Three challenges when rebooting your career in a new country at age 50

By Marcus Coetzee, 25 August 2023.

My home is now in Scotland. I emigrated from South Africa about two years ago. 

The move has been predictably difficult. Nevertheless, my wife and I are 100% satisfied with our decision to move here. We have been proactively integrating into our new home country – forming relationships, embracing the culture, and enjoying the safe and abundant wilderness. We have hope for the future.

Someone recently asked me for advice on moving countries. This article highlights the three challenges we discussed.

Although I anticipated these challenges, I was unaware of how much work they would require to overcome. It would have helped if someone had clearly explained this to me. It would have given me more perspective. I’ve therefore written this article to help anyone thinking of moving to a new country in their middle age.

Your first challenge will involve letting go of your previous country and dealing with any grief that emerges

Even though I had moved to a country that offered me much more stability and opportunity, it was a struggle to let go of everything I had walked away from.

I didn’t realise how many things I’d accumulated over five decades in South Africa. These were not possessions as one might expect. I happily gave away almost everything I owned and took one suitcase with me. I’m rather talking about the intangibles – things like the thousands of relationships I’d developed, the brand I’d worked hard to build, my knowledge of how things worked, and the familiar culture.

Over the past two years, I’ve spent considerable time dealing with emotions like anger, bitterness, sadness and despair (amidst new emotions like hope and excitement). Although our emigration was primarily motivated by our future prospects, there were significant factors that strengthened our resolve to leave South Africa.

Suggestion: Be prepared to spend a lot of time processing your emotions, and not letting them consume you and drag you down. Strive to cultivate a positive and proactive frame of mind. Get wise counsel from friends, mentors and a professional if required. Try to write regularly in a journal, read constructive books, listen to insightful podcasts, spend time in nature and get plenty of exercise, preferably every day.

Your second challenge will involve learning about your new work context

We all know that professions require a level of context knowledge. This varies between professions. For example, a lawyer moving to a new country would need to learn a new legal system and case history, and a plumber would need to learn new building codes. 

As a management consultant who works with charities, social enterprises and foundations, there was a lot of context knowledge that I had to rapidly learn, including:

  • The key organisations responsible for supporting charities and social enterprises in Scotland
  • The influential leaders in the sector
  • Workplace culture and etiquette
  • The policy environment in Scotland and more broadly in the UK
  • The differences between poverty in the UK versus poverty in Africa
  • The macro forces at play such as party politics, economics, cultural trends, and environmental action.

Fortunately, there were many similarities between South Africa and the UK, possibly because the former was a British colony. This made it easier to learn this new context. 

I also realised that I needed to first understand how everything worked before I was able to carry across insights from my work in Africa and truly make a difference.

Suggestion: Recognise that you’ll have to immerse yourself in learning this new context for your career in order to be effective. This will likely require you to attend numerous seminars and workshops, read as much as possible, learn from colleagues, network extensively and become obsessed with taking notes. You must have a beginner’s mind and be open to learning.

Your third challenge will be gaining credibility for your experience and skills and the value that you offer

I had spent almost three decades striving to be a thought leader, serving my country and cultivating a credible brand among the organisations that I worked with. My networks were strong and supportive. 

However, despite my hard-earned skills and experience, I was unknown when I arrived in the UK. I soon discovered that credibility in one country doesn’t automatically carry across. My wife experienced this same problem.

I realised that people tend to be hesitant to trust and form relationships with outsiders, although they would like this to be otherwise. They want to wait to see if newcomers are here to stay and capable of integrating into the culture. They also want to discover that your abilities are what you claim them to be before they rely on you. 

Suggestion: Be patient, do good work, have integrity, deliver on promises and gain allies who will vouch for you. Keep your ego in check and try to be appropriately humble while you do your best. Then when they trust you, the credibility of your work in other countries will come into play.

It takes a while to find your feet in a new country and it’s best to align your expectations

You’ll likely spend the first year being overwhelmed and frantically trying to achieve some stability in your life and work. Then in the second year, you’ll start feeling more on top of things. You’ll be able to refine your knowledge and spend more time building upon areas of interest and cultivating local relationships. You’ll also have established a measure of stability and credibility. The third year is apparently when everything comes together and you’ll start feeling at home in your career and life. I’m looking forward to this.

Your challenges will vary depending on your demographics

I acknowledge that my experiences are unique to my career and demographics (i.e. White, Male, English-speaking, middle-aged, residency permit). Others entering the UK may have different or additional struggles. Nevertheless, they are likely to face similar challenges to what I’ve highlighted.

Some aspects of this move are also likely to be easier for younger people. But at the same time, they’re less likely to have the skills, confidence and resources of someone more mature. So this balances out with their youthful energy and the extra decades they have for their careers.

Perspective will make your journey a bit easier

When you move to a new country and try to continue with your career, you are likely to encounter several predictable challenges. The insights I’ve shared won’t make things any faster or easier. However, they should give you perspective and reassure you of the path you need to travel ahead and how long it is likely to take. It will all be worthwhile in the end.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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