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Making a Successful Midlife Career Change

by Jared Newnam
October 5, 2010

Changing careers can be a stressful experience for anyone, but for people age 40 and older it can be especially difficult. Fortunately, a successful career change can happen at any age.

Many midlifers are taking the plunge and pursuing careers they are passionate about. The first step is to evaluate current job satisfaction to determine if career change is the best choice. 

“Workers who are considering a career change must start by assessing their personal values,” says Dan Novak, an assistant professor of Leadership at South University Online. “Only after we clarify our values and establish our priorities can we determine if a career change is necessary or desirable.”

Novak says after determining their priorities, some people may realize their current job is actually a good fit for them even if they are not satisfied with their salary. He adds that sometimes employees are able to find a way to pursue their ideal career in their current organization.

“Alternatively, the value analysis will reveal that some workers need to change jobs, organizations, and careers,” Novak says. “As workers continue to work into their 60s, 70s and 80s, there is not an obvious cut-off at which we are stuck in a career. Forty-year-old workers can pursue education now that will benefit them for another 40 years.”

Head of the Class

Many people go back to school to develop additional skills for their careers.

As workers continue to work into their 60s, 70s and 80s, there is not an obvious cut off at which we are stuck in a career.

“A significant number of our graduate students are over 40 years of age,” Novak says. “Many of them have entered our programs to enhance or significantly change their careers. It is becoming more common to move into an entirely different career or calling.”

There are several reasons middle-aged workers choose to change careers.

“One reason is that now people are realizing more and more that in order to get promoted or receive an increase in pay, they must have a degree,” says Seth Saunders, campus president at South University — Virginia Beach. “Since this is a big decision, those who are not happy with their current employment situation will use this as an opportunity to change careers.”

Saunders says many are motivated to switch careers when they find opportunities that excite them.

“You often hear that a resume will open the door, but it is the interview that will get you the job. That is the same with a new career,” Saunders says. “If you find something you are truly passionate about, you will do what it takes to make good things happen.”

Saunders says common reasons middle-aged persons decide to change careers include an inability to advance in their current position, lack of challenges, no salary increases, and major life changes.

Career vs. Cash

Novak believes many middle-aged workers accepted jobs right out of college strictly for their financial benefits.

“Many of us who entered the workplace in our 20s did not ‘choose’ a calling or career,” Novak says. “We just needed a job and the resources that come with that. We took a job. Not a career.”

“Similarly, most of us had not specifically determined or prioritized our personal values,” Novak says. “Our values at the time revolved around cash, paying bills, cash, having a little fun, cash, starting a new family, cash, feeding babies. Identifying or fulfilling our life's calling was simply another name for being unemployed and living in a painted Volkswagen van.”

Rob Bennett, a personal finance journalist, agrees young people often take their first job for the paycheck, not because it’s a great fit for them.

“Even if you’re paid as well as your friends, if they’re in the right group of people, they’ll burst ahead and you won’t,” Bennett says. “The single most important thing is where your first job is and that’s mostly luck.”  

“When you are at a job you’re being paid in more than one way,” Bennett says. “You learn more on the job than you usually do in school. They pay you. You don’t have to pay for it. You fit yourself into your job.”

He also says young people don’t have the information to know where they want to be 20 years from now — and after 20 years, they’re locked in.

Many have started to look beyond the paycheck and are taking their personal values into consideration more than they once did. “Younger generations are asking questions about life's purpose and values,” Novak says. “They place a higher priority on people and relationships, over cash and company loyalties. To fulfill their purpose and to chase their prioritized values, they desire positions of influence, roles that provide value to people, organizations who care, and the margin to pursue their dreams.”

Midlife Movers

Career satisfaction comes to those who are passionate about their new profession. “If they are not willing to make that commitment, they are setting themselves for potential failure,” Saunders says. “Often times you can use what you have learned in your established career to help with your new venture. I have seen many friends who have done very well for themselves but then made a complete switch in careers, and they found success because they were committed.”

Novak advises prospective career changers to look at the big picture. “Taking an 80-year perspective on life, purpose, and work changes the risk equation,” Novak says. “Is a 40-year-old person taking a risk by choosing to leave a ‘job’ and ‘become’ a person who adds value in his or her chosen calling or career?”

He also says people who chose to stay in a career they’re unhappy with risk burnout, stress, dissatisfaction, anger, and a lifetime of wondering.

Having a financial plan can help ease the transition into a new career."People want to get rid of that unhappiness instantly,” Bennett says. “If you make a quick jump, without the financial cushion, you’ll fail.” 

It is also advised that midlife career changers make their transition gradually. “Take the energy to leave; don’t just hand in your resignation,” Bennett says. “You’re not as flexible, when you’re 40. Don’t make a rush move.”

by Jared Newnam
October 5, 2010
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