Planning a Mid-Life Career Change

More than half of U.S. workers want to change careers, a number that will likely increase as time goes on. People are living longer, retiring later, and looking for a sense of purpose in their careers, leading them to pursue career changes later in life. The days of pension plans and employer loyalty are all but gone, and workers are thinking of their careers as an extension of their passions, not their employers’ needs. Men and women, especially, may seek a career change as they transition in and out of the workplace to care for children or aging parents.

Embarking on a brand-new career late in life can be more difficult than starting when you’re young. Sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and the logistical barriers—not to mention age discrimination—make it easy to stick with the status quo. But if you’re truly unhappy with your career, or if you’d like to pursue a passion you’ve been neglecting thus far, now is the time to get started. The average career change takes around 18 months, and every day you wait puts you that much further away from achieving the career satisfaction or financial freedom you are looking for.

Decide What You Want

By this point in your life, you probably know the value of making specific goals. The first step is to really think about what you want—ask yourself why you want to change careers, what you dislike about your current career and what you would like in a dream job. Make a list of your past job experience, skills, competencies, activities that bring you satisfaction, and your career values. This list will give you an idea of what you would be good at and what you might enjoy doing, which aren’t necessarily the same things.

Changing careers isn’t all about chasing your passions—a job is, before anything else, a way to pay the bills. Analyze the job market to see how difficult it would be to break into your chosen field and what the paycheck might be like—would you be able to meet your financial obligations with this field’s salary?

Finally, make sure you’re making a calculated decision. Don’t jump into a new career impulsively, because once the novelty of it wears off, you might end up as unhappy as you were before. Take the time to determine what you value in a career and make sure your chosen track meets these values.

Make a Plan

After you set goals, you need a plan to help you achieve them. Depending on the career you choose, you may need to complete additional schooling or training before you can apply. If your new field is vastly different from your current background, you’ll have to spend time networking to meet people who can help you get your foot in the door. Informational interviews can be a great asset to you at this stage, because you’ll not only learn about the job and industry, but you’ll also be more likely to get a job referral from someone you interview. Put the word out through friends and family or consult your alumni association to find people in your chosen field to network with.

You may find that your dream job requires experience that you don’t have. If there’s any way for you to gain this experience at your current position, ask your boss to expand your responsibilities. You might also consider freelancing or volunteering to get your name out there and to gain valuable experience for your resume.

Prepare Financially

Changing careers can affect your finances in unexpected ways. Many people pursue a new career to make more money, but some career changes will actually leave you with less money (in exchange for a more fulfilling job). Keep these financial changes in mind before leaping into a new career:

  • If you’ll be making less money at your new job, make sure your budget can handle the loss of income. It’s probably a good idea to pay down debts and build up your emergency fund before making the switch. Sit down with your budget and cash flow statements and make absolutely certain that you will be able to meet your financial obligations.
  • Will you be taking time off to complete schooling or training? An emergency fund is paramount if you know you’ll be out of work for a while. Even if your plan is to take only a few months off, you should also plan for the possibility of not being able to find a new job once your schooling is complete.
  • Before you register for schooling, decide how you’ll pay for it. Many employers will pay for their employees’ schooling, but their aid might be limited to certain fields of study. Research your options, including student loans and scholarships, and try to resist the urge to tap into your retirement account.
  • Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage before quitting your job. If you’re married, you may be eligible for coverage under your spouse’s employer. If not, see if you qualify for continuing coverage through your previous employer via COBRA.
  • When you leave your job, make sure you don’t leave your retirement savings behind. You have the option to cash it out, roll it over to your new employer’s plan or roll it over to an IRA. Cashing it out is probably not the best option for you, but leaving it behind is even worse.
  • If your employer offered a pension plan or 401(k) match, you may not have stayed with the company long enough to be vested in these benefits. Review your company’s vesting schedule and decide whether to stick around or cut your losses.

Changing your career at midlife can be a lot of work. If you take the time to determine what you want and make a plan to get there, the effort you put in will come back to you in career satisfaction.