Midlife Career Crisis

It's never too late to change careers and here's how to go about doing it

Photograph by Getty Images/Ikon Images

I have seen successful career change from three different angles: as a coach, I’ve worked with career changers; as a recruiter, I’ve interviewed and hired career changers; as a career changer myself, I have navigated career change firsthand (from classical pianist to banker/consultant to executive recruiter to actor to HR manager to entrepreneur).

I’ve seen successful career change at all ages, but when a reader recently asked me about midlife career change (specifically if it was too late for her), I realized that just saying "it can happen at any age" is incomplete.

Change in the later stages of your career and life is more difficult, so your strategy, tactics and mindset need to account for this. Here are three reasons midlife career change is harder and how to do it anyway:

You’re pigeon-holed

When you’re post-40, you have 20+ years doing whatever it was you want to change from. That’s a lot more time to get pigeonholed in your past expertise. Prospective employers may think you’re too old to change. Younger career changers won’t encounter as much skepticism and even if they do, they have fewer years of specialization to overcome.

So the bar is set higher for you, and the solution is to show you’ve already changed — that you already know the new industry or role you want. Be prepared to do exhaustive research into your new field and to get relevant projects, even pro bono, under your belt.

On the plus side, you have 20+ years of networking contacts. This should serve you well when you need to land those key informational interviews to get the best research insights. Your established relationships will also help you land those key projects — your connections can take a chance on you because you have a track record elsewhere.

You’ll need to inventory your contacts, reconnect with people, follow up, bounce back from rejection when old contacts don’t get back to you, and learn what and how to ask in terms of information and leads. If you need help navigating your network, this is an area where I would definitely invest the time to find a mentor, coach or resources to help you.

You’re weighed down by others

It’s more expensive to change careers for older professionals. You more likely have dependents relying on your income (children or parents or both). If you need to set aside savings to cover living expenses as you make your career change, you need that much more money before you can take a leap. Even if you try to change careers while holding down your current job, you have less flexibility in your off-hours, due to more constituents vying for your time. If your career change means a lifestyle shift downward, you have to factor the effects of these changes on everyone else.

The extra burden isn’t insurmountable, but you have to do the math and the trade-offs. You have to trim your budget somewhere to funnel money into conferences, professional associations, classes and other investments toward your career change. You have to say no to family activities so you can funnel time for the research, networking and projects in your new field. Success for the older career changer requires that you convince your dependents to make this change with you.

Also keep in mind that the financial stakes are higher: If you go back to school to launch your career change, you have fewer years to earn back the tuition. If you invest in a business and it doesn’t take off, you have fewer years to earn back your investment. To compensate for the higher risk, you might want to build even more of a cushion — e.g., more savings to pay for school outright, more operating cash to give your business a longer runway to take off. So, in addition to saving more for a larger household, you may have to save more to mitigate the higher risk.

You’ve forgotten how to play

You may be pigeonholed by others, but you also may pigeonhole yourself because of limiting beliefs and hardened routines. I meet many would-be career changers who have been so stuck in a job they can’t stand that they have no idea even what they enjoy. Have you forgotten how to play and explore? Younger career changers who pursue eclectic interests are given patience as they find themselves; older career changers might be branded as having a midlife crisis.

Still, you’ll need to embrace play as you experiment with different career options. You’ll be trying new skills, meeting new people, taking on stretch projects. One first baby step could be to just practice playing, without worrying about how it translates to career. Take one evening a week or one hour a week, and do something just for the enjoyment of it. I call this "flexing your passion muscle." It reminds you what it feels like to enjoy something, so that when you find something that might be an enjoyable career option, you’ll recognize it.

If you can get comfortable with play, secure with the financial risk and determined to overcome what your past dictates, then you can change careers at any age. Being older just makes these prerequisites harder, not impossible. Given that age increases the difficulty of career change, hopefully that gives you the urgency to start today. As the Chinese proverb rightly says, the best time to plant a tree … was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology and pharma/biotech.