There was a time when a person could reasonably expect to get a good job right out of high school or college, work their way up within that organization and stay put until retirement. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. According to LinkedIn, the average person may now hold up to 15 jobs over the span of their working years, and that number seems to be climbing all the time.
Whether fleeing an unstable or upended industry, trying to find stability in a precarious gig economy, or simply chasing a dream, many people find themselves ready to take a shot at a new job or a whole new career in their 40s, 50s or even later. What does it take to start over midlife? According to the experts, it’s all about self-exploration, planning and some practical considerations.
Why Make a Change?
Some people change careers because they’ve identified a field, role or purpose that appeals to them. Others only know that a change is needed, but don’t necessarily know what that change should be. How do you make a change without knowing what you want that change to look like? According to Alan Kearns, career coach and founder of CareerJoy, you can’t effectively explore your possibilities without first looking at your motivation.
“It’s not the what or how or the when or the where. It’s actually the why that you really need to be clear about,” he says. “It’s like dealing with a relationship change or health changes. We all know we should eat less and work out more, but it’s the why that motivates you, and your why and my why might be different. So why do I want to change careers and what’s my driver for doing that? It’s a really important question to understand.”
Though the answer to the “why” question will vary from one individual to the next, Kearns says most of those answers will land in one of three categories: passion, practicality or purpose.
“Maybe you’ve been at a job for 15, 20 years and you realize, ‘I’m not that passionate about what I do anymore, and I want to go find something that I’m really engaged by,’” he says.
“Another reason is that it’s practical. An industry shifts or your skill set shifts and you’re not getting promoted the way you might have been in the past. You’ve plateaued and you might think you’ve stalled or you’re not where you want to be.”
“Then the other thing is purpose,” he continues. “People will find themselves being drawn to this subject or drawn to this cause, so they want to direct their career toward a different area.”
What’s Your Dream?
Of course, solving the why is only the beginning. Once your motivations are clearly identified, you still have to identify a career that will meet your needs and goals. Career strategist Kathleen Johnston (of kathleenjohnston.com) lays out three specific questions to help you come to the right answer.
“The first is ‘who am I?’” she says. “This involves exploration of personality traits, natural talents, motivators, life vision/purpose, interests, values, priorities, competencies, knowledge, training and experience.”
Next, she suggests asking yourself what work you want to do. “Explore occupational fit for the highest possible level of satisfaction and success, and determine personal success metrics.”
The final question addresses how you will get to where you want to be. “‘What strategies do I implement to reach my desired career goals?’” she suggests you ask yourself.
Once your soul-searching and exploration yields an “a-ha!” moment, don’t go applying for that new dream job just yet. A job that sounds like a good fit on paper might not be the best for you, and there is only one way to know that.
“Do your research,” says Laura White, student navigator at NorQuest College. “If you have a field that you’re thinking of going into but you’re not sure, talk to people in that field. We also recommend volunteering in the field if you’re not too familiar with the industry.”
How to Make it Happen
As tempting as it is to get caught up in the rush of starting a brand new career, you have to examine the transition from a practical perspective as well. Changing careers can be a lengthy process depending on what route you take, so it’s important to have a long-term plan in place to make sure it goes smoothly and other parts of your life don’t suffer along the way.
It’s not just the new career itself that can upset the rhythm of your life. The education required to make that transition can be a big adjustment. Whereas an 18-year-old first-time postsecondary student can throw themselves entirely into their education, mature students typically have other things competing for their attention.
“I find that students who are making a career change later in life tend to have more outside obligations and family obligations.” says White.
Kearns agrees. “What is your family situation? What’s your situation economically? You have to look at the big picture and look at what support mechanisms you have around you,” he says. “Practically, economically, family life, if you try to do this and you don’t have the support of your partner, it’s unlikely you’re going to do this well, if at all.”
Some of the impact can be minimized by making a lesser transition. For example, rather than starting over in a brand new field, you might consider taking on a new role in your current field. “We call that revolutionary versus evolutionary,” says Kearns. “The revolutionary option is ‘I’m going to go to something completely different. I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to get a masters, I’m going to move myself to this entirely new location.’ But for others it’s ‘I’m in information technology and I don’t want to program anymore, but I can move into marketing or something related, but not the same role.’ That’s what we call evolutionary.”
According to White, preparation for an evolutionary change can often be handled with more flexible, less intensive continuing education courses rather than formal academic credentials. “Continuing education is great if you’re looking to stay in the same field but want to just complement or increase your knowledge in that area, whereas someone who’s looking for a complete change, they would look at getting into a new credential,” she explains. “Continuing education programs typically take less than a year. Some continuing education courses we offer here at NorQuest are only one or two days. If you’re looking to do a completely new credential program, that could take anywhere from four months to two years here.”
Jumping into a midlife career change can be scary, but it’s a challenge worth facing, or at the very least worth considering. After all, after years or even decades in the workforce, you know yourself much better than you did when you first began your career, so it’s worth trusting your instincts if you feel there might be something better out there for you.
“My advice to anyone facing this decision is to be true to yourself,” says Johnston. “Trust your ability to do the right thing after you’ve thoroughly explored and investigated all the questions you have regarding your needs, wants and priorities.”
White frames it in an undeniably practical way. “A lot of students that I speak to say, ‘Oh I’m going to be too old by the time I’m done training for a new career in five years, so I don’t want to start over,’” she says. “And I say, you’re going to be that age in five years anyway, so you might as well be starting over in a career that you love.”