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When Will Your Career Begin to Decline?

I have been a rising star in every job I have ever held.  Through 3 different fields over 15 years, my career has moved ever upwards.  But I sometimes wonder, at what point will my career trajectory change?  When will I begin to be viewed as too old to be the rising star?  When will my career begin to decline?

Most People Expect Their Professional Decline Too Late

Credit where it is due, this post was inspired by a recent article in the Atlantic. In essence, the topic was that most people believe they will remain at the pinnacle of their profession for longer than they actually will.  At a certain point, everyone faces their professional decline.  At some point our age, while bringing experience, loses out to the hunger and energy of youth.

I Have Halted My Professional Ascent, But Not Yet Started My Decline

It is a hard pill to swallow that you will someday no longer be that rising star.  I wrote recently about not pursuing the next rung up on the executive ladder.  I have grown weary of taking on more responsibility with each new job.  Currently I enjoy work-life balance and moving further up the ranks would lose me that benefit.   But choosing to stay in my current position is different from a career decline.  

As I hinted in that post I have a lot of room for additional pay increases.  I am also sitting in a role at the absolute pinnacle of an individual contributor field.  Many challenges will present themselves in this position.  I am in essence sitting at the base of the final ascent to a peak.  Currently, that is my last planned peak, but that may not be true.  I have yet to begin a career descent or even begin to think about one.

I Likely Will Be The Last To Know When My Career Decline Begins

But that is really the point of the article.  Your career descent will likely start before you know it.       While I doubt it will happen to me in the next year or 2, it is inevitable.  Likely when it happens I will be the last to know.  I’ll almost certainly be the last to accept it.

What Happens When Your Career Declines?

What happens when your career begins to decline you might ask?  Well, the obvious is you don’t get offers for better jobs.  I am no longer looking for the next job so that’s less of an issue.  

More of a concern is pay raises stop coming as frequently. It’s easy after 15 years of continuous pay raises to assume they will continue forever.  Most engineers, scientists and other white collar workers receive continuous raises throughout the beginning part of their career.  But at some point, your pay will peak with respect to inflation, eventually perhaps even declining.   

A Declining Career Is the Reason To Live Below Your Means

We talk a lot in the personal finance world about living below your means.  If there is ever a good reason to do so, the decline of your career is it.  The average person spends money based on future expected pay increases.  These are the people that ultimately have issues when the raises suddenly stop coming.  That endpoint is inevitable. It’s a lot easier to adjust to a pay decrease if you don’t have to reduce your lifestyle as a result.

Job Security Later in Your Career, Or Lack Thereof

The concerns don’t end with pay plateaus or declines.  The reality is the older you get the more expensive you become versus your experience.  Experience is important and employers pay for it.  But at some point an extra year of experience does not provide enough marginal benefit.  Someone who has been an expert in their field for ten years is probably not far from the capability of someone who has done a job for 20 years.  They might even surpass the capability of the senior individual if decline has set in.  Yet almost certainly the 20-year seniority individual will be paid more.

Your Seniority Pay As a Liability

That dollar per experience eventually becomes a liability.  Employers are not supposed to lay off based on age.  But you better believe they lay off based on employee pay versus output. There are whole industries where after about 50 your days are considered numbered.  Tech is often cited as one of these industries.  

Even If Your Company Doesn’t Target Older Employees, What Happens With a Company Change?

Thankfully I don’t work in an industry or for a company that lets older people out to pasture often.  But I also recognize should my position ever become untenable at my current company things are not all roses. The older I get the harder it will be to find another position at a different company of similar pay.  Either I will be viewed as too expensive or overqualified. The simple reality is the older you get the fewer job options you have and the more at risk your current position is.

Career Decline Is The Best Reason To Pursue Financial Independence

Which really supports the other important topic we so often harp on, Financial Independence.  I have been very open over the years that I do not want to retire until 55.  If I were of a different mind I might even want to work until 65. 

In reality, not all individuals get to decide when their career is done.  Health, your employer, or any number of other things can decide for you.   I might not even make it to 55.  Financial Independence is a safety valve in case your plans don’t work out.  If you have it when the axe falls you can walk away.  When you don’t you are left scrambling for whatever table scraps are still available to you. 

Always Good To Have Options In Case of Career Decline

Although the future is still unwritten I feel pretty safe to say that I have yet to hit peak career pay.  But if I am wrong, it is good to know I have options.

Have you thought about your inevitable career decline?  Have you put in place any contingencies?

9 Comments

  1. Dan
    Dan September 25, 2019

    In 2012, I received a promotion. At the time, I was 44. I had the distinct impression, it was the last promotion I would ever receive. I didn’t want to climb further up the corporate ladder because it would require me to take on supervisory tasks and accompanying work which I found boring. Seven years later, I have not received a promotion. In fact, I haven’t even applied for a new job since then. My career is on the decline. Despite being the undisputed expert in my field at my company, I feel like I am marginalized. In part, this is because I haven’t taken the next step to a manager position. I don’t want to downplay other aspects of my career. I have had two feuds with higher-ups which have certainly hurt my chances for advancement. Simultaneously, my father died and left me an inheritance which pushed me immediately into financial independence. That emboldened me to take what some people call a “take this job a shove it” attitude.

    I cope by focusing on my work and occasionally someone is even brave enough to ask for my opinion or help. That and hoping for a severance package gets me through the day.

    I knew that I had reached financial independence when my take-home pay started declining. I had to increase my paycheck withholding due to a) the Trump “tax cuts” and b) increasing dividends and interest from my taxable portfolio. I recognize the money is fungible. Pay my taxes each month or pay a huge lump sum (and possible penalties) on April 15 – same difference. However, when your paycheck starts shrinking, you begin to wonder if it is worth it going to work for decreasing pay. You feel like you are working to pay the taxes on your investments and if you stop working your marginal tax rate would go down. It’s almost as if the salary is a burden.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 26, 2019

      Sad when it comes to that ride it out attitude. I use to think that was just the way some people are. But after a few decades I now understand it’s a ramifications of how the employer and bosses treat the employee. Either way kind of depressing to think about. Do you at least have a generous severance policy?

  2. Dan
    Dan September 26, 2019

    There is no guarantee that the severance policy won’t change and there is no guarantee I will be offered a severance but if the current policy is extended to me, I would qualify for between 36 and 52 weeks of pay.

    As you get older, your view changes. In the 1990s, I worked with an employee who at the time,was a little older than I am now. At the time, I thought he was bitter and wondered why he didn’t just retire to save himself the aggravation of coming to work. After he got his severance package, I learned things about his specific circumstances that explained a lot. I also had to assume some of his workload which also explained his behavior and attitude. Today, I often am amazed at how many parallels there are between his career and mine.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 28, 2019

      Sounds about par for the course. Our contractual severance sits at 36 weeks currently. But who knows if push comes to shove how much it will actually be if I ever need it.

  3. Joe
    Joe September 27, 2019

    I hit my peak pretty early in my career and figured it’s better to get out than stick around.
    The problem with the corporate environment is that you have to keep advancing. If you’re not moving up, you’re going backward. Other people will pass you.
    I think Dan should negotiate a severance. Financial Samurai’s book is perfect for his situation. Sticking around when you’re not happy is bad for you. Eventually, you’ll be dissatisfied enough to say I quit especially if you’re already FI.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 28, 2019

      Very true. If you sit still then eventually you sit out.

  4. Mr. 39 Months
    Mr. 39 Months September 27, 2019

    Not sure exactly when it happened (late 40’s?) but I just burned out. I had steadily risen through the ranks, and taken on management as well as straight engineering roles. I tend to get pushed into management at whatever company I move to because of leadership capability.

    Yet I burned out in my late 40’s and now just want to do straight engineering work, with no management responsibilities. I was able to negotiate that in my present company and have my old workers report to someone else. I’m “out of the loop” for the most part (which can depress at times) but actually enjoy my work a lot more. Even when I hit FI (10 months!) I may stick around a little longer.

    We all go through this, no matter what the culture. Its something to be planned for – so pursue FI with extreme vigor.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 28, 2019

      Sounds like it worked out for you. Nothing wrong with actively choosing to take a step back.

  5. Dan
    Dan September 27, 2019

    My father died in 2015. It took me until 2018 to close the estate, incorporate the inherited assets into my portfolio and feel confident I was FI. I have zero confidence in Financial Samurai’s book. Negotiating a severance is unique to each industry and each company within each industry. Even within large companies, the offering and negotiating of a severance package is unique to different departments or divisions. Much of the negotiation relies on the personalities of those involved.

    Joe, you have a firm grasp of the obvious. I have long been dissatisfied enough to quit and I have put out many signs (implicit and explicit) stating my willingness to accept a severance package. All I can I say is it takes two to negotiate. I believe my employer would prefer I quit rather than offer me a severance package which would facilitate a smooth transition. When I say “my employer” I am referring to the two or three levels of management above me. I guess I could go to the CEO but I doubt the CEO of a Fortune 500 company will negotiate a severance package with someone who isn’t an officer.

    My work is somewhat cyclical. There is definitely a busy period and a quiet period so I am waiting until just before the busy period to give notice. That will a) allow me to avoid the most stressful period of the year and/or b) give me maximum leverage in negotiating a severance.

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