Having succeeded in the struggle to establish one’s career in international development, as time passes a practitioner faces a different set of issues. It’s no longer about getting your foot in the door and being taken seriously. Your standards rise and your choices increase; your domestic situation adds new criteria to your career decisions; you may be less willing to endure wild and woolly field conditions; your body may start to impose limits on you. Being middle-aged and older brings new challenges as well as opportunities.
There are definite advantages to having some years of experience under your belt. Accumulated recognition makes finding jobs in your sub-specialty easier. You have a lot of names in your Rolodex (and you’re old enough to know what a Rolodex is.) You are eligible for more senior postings with management responsibility, and this brings better pay as well as benefits like housing. You are no longer roughing it as a Peace Corps Volunteer, intern, or entry-level eager-beaver glad for any assignment you can get. Now you can pick and choose your assignments.
And that’s important if you go through a family phase when your choices of overseas postings are narrowed by considerations like security, good schools, and opportunities for your spouse. You’re generally not going to take your family into a war zone, refugee camp, crime-plagued city, or harsh outpost.
Also, as a senior development professional, you are not limited to complaining about what you see as bad policy – you get opportunities to define policy and decide the operating methods of projects you plan or manage. You likely have colleagues moving into high places whom you can lobby and influence or collaborate with on improving the way business is done.
The passage of time, and even increasing seniority, also bring drawbacks and challenges.
Moving into management takes you further from the field, and from the grass-roots beneficiaries, technicians, and realities where the actual development happens (or is supposed to.) It takes effort and planning to occasionally get your boots muddy. Your lived experience is shaped more by relations with donors, submitting reports, managing personnel and money, and other aspects of administration, than by field realities. It becomes easier to lose touch.
Building a good salary history can be a two-edged sword – you may find yourself “priced out” of some jobs. Even before figures are discussed, there may be an assumption that you will be “expensive”, especially if you have a doctoral degree or work history at high-paying employers like the U.N.
As an older professional you may face prejudice from employers looking for characteristics associated with youth, such as dynamism, versatility, and affinity for innovative methodologies and concepts.
Aside from the presumption of being set in one’s ways, resistant to or ignorant about new ideas, helpless with the latest technologies, or reluctant to get outside and dirty, a bigger danger is actually being those things. Staying up to date on the latest research, theory, implementation models, and technologies requires constant reading and ongoing self-education. You need to stay up to speed on innovations like mobile money. It often happens that older workers have a lot to learn from younger ones.
At a certain point one’s body imposes limits on the sort of travel and work one can undertake. Bouncing over long, rutted roads may have been merely uncomfortable when you were young, but with arthritis or other age-related conditions it may be unbearable or medically inadvisable. Even frequent air travel becomes burdensome.
For those professionals who want to remain in international development through middle age and beyond, there are several options. By staying as fit as possible you can continue to go to the field; some technicians still conduct training overseas into their sixties. Or you can focus on desk assignments either at headquarters or in branch offices in foreign capitals. If you work in an NGO it is possible to stay engaged in hands-on work if that is more important to you than a high salary.
While an experienced professional is valued for accumulated knowledge, it is important to remain mentally flexible, avoid excessive attachment to the methods of one’s youth, and actively study new developments. Nothing is less useful than a graying worker marking time until retirement by recycling rote practices from earlier decades. It is tempting to defend everything done during one’s career, but it is more useful to candidly evaluate past work, retain only those practices that have shown good long-term impacts, and adopt promising innovations.
Steev Lynn specializes in agriculture-related business and rural development in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He has worked for USAID, the World Bank, the European Union, and many INGOs. Often consulting on new proposal capture and technical writing, evaluations, value chain assessments, and technical work plans, he has been a leader in Africa-based cashew nut processing industry development, and in the past has been a country director and program officer.