Am I Too Old to Switch Careers?

by Cohen, Betty Tuesday, October 16, 2007
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As an experienced career-counseling practitioner, a question I am asked most often is: “I am over 40 years old; is it too late for me to make a career change?”

The short, off-the-cuff answer is, “Of course not.” But, given the chance to respond in a more thorough fashion, I prefer to add a few comments. Basically, the answer to that question depends on two significant factors: (1) how realistic and serious your career preferences are, and (2) to what degree you’re willing to make the necessary accommodations or sacrifices to achieve your new career goal.

Starting with factor number one — assessing how realistic your career preferences actually are — you have to first ask yourself: Are you really in touch with your current job-related interests, values, skills, and needs, so that you have a fairly good idea what kind of career may be a good match for you? If your answer isn’t a fairly resounding yes, then you really need to engage in some self-assessment work until you’ve clarified exactly what your feelings and desires truly are. For anyone unfamiliar with this process, know that it frequently consists of responding to a number of questionnaires or card sorts, which will help you zero in on the answers you need.

On the other hand, if you’ve clearly identified and considered those preferences and needs, then your next step is to consider how doable your new career would be at this particular time in your life. For example, perhaps you’ve discovered that two of your newly developed interests are to be a personal trainer and a bio-medical researcher. To determine the realistic likelihood of satisfying these goals, I’d suggest that you first research each new career option as much as possible. Two good ways to do this are to read appropriate sources for information about the occupation, and to communicate with individuals currently working in the field. Determine exactly what’s involved in practicing a new career — geographical locations and common workplace settings, average compensation, necessary training and education, and so forth. Then, ask yourself the following: Based on my particular age, health, stamina, years I want to work, budgetary requirements, family considerations, and other important factors specific to my situation, how realistic is it that I can actually achieve this new career I’m considering? Your answers will help you clarify just how doable your new potential career goal is for you.

The second factor to consider — the extent to which you’re willing to make needed adjustments or sacrifices to achieve your new career goal — is equally important. After you have completed your research about a new career preference, you’ll be better equipped to identify any possible barriers that could stand in your way of reaching this new goal. Thus, your next step is to make a list of them. You can then tackle each item one by one and give serious thought as to how willing and able you are to make the accommodations necessary to complete your goal.

Let’s review what some factors are that you may be initially concerned about which may indeed be real career roadblocks for you. However, with proper analysis and consideration, you may find that they’re just temporary deterrents that might not actually prevent you from seeking your next career goal.

A few considerations along these lines:

  • If you need to acquire additional training or academic/vocational education for your new career, be aware that there’s a good chance you’ll have less time for leisure activities or friends and family members.

  • If the amount of time needed to train for that next career is quite significant, note that the time you have remaining to practice it in the workplace may not be as much as you’d ideally like.

  • If preparing for your new career requires you to assume the role of a student or apprentice, recognize that you may have to adapt to the realization that you’re considerably older than your average classmate and may have less in common with them. This age difference may also hold true among co-workers, if you are able to start right out working in that new career.

  • Since you are likely to be starting your new occupation at a lower level than your most recent one, it’s reasonable to assume that you may have less income to live on for a while. And a monetary change to this degree might involve a need to review your budget and possibly lead to revisions in spending and/or lifestyle.

  • Finally, keep in mind that you, as a new career-goer, may be regarded as a novice or beginner among well-seasoned and experienced employees. While that may or may not be difficult for you, it could represent a change in expertise and status, and thus require some adjustment and adaptation.
Ultimately, if I had to sum up this article in just one sentence, I’d say you can certainly make a career change when you’re past 40. You just need to know what you’re getting into; feel that you’re making a change for the right reasons; and be prepared for possible significant changes and adjustments.