So much is said these days about the importance of personal fulfillment that anyone who hits 40 years old and doesn’t feel satisfied with the progress of his or her life contemplates changing careers. Such contemplation becomes reality when companies undergoing financial hardship jettison the older and more highly paid employees first. Or when a worker realizes he or she is staring at retirement sooner rather than later. Or that the children will soon be headed off to college. Or that there’s nowhere to advance in that dead-end job. The reasons for changing careers at mid-life vary, but most boil down to one thing: dissatisfaction.
Mid-life career change myths
Many myths regarding midlife career changes have their basis in truth. Writing for Monster.com, Dominique Rodgers addresses six common perceptions middle-aged job prospects encounter, mainly centered upon age-rated biases. These range from being called “overqualified” (a euphemism for “too old”) to a distaste for reporting to supervisors younger than they to misperceptions of lower productivity (technologically behind).
Rodgers states that the common solution to such biases focuses on the value the mid-career professional brings. People, regardless of age, want to feel valued, regardless of who provides that recognition.
Career stagnation may encompass a lack of opportunity for advancement within a company, a lack of training opportunities to expand one’s skill set, or a lack of challenge to keep the job interesting. Radical career change from one field to another often entails a steep learning curve. In her blog Voices, Jenny Garret laments her decision to switch from a lucrative and unfulfilling career working in finance to freelancing as a graphic designer: “I decided to make the change when I realized how unhappy I was in my profession, and after I quit, I learned that this dissatisfaction was nothing compared to the feeling I now have getting paid $9.75 an hour to copyedit design work part-time.”
Preparing for a midlife career change
With perhaps two decades or more of job experience under your belt, your cumulative experience is nothing to be sneezed at, coughed over, or dismissed. You have acquired more than just expertise in the field(s) in which you have worked, but also those soft skills that facilitate a cooperative and collaborative work environment. Unfortunately, realization dawns that you don’t particularly like what you’ve been doing. Or perhaps you’re just tired of the same-old same-old and want something different.
Writing for The Balance, Dawn Rosenberg McKay says, “Although it may sound trite, it’s never too late. That doesn’t mean your transition will be simple or that you can make it without making a great deal of effort. Change is hard, even if you prepare well for it. The truth is, though, that going to work every day, to do something that you don’t enjoy, or that isn’t gratifying, is far more difficult.”
Preparation involves much more than simply making the decision to quit your current job. It means taking stock of your current and anticipated future finances. If you have a high school senior who will be starting college less than a year from now, then this is probably not the time to change careers unless you can slide into job with comparable pay. If you’re going through difficult personal circumstances, then one more major life change like switching careers probably won’t help you restore your life to an even keel. The article “Changing Careers at 40: Should You Make a Midlife Career Change?” also advises exercising caution when making important decisions about your future after a traumatic event: “Many experts recommend that, after experiencing a serious life event, you should wait six months to one year before making any major life decisions. That is due to the fact that, sometimes when people experience trauma, the feelings that they have in the moment—no matter how strong they are—will be much different once they have had time to work through their situations.”
Some careers seem tailor-made for midlife career changes. President and CEO of NCE Value Engineers Inc. David C. Wilson, P.Eng., CVS, CPF, FSAVE, has mentioned more than once that most value engineers go into that profession mid-career. Successful mid-career changes in value engineering and other fields complete formal training courses, solicit mentors to guide them in developing their new skill sets, and rely upon their existing savvy to network among colleagues and acquaintances to find work.
Regardless of the type of switch, the change will involve learning new skills. Whether you continue to work as a consultant or freelance service provider or move into a new job with a different company, prepare for the learning curve and accept that you don’t know everything.
Dissatisfaction may prompt the decision to leave a job, but it doesn’t guide you into what you should be doing. If the question of what you want to be when you grow up still haunts you, then McKay suggests taking a career test. You probably did that years ago in high school or even college; however, job and life experience have changed you since then. Take the test again and explore the resulting list of suitable occupations to figure out what options you have.
Reasons to change careers at 40 (or later)
Philippe Gaud of HC Paris advocates changing careers in midlife. He relates his story: “I’d spent 25 years in industry in a series of increasingly senior HR roles with high profile companies and I had no real reason to abandon a career that was developing very well. No real reason, that is, except one, crucial one. I wanted something different.” He decided to become a teacher.
The choice to change careers put him in control: “[I]t’s critical that no-one [sic] else is allowed to make that decision for you.” He states that the confidence you acquire when taking control of your future reassures and impresses potential employers.
Gaud also recommends that the person contemplating a midlife career change evaluate whether the rewards and benefits of his or her current career match what he or she wants. Career slowdowns and dead-ends also signal a not-so-subtle corporate shove to the sidelines. In that case, he suggests getting out while the getting is good: don’t wait until you’re fired or laid off.
Give thought as to what assets you bring to a new career. Gaud also reminds those debating on whether to switch careers that they have value. The skills and experience they bring have value that their current employers may have forgotten or may dismiss because such employees have become institutionalized and taken for granted. Leaving such a stifling environment opens an opportunity for someone with “fire in the belly” for the job you once dreaded and forces you to face something new and exciting and challenging to reignite the fire in your belly.
What’s holding you back?
Changing careers at 40 or later doesn’t come without trepidation or outright terror. Giving up the familiar—even if it’s something you dislike—for the unknown inspires primitive reactions to hide in safety. Respect the caution of your lizard brain: it’s only trying to prevent your demise. Use that caution to proceed with care and map your route toward a new career. Indecision will not help you. You must know your destination. Take into consideration the sage advice from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
In addition to indecision and fear, financial insecurity and a lack of qualifications comprise the four most common reasons for failing to take action toward career fulfillment. The issue of qualifications can be solved through continuing education, either through formal classes or apprenticeships. The issue of financial insecurity demands courage and a commitment to building up a savings account before making the switch, especially if the job hop likely won’t pay a salary as high as what you’ve been earning.
Although you may think that a career change at 40 years old is too old, consider that you’ve probably been working since your early twenties. At 40, you can expect work to another 20 or 25 years; therefore, you’re through less than half of your working life. To bolster the idea that a midlife career change won’t necessarily wreck your financial and professional ambitions, “A 2015 research study found that a large majority of workers who went ahead with changing careers at 45 or older reported happiness and success in doing so. In fact, 90 percent of them said that their career transitions were successful, especially when they were able to transfer knowledge and skills from their previous careers.”
Recover that enthusiasm and positivity of your younger years when the world was your oyster and the possibilities endless. Applying the wisdom of maturity and experience, a career change at 40 could be one of the best things to ever happen to you.