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Rewards, perils of midlife shifts

Rene Carew, is charting a new path for herself as a self-employed consultant specializing in career development and leadership skills. She works both with individuals, companies and organizations.


Monday, February 3, 2003 -- It's often said these days that the average American worker will change jobs as many as half a dozen times. While younger people may take that in stride, it's not always a seamless transition for those over 40.

Even for those who make midlife career changes voluntarily - and the three people profiled below fall into that category - the process seems rarely to be taken lightly.

What follows is the experience and reflections of [Irene Carew] who is creating a new work life.

Irene Carew

In 1982 Irene Carew of Amherst was featured in an Amherst Bulletin story about job searches.

Carew, then a staff member at the Career Counseling Development Center at the University of Massachusetts, cautioned her audience that "economic conditions are very harsh." In those conditions, she said, it's important "to understand what skills you have and what you really want out of a job ..."

Now, more than 20 years later, economic conditions are tough once again - and Carew, 60, is charting a new path for herself as a self-employed consultant specializing in career development and leadership skills. She works both with individuals, companies and organizations.

"I'm always looking for the next challenge, the next skill, the next way to motivate myself," she says.

Carew spent most of the years between 1969 and 1990 in various administrative posts at UMass, earning a doctorate along the way in applied behavioral sciences from the university in 1979.

Much of her time on campus was spent working in student affairs, where she was involved in many aspects of campus life, such as housing, counseling services and activities and events. As an assistant professor of education, she also taught courses at UMass in organization development, group dynamics, leadership and other issues.

By 1990, she says, she knew "it was time for me to leave." In many ways, she'd done what she could do there, she says, and felt the need for new challenges. She had gained experience in teaching, administration and counseling, she says, "and at that point, I wanted to try my hand at the consulting world."

But separating from a place she knew so well and had liked so much wasn't easy. "I had a lot of loyalty" to the university, she says, and for many years she had derived her work identity from her role on campus.

For the next four years, Carew, who was also raising a son as a single parent, taught organization and human resource management at Antioch New England University in Keene, N.H. She also taught courses at the University of Hartford.

Beginning in 1991, Carew worked for Charter Oak Consulting Group, a Connecticut-based firm, first as an associate, and then as a full-fledged consultant. Her job required her to travel to companies both in the United States and abroad, leading workshops and trainings on topics such as team building, motivation and leadership development.

Though she enjoyed the work, Carew says her travels left little time for local activities or even for keeping up with friends. "I had let all of that go," she says.

Now, Carew has cut back on her work for the Connecticut firm and is concentrating on marketing her services closer to home. She offers one-on-one coaching, and group sessions to help people with such issues as career goals, managing conflict, leadership skills and decision-making. This spring, for example, she is offering a six-week workshop, from March 20 to April 24, for people contemplating a career change.

"I'm having to establish my own identity as my own organization," she says. That's something she never envisioned herself doing 20 years ago - but, she points out, it's also something an increasing number of people in today's economy are doing.

The "fear factor," as she puts it, for people like her who are going it alone, is the uncertainty of living without a regular paycheck. The upside is more freedom, she says, and the positive feeling that comes with having had the courage to try something different.

Right now, she says, "this feels like the right thing."

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at

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