How To Change Careers After 40 Even If You Feel Imprisoned By Your Circumstances
When I was 48, I decided to change careers.
I’d spent my entire professional life working in public relations, in corporate and agency settings, as well as having my own consultancy.
I stopped working for a while when my children were young, then picked up my consultancy work when they were older, then cut back again to help my oldest daughter pursue her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Once she left home to pursue her career, I could have easily jumped back into my public relations consultancy and been assured of a steady income working in a profession where I was experienced and comfortable.
But something happens to us at mid-life.
You wake up one day and suddenly the status quo is no longer interesting or even acceptable.
You begin to question the life you’ve been living, the work you’ve devoted yourself to for so many years.
You start asking yourself existential questions like, “Why am I doing all of this? What is my purpose here? Is this really all there is?”
Sometimes this happens as the result of children leaving home. Sometimes you are shaken up by a life crisis like a divorce, job loss, or death.
Or it simply could be the dawning realization you’ve come to the halfway point in your life, and you’re watching time slip away faster and faster.
For me, it was a little bit of all of those things that contributed to my decision to step away from my PR career and go on a search for something different — something that felt more authentic, exciting, and purposeful.
Deciding to change careers at midlife was not the safest route. At least it didn’t seem so at the time. I’d been feeling rumblings of dissatisfaction and restlessness for years, but I kept pushing through, doing what I’d been doing because I didn’t know what else to do.
However, when I had the opportunity to crank up my PR consultancy again after my daughter left home, I simply couldn’t do it.
I hit an emotional brick wall.
Every time I tried to take on a new client, or create a campaign for an existing client, my inner resistance was overwhelming.
So I began a search for my life passion, a career that would excite me again and make me want to jump out of bed in the morning. The main problem was my lack of career experience in anything except public relations. Starting a new career meant starting over completely, and that felt scary and overwhelming.
In retrospect, I see that many of the skills I had as a PR professional have helped me tremendously in my online business.
I ultimately went to coaching school, started a coaching practice, and created an online business with absolutely no experience or knowledge in what I was doing.
At the time I began my business, I was financially stable enough to afford to go back to school and build a business from scratch. But I knew that financial safety net would last only so long. Even with some amount of financial security, I was taking a risk, and it was daunting.
Through my personal journey, I learned a lot about changing careers at midlife, and in my work as a life coach, I’ve helped many people successfully navigate this same process.
Here are some tips on how to make a career change at 40 or beyond:
Ask the all-important question.
If you’re unhappy in your career, then you’ve likely toyed with the idea of starting over. But maybe your fears of the unknown are holding you back. Maybe you feel your life circumstances keep you stuck.
That’s a perfectly natural and positive reaction. Anyone who jumps headfirst into a new career without a bit of fear isn’t being smart.
The way to push past this fear, in the beginning, is to ask this all-important question: “Will I regret not going for it?”
Will you look back on your life in five, ten, or twenty years and think, “If only I’d taken the initiative to start over when I was (fill in the age)”?
You have plenty of time to start over now and build a new career. Don’t live with regrets. You have to try in order to find out if you can succeed.
Midlife isn't old. It can be an amazing new beginning.
Determine your life priorities.
If your life was relegated to five main priorities, what would they be? For me, they are:
1. Good relationships with family and friends;
2. Meaningful work that pays a livable income;
3. A comfortable, safe place to live in an interesting community;
4. Time and enough money for fun, some travel, and relaxation;
5. Living authentically and without pretense or the need to please others.
I prioritize these five things over expensive material things like cars, furnishings, jewelry, etc.
I also prioritize them over trying to impress others, having a powerful prestigious job, or making a huge income at the expense of my inner peace or happiness.
That is where I am in life, but YOU must determine what is most important for you.
Starting over in the right career may involve some initial sacrifices, so you must decide what you can and can’t live with.
Have a sound financial plan.
Ask yourself someone important financial questions as you consider your next career decision.
- Do you have an emergency fund?
- Do you have a chunk of money put aside for retirement and savings?
- Do you have equity in your home?
- Could you afford to take a salary cut if necessary or take some time off to go back to school, build a business, or look for a new job?
- Would you be willing to downsize your home if necessary in order to have a new career?
- Do you still have college or other expenses for your kids?
- Is there a way for you to work part-time or take a side gig?
- Could your spouse go back to work?
All of these questions help you prepare for the financial realities of changing careers.
Once you are 40 or beyond, you’ve likely built a life that is financially and personally complicated.
It will cause short-term discomfort to arrange your life and finances to prepare for a career change if it means truly starting over like I did.
Even if you change careers to an industry where your skills and experience make the transition smooth and less risky, it’s always smart to be prepared financially and have a backup plan.
If you’ve prioritized meaningful, passionate work, and you don’t want to live with regret and “what ifs,” then the relatively short amount of time it takes to prepare your finances and save money will be well worth it in the long run.
It might take a few years to do this, but you’ll have a lifetime to enjoy a career you love.
Analyze your current career.
Spend some time thinking about the career you have now that you want to change.
Make a list of “things I hate about my career” and “things I love about my career.” The hate list will be longer, but there must be a few things you want to carry over to a new career.
Be crystal clear on what you want to take with you and what you want to leave behind. This is valuable information as you work toward a new career.
Also, be sure it’s the career itself that’s causing the dissatisfaction — not the work environment, the people you work with, your particular job within the career, or the particular organization.
Taking a career assessment will help you clarify this if you haven’t done so already.
Entrepreneur or employee?
If you’re going to make a change, this is a good time to decide whether you want to work for yourself or for an organization.
If you know you’re more comfortable in a secure and predictable environment, then working for an organization is likely the best choice for you.
If you long to make your own decisions, have flexibility, don’t mind taking personal responsibility for your success, and are willing to live with a certain amount of uncertainty, then you might love being an entrepreneur.
Many entrepreneurs have the added benefit of working from home. I run my entire business from the comfort of my home office and never have to fight traffic or report to a boss.
Being an entrepreneur and working from home does require self-discipline and hard work, and you must be proactive about making personal and professional connections, but for me the benefits far outweigh any challenges.
Seek out your passion.
Before you launch into a new career, be sure it’s something you’re going to love to do day in and day out.
You don’t want to switch careers only to be in the same dead-end kind of job you have now. Spend time learning about yourself, what skills you find deeply satisfying and fun, and what you’re naturally wired to enjoy.
Before you even think about the financial potential or what it might take to get a job in a particular field, find the thing you love.
The energy and enthusiasm of finding your passion will propel you to find a way to make it happen. Check out this Life Passion Test to help you begin the process.
Yes, it is intimidating to think about starting over with your career when you're over 40. You may believe you're too old, it's too late, you have too many obligations, or your circumstances make it too difficult.
Having been there myself, I invite you to challenge those limiting beliefs and put them to the test. Many people in their 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's and beyond reinvent themselves and change professions successfully and with tremendous satisfaction and relief.
Don't relegate the second half of life to the boring status quo, living in fear and eventual regret. Take a chance on yourself and follow your dream. You'll be surprised at what you can achieve.