nearly two decades before. Did I even remember how to study? I was used to getting a good night’s sleep (knock wood) and not plugging all-nighters. ( Do “the kids” even call them all-nighters anymore?) I was comfortable using technology, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between a megabyte and a megabit without sneaking a look at Wikipedia. And while I’d heard of Zoom, the first image that came to mind was a bunch of PBS kids in striped rugby shirts (“I’m Houli!”)

Going back into the classroom in your 40s and 50s can cause a lot of anxiety, from uncertainty about whether your hard-won professional background is the right fit for a course of study, to concern whether you’re up to both the pace or the technology.

Are you the same person you were on your first day of high school? No. But that’s a good thing. Read on to see why this may be the best time in your life to learn and master the skills you need to change careers successfully.

Your Energy is Different

A recent article in Forbes  quoted healthcare CEO Angela Bovill’s answer to a question she’s frequently asked: “Why do you hire people over 60 to be on your team?” Bovill’s response is a powerful one. She says, Having older people on staff creates a calming force for an organization. There is less panic. They have seen a lot and are less jittery, less anxious than they may have been earlier in their career.”

A piece from the AARP  — an organization that knows something about the group in question — goes even further:

“Researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed large and small companies to assess how employers evaluate their older workers. The respondents said that workers 50 or older are more reliable than the younger generations; they show up for work on time. They have a stronger work ethic, too; the younger worker is more likely to arrive late and leave early. Older workers’ experience makes them better able to manage problems and respond to emergencies, and it makes them valuable mentors to younger people in the firm. Plus, they know how to deal with people and provide better service to customers.”

Your life experiences and earned perspective can help you keep moving toward your educational goal, where others may give up. Consider the story of Brenda Echols, who went back to school for a master’s degree in nursing at age 58. Brenda says, “My biggest challenge was overcoming breast cancer while working on my degree. It almost took me out of school, but when I thought about it and talked it over, I decided to hold on and hold out as strong as I could…Being a student helped me maintain my focus during my challenges. My dream sustained me, along with family and friends. I never missed a beat.” 

“Some of my most dedicated, organized, and successful digital bootcamp students have been single moms, who have made an art form out of prioritizing and delegating.”

Your Brain is Different

As a returning older student, you’re probably not going to pass for a digital native (a term coined by educator Marc Prensky to describe someone born after 1980), but you have other very significant strengths.

  • You’re more likely to know what you want to do, and you’re ready to focus. Your commitment to continued learning makes teaching a pleasure for instructors and can inspire younger students. You’re also experienced at juggling multiple high-stakes commitments; some of my most dedicated, organized, and successful digital bootcamp students have been single moms, who have made an art form out of prioritizing and delegating.
  • Older learners tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity and subtle distinctions between complex concepts. In my experience, more seasoned students are less likely to ask narrow questions like “Will this be on the test?” and more likely to ask broader ones, like “Why is this important to know?” Instead of passively attending lectures, older learners actively engage, seek relevance, and look for ways to apply their learning to real-life situations — great practice for job interviews.
  • As we grow older, we tend to become stronger at tasks that demand crystallized intelligence. The ability to use previously attained information, facts, knowledge, and experiences to solve new challenges comes with time. This ability to conceptualize new contexts is incredibly useful and frequently seen in adult learners, but virtually impossible to teach.

Side note: Prensky has since abandoned the term “digital native” in favor of “digital wisdom.”

“In the near future, the most successful products and services will likely be built and designed by older adults with a keen understanding of and lived experience within the 40+ plus demographic.”

Your Opportunities Are Different (& Better Than Ever)

The coming “silver tsunami,” also known in more positive terms as the longevity economy, ranks as one of the most significant forces shaping the U.S. economy and society. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that individuals 65 years and older will account for more than 21% of the country’s population as soon as 2030. Older Americans live longer, on average (cheers for that!), and remain active in the workforce.

The next adjacent age group is deepening its relationship with work as well. In 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of working Americans age 55 or older was just 11.9%; by 2024, that number is expected to rise to 24.8%, at that point becoming the largest age cohort in the workforce.

Of course, older Americans represent more than a portion of the workforce; they’re also an enormous, growing market for a variety of products, goods, services, and experiences — many created or enabled by technology. The benefits of the diverse workforce that so many companies are striving to create include advantages that only come from hiring older workers. In the near future, the most successful products and services will likely be built and designed by older adults with a keen understanding of and lived experience within the 40+ demographic.

Numerous studies demonstrate that older, tenured people are more successful entrepreneurs, more reliable workers, and more profitable employees. Contrary to popular belief, not all startup founders and visionaries are fresh out of college: a Kauffman Foundation study found that 26% of all startups in 2015 were created by people ages 55–64; in 1997, the figure was just 15%.

The Downsides & Upsides

Age bias, or ageism, is still a real issue. It can be hard to find an internship or apprenticeship if you haven’t just graduated with an undergrad degree.  In addition, imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re inadequate or a failure despite an abundance of evidence that you are both eminently qualified and undeniably talented, comes for us all. It can be discouraging to the point of debilitation, if not countered with persistent hard work and support from family and friends.

For experienced professionals accustomed to scheduling their days (and their coffee breaks), it can be an adjustment to go back to a conventional academic schedule, and  accredited educational schools like General Assembly are appropriately rigorous about timeliness and attendance. The new guidelines about public contact during the age of COVID-19 means you won’t just be learning the software programs on your syllabus — you’ll also be learning how to navigate a virtual classroom, how to access materials and tutorials online, and how to schedule class projects with teammates in different time zones — while remaining in the safety and comfort of your environment.

The good news is that GA is one of the pioneers in remote learning, long before the pandemic, and we continue to evolve. We’ve continued to make significant investments not just in core technology, but also in curriculum development and instructor training.  Our classroom instructional teams are experts in the latest techniques and best practices to make your student experience seamless, engaging, and fulfilling — both online and in person.

If you look at it one-dimensionally, there are definite concerns you could worry about when pondering a return to the classroom after an extended time away. However, if you look at the opportunity with a growth mindset, a commitment to lifelong learning, and undertake it with clear eyes and trusted support, the sky’s the limit.

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Need more encouragement? Consider this quote: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.” (This was, in fact, not my grandmother, but rather French philosopher Michel de Montaigne in the late 1500s.)

Not convinced by philosophy? Consider science: studies show that as many as 85% of things that we worry about don’t come true.

Even if some of your worries actualize, my grandmother advises that you write everything off as a bug before breakfast. Kick imposter syndrome to the curb. Use that big, agile brain of yours. Learn something new and change the world. We’re ready to help you create a career you’ll love.

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