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Changing Careers at 40: Should You Make a Midlife Career Change?

Last Updated July 2, 2020

Changing careers at 40 is kind of a big deal. After all, you likely have large responsibilities like a mortgage, vehicle payment, or children. You may have even recently paid off your student loan debt from when you went to college in your 20s. But should all of that stop you from making a midlife career change?

Well, think about it for a moment. Most people start working at 18 and retire at 65. If you are making a career change at 40, then you actually still have a little over half of your working life ahead of you. So, when you put it into perspective, it doesn't sound so crazy, does it? And just consider some of the reasons why people think about switching careers. They often want a change because they are working in jobs where they are:

  • Bored
  • No longer engaged
  • Exposed to some sort of hazards or required to carry out work that is too physically demanding
  • Feeling like there is no way that they could spend another 25 years doing the same thing

If you can relate to those points, then don't you owe it to yourself to make a change? Is keeping the status quo really worth 25 more years of unhappiness? Probably not. And you are not alone. You are not the only person thinking, "I need a new career." In fact, according to a Gallup report, almost 70 percent of working Americans feel unhappy, uninspired, or disengaged with their current jobs. So it's no wonder that, in October 2018, the number of Americans who quit their jobs voluntarily reached a 17-year high.

Although you likely know that starting a second career is what you want to do, people like you often worry that they are too old to do so. The reality is that most hiring managers are more concerned with your skills and abilities. They want to know that you are a good fit for the job and organization. Choosing whether to hire you often has little to do with your age. So if you are really serious about taking the leap and changing careers, then you may want to explore the answers to questions like:

Before you move forward, there is one important thing for you to consider. If you have recently experienced a traumatic event—such as the death of a close family member, a divorce, or a devastating job loss—then you may want to hold off on changing careers right at this moment. 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 when people experience trauma, the feelings that they have—no matter how strong—are often much different once they have had time to work through their situations. So you just want to be sure that you are seeking career change advice for the right reasons.

If you are ready to cast doubts, fears, and worries aside and determine how to change careers at 40 or at any other point in midlife, then keep reading!

How Old Is Too Old to Change Careers?

"Am I too old for a career change?" That is one of the first questions that people ask when they are contemplating a midlife career change. And if you are considering a career change at 50 or 60, that question is probably even more prominent. The reality is that there is no definitive answer to that question.

Some people are forced to make career changes later in life due to changes with their jobs, companies, or industries. Things like layoffs, cutbacks, and recessions can all be reasons that people have to pursue new careers. And you know what? Many of them do it successfully. So if you are motivated, persistent, and willing to get a little creative or inventive, then it is likely that you can make a successful career change regardless of your age.

What Does the Research Say About Starting a New Career at 40?

Three women of different ages smiling at the camera while sitting at a table with a laptop and books in front of bookshelves.Although there are no official studies on the subject, many career experts say that most people make an average of four to seven career changes throughout their working lives. Those career changes consist of a substantial change in job duties and responsibilities. So, as already mentioned, you are not the first person who has wanted to start a new career during midlife.

An American Staffing Association survey conducted in 2019 found that around one-third of adults aged 39 to 54 were likely to switch careers within the next year. So a lot of people think about changing careers. But what happens to the people who actually do?

According to a study by the American Institute for Economic Research, 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. Additionally, over half of those people changed careers for non-market reasons (i.e., they chose to rather than were forced to due to things like layoffs). Here are some points that the study uncovered. Of the people who successfully changed careers:

  • 87 percent reported being either happy or very happy with their career changes.
  • 72 percent said that they felt like new people afterward.
  • 65 percent reported that their stress levels are lower.
  • 59 percent stated that they feel like they are now following their passion.
  • 50 percent saw an increase in their income, and 18 percent said that their income stayed the same.
  • Many reported that having transferable skills was one of the most important elements for success, along with having a clear plan and direction.

An article on the American Psychological Association website notes that researchers have found that midlife career changes were mostly beneficial. Career changers reported having a greater sense of productivity and felt that their work was leaving behind something positive for future generations. Those feelings were a lot stronger among the people who made career changes compared to the people who stayed with the same occupation for 20 years or more. A separate study quoted in the same article found that most people's cognitive functioning is much higher in midlife than at age 25. That includes numerical ability, verbal ability, verbal memory, and reasoning.

So, what it comes down to is that, if you are like a lot of Americans, then you could be at the top of your game right now. And that means you probably have what it takes to successfully make a careful, well-thought-out career change.

What Are the Most Common Barriers to Switching Careers at 40?

We know that the majority of people who make midlife career changes are successful in doing so. But that doesn't mean they didn't face any obstacles during their career transition. The reality is that a large number of people don't change careers due to the challenges they face.

Factors that often keep people from making a change include:

  • Worrying about finances
  • Fearing change
  • Not being sure about what field to switch to
  • Not having the necessary qualifications to switch careers

Although all of those reasons are certainly valid, they are challenges that you can overcome. You just need to identify the obstacles that you may face and develop a plan for how you will address them. Check out the tips for making a midlife career change below to start coming up with some ideas.

Should I Return to School?

Man with afro holding a laptop and coffee cup.As you saw above, a lot of people feel that they do not possess the necessary qualifications for starting a new career. That may be true for you, but it is likely that you have some skills and abilities that would be beneficial in your desired career field. And you can still acquire new skill sets. Vocational and trade schools offer great program options for adult learners.

One of the greatest benefits of vocational school programs is that they are career-focused and can often be completed much more quickly than traditional community college and four-year college programs. Many vocational schools also offer flexible training options. You may be able to set up a class schedule that includes online or evening and weekend classes so that you don't even need to quit your current job while you train for a new career.

A lot of vocational and trade schools also offer internships and other opportunities to obtain hands-on skills and real-world experience as a part of your training. So you can obtain actual experience related to your new occupational field before you are ready to start searching for jobs. If going back to school sounds like a good plan for you, then make sure that you contact the school's career counselors or student services staff. You may have prior education or experience that can be used toward college credits, which means that you might be able to complete your training more quickly.

To help you decide which training path would be best for you, learn more about the differences between trade schools and colleges.

What Are Some Tips for Making a Midlife Career Change?

While many people report that they have made successful career changes halfway through their working lives, not everyone has success stories. For some, changing careers did not produce the results that they had hoped for. A lot of research indicates that this situation is more likely to have been the case for people who did not have a clear plan and vision, were not well-prepared for the challenges that they would face, or weren't realistic about the changes that they were making. So it is really important to put a lot of careful consideration into your decision because, in doing so, you are more likely to produce a successful outcome. Check out some tips below that can help you achieve a new career.

1. Review your finances. This is possibly one of the most important steps to take when thinking about finding a new career. That is because you may need to take some time off from the workforce in order to go to school. Or you might experience a drop in pay when you begin your new career. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a good financial plan?
  • Are you comfortable with the amount of retirement and emergency savings that you currently have? And would you be comfortable with pausing your contributions to, or possibly using, those funds while you are transitioning between careers?
  • Do you own your home, and would you be willing to sell it and downsize if you needed to?
  • Can you afford a salary cut? Or could you go without a salary for a little while if you needed to return to school?
  • Would you be able to keep your current job or work part-time while going to school, if needed?
  • Do you have a partner who is willing and able to support you while you transition?

2. Think about the sacrifices that you may need to make. It is likely that, while you are in the midst of changing careers and getting started in a new field, you will need to make sacrifices. You will probably need to make budget cuts. You need to think about whether you and your partner are willing to give up winter vacations, reduce your cable options, stop dining out as much, trade in your vehicle for something more affordable, or even stop (or cut back) contributions to your child's college fund or your own savings and retirement funds. Those are all things that you may need to do in order to successfully start a new career.

3. Analyze your next career move thoroughly and carefully. Don't be too hasty with your decision. Start out by making sure that the problems you have are with your career right now and not just your current job and company. Complete a couple of career assessments that match your personality and skills with potential career fields. Make lists of the things that you love and the things that you hate. Write a description of what your ideal career looks like. When you come up with a potential career to switch to, make sure that you are really clear about it. Do a lot of research in order to fully understand the components of the job and the industry so that you are not surprised later on.

4. Determine whether you have transferable skills and abilities. You likely possess knowledge, skills, and traits that would be valued in your new career field. Many companies desire people who can communicate well, think ahead, make decisions, resolve conflicts, or collaborate and work on a team. Companies often want people who are friendly, motivated, trustworthy, loyal, or flexible. You probably have more transferable abilities than you realize. To help you determine all of your useful qualities, consider the following skill areas:

  • Basic: Do you have the ability to listen, follow instructions, communicate effectively, speak publicly, act professionally, or uphold organizational standards?
  • Administrative: Can you write reports, manage records, use common office software, enter data, or manage phone systems and email accounts?
  • Research, analytics, and planning: Are you able to think critically, solve problems, prioritize, set and achieve goals, meet deadlines, conduct research, or prepare reports?
  • People: Do you possess the ability to receive feedback, handle complaints, teach others, oversee people, develop positive relationships, or work on a team?
  • Technical: Are you able to use any job-related software or hardware, or can you troubleshoot and resolve technical problems?
  • Management and supervisory: Can you create and follow budgets, handle human resources responsibilities, supervise and direct workers, or oversee meetings?

Traffic sign with directional arrow and "YOUR NEW CAREER" text against cloudy sky background5. Volunteer or take on a part-time job within your desired industry. That will give you a chance to test the waters before you quit your current job. You can gain a real sense of whether the career field is going to meet your needs and is what you expected.

6. Consider self-employment. Before you take a big leap and break out into a new career, have you considered the option of self-employment? You may have many years of experience and expertise that could lead you to successfully start your own business rather than continuing to work for someone else.

7. Turn to your most trusted friends and advisors. Make a list of the people in your life who you trust the most and have them help you develop your plan. Those people can help you identify your strongest traits and skills while also helping you brainstorm ideas for careers that may suit you well. It could also be beneficial to seek advice from a career counselor and a financial planner.

8. Make the decision for yourself. Your spouse, mother, coworkers, and neighbors probably all have opinions about what you should do, but, ultimately, you need to make this decision for yourself. You can talk to a college recruiter, look at the lists of the hottest and most in-demand careers, and take it all into consideration, but don't let it dictate your decision. Happiness is most easily achieved when you listen to your own heart, head, and intuition.

9. Don't let fear and excuses hold you back. It is very common for people to avoid making changes because of fear. But not making a change that your heart desires because of fear of the unknown usually results in having regrets later in life. And the more that you procrastinate and make excuses, the more time you are wasting. Then, one day, you will wake up and realize that you are now contemplating a career change at 50. So don't be afraid to take a chance.

10. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities. A lack of confidence in your own abilities sits right up there with fear for reasons not to make a change. And it's not a very good reason. Check out these simple tips that can help you boost your confidence:

  • Shower and dress nicely every day.
  • Think, talk, and act positively. Push out negative thoughts and behaviors. Start out by making a list of all the positive things in your life so that you can refer to it when it feels like negativity is taking over.
  • Engage in positive self-talk many times a day. If you say it to yourself often enough, then you will start to believe it.
  • Treat everyone with kindness and respect, even if they are being rude to you.
  • Practice good posture and positive body language.
  • Exercise every day, even if it's just getting out for a 20-minute walk.
  • Try something new—no matter how small—that you have always wanted to do.
  • Surround yourself with positive people who support you.

11. Google yourself. This is a valuable tip for job candidates of all ages, but it may be something that is not on your radar if you haven't searched for a job in a while. It is standard practice for hiring managers to vet candidates through Google and social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn. Look at everything through the eyes of a potential employer and ask yourself whether your old blog or Facebook posts are going to put you in a positive light. And, if you have a LinkedIn account, make sure that it is current and accurate.

12. Get help with your resume. Your resume is what is going to create an employer's initial interest in you, so you want to make sure that it shines. If it's been a long time since you've applied for jobs or writing is not your strongest skill, then consider seeking out some help. Your community likely has a career resource center that has staff who can help you. There are also a lot of online resources available.

13. Use your contacts to your advantage. You have probably networked a lot during your working life. Now is the time to use that network to your benefit. Reach out to your network to see if there are people who can introduce you to professionals and invite you to events that are related to your new career field.

14. Transition in steps. Have you heard the expression "bridge the gap"? That's what you may want to do with your career transition. Think about whether you can change your job and industry one at a time rather than both at once. For example, if you are a project manager who works in the manufacturing sector but want to become a graphic designer in advertising, then maybe you could start by becoming a project manager who works in the advertising sector. Or maybe you could become a graphic designer who works in the manufacturing industry. By transitioning in steps, you can rely on your expertise in one area while starting out in the other. And that can make the whole process feel a lot smoother.

What Are Some Careers That I Can Consider?

Nurse with stethoscope in blue scrubs, standing in hospital corridor with colleagues in background.You may feel like you need some help developing your career ideas list. You know that you should try to pursue a job that you will really love. And it is helpful to identify jobs in which you can utilize some of your current skills and abilities. But what are some other things that you may want to consider?

When you are thinking about making a career change at 40 or older, you may also want to look at occupations that offer a good starting salary, a high number of projected job openings, and relatively low educational requirements. To help you start making a list of careers worth considering, here are some occupations that meet all three of those criteria:

Annual salary ranges are based on estimates from the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) program. Average annual job openings are for the decade between 2018 and 2028 and are based on employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Heavy equipment operator
    • Annual salary range: $32,300 to $85,640 or more
    • Annual job openings: 52,500
    • Typical entry-level education: Completion of an operator training program or a high school diploma with on-the-job training
  • Truck driver
    • Annual salary range: $29,130 to $66,840 or more
    • Annual job openings: 238,400
    • Typical entry-level education: Successful completion of a CDL training program
  • Commercial pilot
    • Annual salary range: $45,480 to $179,440 or more
    • Annual job openings: 4,600
    • Typical entry-level education: Completion of flight training, plus FAA licensing
  • Sound engineering technician
    • Annual salary range: $25,990 to $121,320 or more
    • Annual job openings: 1,700
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate
  • Audio and video equipment technician
    • Annual salary range: $26,690 to $83,170 or more
    • Annual job openings: 11,600
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate
  • Medical records technician
    • Annual salary range: $27,820 to $71,150 or more
    • Annual job openings: 16,800
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate
  • Machinist
    • Annual salary range: $27,940 to $66,610 or more
    • Annual job openings: 41,600
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate
  • Dental assistant
    • Annual salary range: $27,980 to $56,930 or more
    • Annual job openings: 44,800
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate and, depending on location, completion of a state exam
  • Massage therapist
    • Annual salary range: $21,810 to $80,630 or more
    • Annual job openings: 24,200
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate and, depending on location, state licensing or certification
  • Auto mechanic
    • Annual salary range: $24,400 to $68,880 or more
    • Annual job openings: 74,000
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate and, depending on employer, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification
  • Aircraft mechanic
    • Annual salary range: $37,890 to $101,070 or more
    • Annual job openings: 11,800
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate and successful completion of FAA exams
  • Solar energy technician
    • Annual salary range: $31,600 to $63,880 or more
    • Annual job openings: 2,200
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate or diploma
  • Computer user support specialist
    • Annual salary range: $32,330 to $88,470 or more
    • Annual job openings: 65,100
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate or diploma
  • Surgical technologist
    • Annual salary range: $33,420 to $71,400 or more
    • Annual job openings: 10,400
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate or diploma and, depending on employer, certification
  • Licensed practical nurse
    • Annual salary range: $34,560 to $63,360 or more
    • Annual job openings: 66,300
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate or diploma, plus state licensing
  • Wind turbine technician
    • Annual salary range: $39,820 to $80,150 or more
    • Annual job openings: 1,300
    • Typical entry-level education: Certificate, diploma, or associate degree
  • Web developer or designer
    • Annual salary range: $39,550 to $142,080 or more
    • Annual job openings: 15,100
    • Typical entry-level education: Diploma or associate degree
  • Medical lab technician
    • Annual salary range: $30,920 to $81,530 or more
    • Annual job openings: 25,500
    • Typical entry-level education: Associate degree and, depending on location, state licensing
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer
    • Annual salary range: $52,770 to $102,060 or more
    • Annual job openings: 5,800
    • Typical entry-level education: Associate degree and, depending on employer, state licensing
  • Physical therapist assistant
    • Annual salary range: $33,450 to $80,840 or more
    • Annual job openings: 16,500
    • Typical entry-level education: Associate degree, plus state licensing
  • Occupational therapy assistant
    • Annual salary range: $41,730 to $82,210 or more
    • Annual job openings: 7,000
    • Typical entry-level education: Associate degree, plus state licensing

Are There Any Additional Resources That Can Help Me With Finding a New Career?

When you are thinking about changing careers at 40 or older, it's a big decision. You need to take your time, do your research, and carefully develop a plan in order to set yourself up for the greatest likelihood of success. Of all the decisions that you need to make, choosing your next career field is one of the biggest and most important. So you may want to take a moment to check out these additional articles that can help you make your decision:

Are You Ready for the Happiness That You Deserve?

You are ready to make a midlife career change. You are still young and have roughly half of your working life ahead of you. So there is no time like today to start taking steps toward the future that you dream of. It is within your reach, and you can achieve it. One of your first steps may be exploring the training options that can help equip you with the new skills that you will need. Just enter your zip code into the school finder at the top of the page to discover all of the different possibilities in your area. Don't hold yourself back any longer!