What to Know Before Making a Career Change at 40

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At age 40, you are almost two decades into your career. If you have continued to work in the same occupation in which you started, you have a great deal of experience by this point. You may have even made progress climbing up the ladder.

There's no telling how far you will go if you stay in the same career. Pity is, you don't particularly like what you're doing. Or maybe, you have realized you actually can't advance any further and, in spite of the fact that you do like your career, you don't want to get stuck in a dead end.

What can you do? You may be worried that it's too late to make a career change. Although it may sound trite, it's never too late. That doesn't mean your transition will be simple or that you can make it without a great deal of effort. Change is hard, even if you prepare well for it.

The truth is, though, that going to work every day to do something you don't enjoy, or that isn't gratifying, is far more difficult. Weighing some of the positives and negatives of making a career change at 40 can help you get started with your decision-making process.

What's Good
  • Increased confidence at this age can help you make a switch more easily

  • Even if you need to retrain for a new career, you still have 25 years to work in it before you reach retirement age

  • A good career change can positively affect your health and relationships

  • You can leverage your current experience into transferable skills

What's Difficult
  • Handling the change if you still have younger children at home

  • Continuing to make enough money to cover mortgage and higher annual expenses

  • May need to take time off from your current job to prepare for a new career

  • Conversely, may need to continue full-time work while preparing for a new career

What's Good About Making a Career Change?

Many people report an increase in confidence when they turn 40. Could there be a better time to make a career change than when you feel like you can take on whatever comes your way? 

If you are planning to retire, as many people do, at 65, you still have 25 years of work in your future. Even if it takes you a couple of years to prepare for a different occupation, you will have over two decades left to spend a satisfying career, if all goes as planned. And if due to financial needs, you have to work until you are over 65, you will be thankful to be doing something you enjoy.

A career change will affect your life, health, and relationships. Not only is being in the wrong career stressful, deciding whether to make the transition can be overwhelming. Once you figure out what you are going to do, it will probably come as a great relief.

What Makes It Difficult?

Forty-year-olds have many responsibilities that could make this transition more difficult than changing careers at 30 would have been. At age 40, you are more likely to have children for whom you are financially responsible. You may have purchased a house during the last few years and have a mortgage to pay. The National Association of Realtors reports that the median age of first-time homebuyers was 32 in 2016 ("First-time Buyers, Single Women Gain Traction in NAR's 2016 Buyer and Seller Survey." National Association of Realtors. 2016). 

Annual expenses are higher for 35 to 44-year-olds than they are for 25 to 34-year-olds. Approximately $7,900 goes toward food, $20,600 toward housing, and $3,200 toward healthcare ("3 Reasons You'll Spend More at 40 Than at 30." CNN Money, August 3, 2016).

Unlike a 30-year-old who may spend $6,200 on food, $17,900 on housing, and $2,200 on healthcare per year, a 40-year-old may have to dip into savings if he or she intends to take time off from work to prepare for a new career. Alternatively, one may have to continue to work in his or her current occupation while getting ready for a new one.

How to Make the Change

Try not to be discouraged by the difficulties involved in making a midlife career change. If you decide you want to make this transition, try to find a way to do it that fits with your current life situation. It may take a bit longer than it would have if you were ten years younger, but if you do it right, it will likely be worthwhile. Since this will be an effortful endeavor, it is ever so important to make sure you put a lot of thought into choosing a new career.

A self-assessment, your first step in the career planning process, will allow you to learn about your interests, personality type, aptitudes, and work-related values.

What you discover at age 40 may be quite different than what you would have unearthed had you done this assessment when you were younger. So, if you remember taking a "career test" when you were in high school or college, don't bother looking for your results. Do it again. When you have completed this step, you will end up with a list of suitable options.

Take time to explore the occupations on your list and even consider doing an adult internship.

Your self-assessment may indicate that a career is a good match for you based on your traits, but at age 40, you have other things to consider. For example, your financial responsibilities might not allow you to commit a lot of money to training and education. With a family to care for, spending a lot of time studying may not be something you can or want to do right now.

Speaking of preparation, while you still have approximately 25 years left of your career, you may not want to wait several years before you can begin working in your new occupation. If you want to transition into a new career fairly quickly, look for one that doesn't require a lot of additional preparation or education.

Leveraging Your Past Work

One of the best things about your accumulated years of work is that you have a lot of experience. You may be thinking, "What good will my experience do if I change to a new career?" Two words: transferable skills. These are talents and abilities you have acquired from doing one type of work that you can use in another. For some careers, you may even be able to substitute your transferable skills for formal training.

When deciding between a career that requires additional schooling and one for which you can use your transferable skills, you may decide to choose the latter. It will allow you to transition more quickly and with less effort, at an age when you may want to limit your expenditure of time, energy, or money. That's not to say you shouldn't choose an occupation for which you will need to prepare formally, but it's nice to have options.

Gather Job Information

In addition to getting the facts about educational requirements, also learn about job duties, the economic outlook for your chosen position, and median earnings. You can find a good amount of this and other related information on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) website.

Once you have gathered all your data, evaluate it to decide which occupations are most suitable. Compare job duties to decide which ones you like and which you don't. If there are any tasks you can't see yourself performing—remember you don't have to love every one of them, but you must be willing to do it—remove the occupation from your list.

Make sure the job's salary will cover your expenses, let you contribute to savings, and allow you to do things you enjoy, for example, travel. You must also consider the job outlook because if your ability to get a job will be limited, another occupation will be a better choice.