Career reinvention – what does it really mean?

When I was conducting my recent research into mid-life / late career reinvention, I thought long and hard about the terminology I used – it’s vital to be clear about the research question you are trying to answer of course!

Naturally, I considered the views of other writers. For example, Heppner suggests there are three alternate but distinct types of work change: a task change, a position change and an occupation change – involving a completely new role and set of tasks (Heppner, 1998). Writers also use a variety of terms such as ‘re-imagining’ (Burns, 2015), ‘re-inventing’ (Ibarra, 2004), re-crafting’ (Mintzberg, 1987), ‘re-orienting’ (Bridges, 2004), ‘re-framing’ (Brown, 2015), or ‘renewing’ (Wang, Olsen and Shulz, 2013) careers. Despite the diversity in terminology, they do consistently argue that significant career change involves a psychological transition that goes beyond or alongside responses to external changes, frequently referencing Bridge’s three-stage transition model (Bridges, 1980).

So, I concluded that ‘career reinvention’ typically involves both a significant occupation change and a psychological transition.

I also discovered that ‘reinvention’ involves perception and a felt sense. My view of ‘reinvention’ may well not be the same as yours as our circumstances and social context differ. Additionally, my participants frequently observed that changing how they work often had more of an impact and a feeling of reinvention that a change in what their work was. The experience of their reinvention was: highly individual; contextual; rational and emotional; conscious and unconscious.

So, maybe there cannot be one formal definition to capture this multifaceted and individual nature of reinvention. So instead I will share with you this metaphor from one of my participants…

Hermit crab metaphor for mid life career reinvention …

Over time, you become more and more uncomfortable in your shell – as you have out grown your space and realise you will have to leave the shell behind. You venture into the open feeling vulnerable and urgent as you search for, and scuttle into, a larger shell. As you settle in and stretch out, you feel more liberated, and then you come to realise that you will have to move on again at some point! You are, however, bolstered by the knowledge that you have done it before.


Bridges, W. (1980) Making sense of life changes. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Second edn. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Brown, A. (2015) ‘Mid-career reframing: the learning and development processes through which individuals seek to effect major career changes’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 43(3), pp. 278-291.

Heppner, M. J. (1998) ‘The career transition inventory: Measuring internal resources in  adulthood’, Journal of Career Assessment, 6, pp. 135-145.

Ibarra, H. (2004) Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Mintzberg, H. (1987) ‘Crafting Strategy’, Harvard Business Review, 65(4), pp. 66-75.

Wang, M., Olsen, D. A. and Shulz, K. S. (2013) Mid and Late Career issues: An Integrative Perspective. New York: Routledge.Series in Allied Psychology.

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