In 1965, psychoanalist and social scientist Dr. Elliott Jacques famously coined the term “mid-life crisis” to describe the identity conflict and loss of self-confidence that can come as we age. One of the classic stereotypes associated with this period of transition is a sudden career shift — and there is a degree of truth to that. According to an Indeed survey, the average age for people making a drastic career change is 39. The leading cause? Happiness.
While mid-life career shifts are common and should be accepted, the stigma associated with them should not. Our happiness at work can affect our overall health: work-associated stress has been identified as a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and back problems, according to the American Psychological Association. The true crisis here is one of potential stagnation and burnout.
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Previous generations were conditioned to aspire to one profession in their lifetime, but that kind of continuance isn’t for everyone. It’s also a tired, hundred-year-old fabricated ideology, notes best-selling author Bruce Feiler, whose new book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, debunks the idea of a linear career path. So if you’re considering a career change late in life, it’s OK, no matter how long it’s been since you entered the workforce.
Why you should consider a career shift later in life
There are a myriad of reasons someone would want to change careers despite having already established themselves in a field. A higher salary, room for growth, relocation, and familial responsibilities are just some common examples. Sometimes, however, it’s a matter of wanting to pursue other passions and find meaning in your day-to-day work.
We evolve as we age
Recent data aggregated by the online recruiting hub Zippia showed 65 percent of American workers were actively searching for new job opportunities as of February 2023. The majority of said applicants were, once again on average, 39 years old.
It’s unlikely that the profession you aspire toward in your early 20s will align with your wants and needs in your 30s, 40s and so on because when you start out in your carer at the beginning of adulthood, you’ve yet to discover who you are.
“Over time, our relationship to how we show up in the world takes on so many new shapes and forms — they shift, morph and evolve,” former actor-turned-wellness expert and creative business coach Emily Wagner tells Flow. You are not the same person at 35 as you were at 25, Wagner continues, and you won’t be the same person at 45 as you are at 35. We change, and, as a result, our ‘brand’ changes — as do our career needs.
Life circumstances change
Feiler attributes the cause of professional pivots to what he calls “workquakes.” Like an earthquake, the transitions expert defines workquakes as “jolting or disruptive changes” (i.e. having a child to provide for or developing a newfound passion to give back to the community in some way) that either force or inspire an individual to rethink or reimagine their job. According to Feiler, workquakes can occur as often as every two and a half years, and women tend to experience more workquakes than men.
To help you understand what’s causing a workquake at any given moment, Feiler says to consider the following statement: “I’m in a moment in my life when (blank).” Maybe you need to make a certain amount of money to pay off a debt or send your kids to college. Maybe you’ve taken on a caregiving role for an ailing parent who requires more of your attention. Maybe you want to pursue a position of service after so many years working a corporate job. Once you’re able to finish the sentence honestly, Feiler says, the next step is to give yourself permission to move forward.
Signs it’s time to make a career shift
If you’re contemplating a career shift, but hesitate to leap, this is the time to tap into your intuition or, as Wagner calls it, your “inner knowing.” Evaluate how you feel and what it is you want. Ask yourself, how does your work make you feel? Do you feel limited, disappointed, or disempowered? If you’re miserable to your core, Wagner says, that’s as clear a sign as any that it’s time to make a move.
Other signs it might be time to consider a career shift include quiet quitting and looking at your loved one’s circumstances with longing. “Drowning your unhappiness at work in behaviors that you’re not so proud of” is also a red flag, Feiler warns. But just because you check these boxes, doesn’t mean you should resign this minute, this week, or even this month. Rather, they indicate that it’s a time of reflection.
“The problem that we have in work is that we put the ‘how’ to find a job too quickly — post your resume, update your LinkedIn profile, call your contacts, etc.,” Feiler explains. “Before you do the ‘how,’ you’ve got to figure out who you want to be and what you want to be doing. What is the purpose you are trying to achieve?”
How to change career paths in mid-life successfully
Mind your money
Founder and CEO of The Reboot Group and Flow Advisory Council member Katie Fogarty says that anyone considering a career leap should do a thorough audit of their finances and set aside a cushion to help with the transition.
“You need to do your due diligence and understand what the economics are for your dream career switch,” she notes. For example, if you want to move from a corporate law firm to a non-profit organization, educate yourself on the difference in salaries to see if you can continue managing your current lifestyle.
Or, let’s say you want to move from corporate law to open a yoga studio. Fogarty stresses that you not only need to know what launching a business will cost upfront in terms of studio rental, but things like teacher salaries, business insurance, marketing, etc. should be taken into consideration. “You need to understand how long it will take to start to cover your costs and produce income.”
If the timing isn’t ideal for a drastic switch, there’s no reason why you can’t at least dabble in your dream in the meantime. Fogarty suggests considering options like “soft-launching” a new career “by freelancing or consulting in your new field while still working your day job if your company permits; taking a sabbatical or internship in your new field before pulling the plug on your old role; or consider ‘reinventing’ with your current organization by switching departments, or moving to work in a different city.”
Know and advertise your value
Fogarty strongly believes career switchers should nail what she’s coined the “professional story,” aka the value you bring to the table based on your professional experiences. “Don’t make people guess about your value or assume they will decipher it by reading through all your experience roles — you need to clearly define your value in short, crisp language,” Fogarty says. Her favorite resource to do so is LinkedIn because it’s an easy, fast, cheap, and effective way to reach a large audience.
“Take time to craft a LinkedIn About section that shares not just your past career, but one that makes the case that you offer value in your desired field. Be clear about your career switch. You can say, ‘After 15+ years of doing X I am now looking to bring [fill-in-the-blank skills] to do Y.’”
Don’t be afraid to be messy
If you’ve heard the rumor that comparison is the thief of joy, well, so is perfectionism — especially when you’re making a career shift.
“Perfectionism and feeling that you have to know everything can be something that holds you back,” says Wagner, stressing you don’t have to wait until everything is pitch perfect to begin. “Get your product out, get your website up. I call the first few months of doing anything new the fourth trimester. You’re nursing. You’re figuring out what the heck you’re doing. It’s okay — no one’s looking anyway.”
Accept that you won’t know everything about your new role, and that’s OK. “Do not feel that you cannot start until you are a scholar in your field or the field that you are going after,” stresses Wagner. “You are going to be learning all the time. You’re going to be back to ground zero every day. It’s going to feel annihilating to be back to knowing nothing, but I’m someone who believes in being a perpetual student. Let go of any shame around what it means to go back to square one.”
Ask for the support you need
Society rallies around college graduates entering the workforce, but the mid-30 and older community needs to feel just as supported as younger generations do when making the transition from one career to another. According to Feiler, the key to feeling supported is to ask to be supported, in the very specific way that you need to be.
“Reaching out to others can be very valuable, but the problem is some people like what I call comforters: ‘I love you, I believe in you.’ Some people like nudgers: ‘I love you, but why don’t you think about this, or do that?’ Other people like what I call slappers: ‘I love you, but get over yourself. Go do this.’ Everybody is different. So, be very clear about precisely what you would find most helpful. Don’t assume that they will know.”
During his research, Feilier tells Flow he would often ask people what was the best advice they received in their work transition and that three-quarters of respondents answered: trust yourself. “They didn’t need a kick in the pants or a slap in the face,” Feiler says. “They needed a pat on the back.”
So, give yourself a pat on the back. Listen to your intuition and trust that it will steer you in the right direction.
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