How to Change Careers When You're Middle-aged

This guy's ready for a new career adventure. How about you?
This guy's ready for a new career adventure. How about you?

In an economy limping along with a high percent unemployment rate, it's not unusual for even the gainfully employed to test free agency and see what else might be available. In a 2009 survey, when global financial markets were still plummeting, more than 65 percent of workers said they were actively looking for new jobs.

It's one thing to change jobs, something most people will do more than 10 times between the ages of 18 and 42, but it's quite another to change careers [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. Making the leap from a field in which you've been trained and have experience to a wholly new one takes careful consideration, planning and the right expectations.

This is true of anyone interested in making a change, but what about professionals who have been in the workforce for 20 or 30-plus years? Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, make up 40 percent of the labor force, and shifting gears later in life to focus on new career objectives can be challenging, but also rewarding. Seasoned professionals often have a different perspective than their younger colleagues. Middle-aged workers usually place more value on nonmonetary benefits, such as less stress, flexible work schedules and personal fulfillment, so when they're able to change careers they can make the jump to areas that are more professionally fulfilling rather than having to worry about how much they earn [source: Hsu].

Changing careers later in life can happen for a number of reasons, whether a job is obsolesced by technology or you're simply interested in pursuing a field that holds more interest for you. But don't take this lightly; a little planning, foresight and self-awareness can go a long way to helping you land your dream job.

If you're thinking about making a change, keep reading for some practical steps to take along the way.

Plan Ahead for a Mid-Life Career Change

Sitting in your cubicle daydreaming about becoming the manager of the Boston Red Sox may seem like a good way to plan for your next career, but it's unlikely to get you anywhere. If you're seriously considering making the leap, it's going to take planning. And lots of it. As we mentioned earlier, the national unemployment rate in the United States is high; as of June 2011, it was hovering at more than 9 percent. That means the competition for existing jobs is fierce. For a little perspective, consider that for every job that opens, there are five people unemployed [source:Bureau of Labor Statistics]. That statistic has increased from 1.7 unemployed people for every opening during the three years before the 2008 economic collapse. Nothing in the world intimidating about that, is there?

The first thing most employees do when they consider making a professional change is evaluate their current situation. Is the work fulfilling? Does it make good use of their skills? Notice that these are job-specific questions. Being unhappy with your boss, salary or work environment are all potential reasons for a jobchange, but not necessarily a career overhaul. So be honest with yourself about the actual work you're doing and try to be as objective as possible. Bosses come and go, so if your job is fulfilling except for a few variables, work on changing those before looking to make the leap into a new career. For middle-aged workers, chances are good that you are the boss; therefore, you may have more control over your situation than more junior-level professionals.

The next step is to evaluate this potential career shift to see how it matches up with your needs. You're leaving a career in which you have a certain level of seniority and, presumably, earn more than someone just entering that field. Take a long, hard look at whether you want to put in the longer hours and shorter pay that sometimes come with being the new kid on the block. Neither of these factors should keep you from going for it, just plan on setting aside a financial cushion or altering your lifestyle if you know a career change will result in a pay decrease. Do this by getting militant about "needs" vs. "wants" and trimming the fat from your day-to-day budget. Consider these sacrifices an investment in the new career.

Once you've decided that you want to move forward with a change, the next step will be to make sure you're prepared to actually do the job.

Setting Yourself up For a Successful Mid-Life Career Change

No matter what your age, it's always good to be up on the latest trends and technologies.
No matter what your age, it's always good to be up on the latest trends and technologies.
George Doyle & Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

OK, so you've decided to take the plunge and make a career change. Not only that, but you also have a pretty good idea what you want to do and how making this transition is going to affect your lifestyle. Good work. Now it's time to make sure you're actually qualified to enter your chosen second career.

But first, make sure you can get in the door.

The so-called "gray ceiling" puts middle-aged workers at a disadvantage because younger professionals will work for less pay, are easier to manage and will cost the company less because they tend to have fewer medical issues. Education, particularly in today's automated, digital workplaces, can be a significant obstacle for older workers. Older workers are seen as being less tech-savvy, and in today's highly automated, ultradigital work environment, this is a big disadvantage. But Lauryn Franzoni, a director at ExecuNet, a firm that specializes in executive-level recruitment, says these stereotypes are a myth and that older workers are just as likely to be technically proficient as their younger counterparts.

So the trick is to demonstrate that your skills have kept pace with changes. Even if the work you're interested in doing doesn't change over time, you still want to show that you're up on the latest trends. This can easily be reflected in an updated resume that demonstrates proficiency in emerging technology and business trends, including social networking and personal computing, in addition to job-specific skills.

To further bolster the potential for middle-aged workers, many colleges and universities offer degree programs designed specifically for this group. Entry into these programs is usually depends on experience and acumen rather than academic or test performance. Once a perspective boss knows you can handle the job, the scales tip considerably in favor of people with years of experience. Mature workers are viewed as loyal, honest and punctual, among a host of other attributes [source: Bastien].

Now that you've landed that dream gig (probably not managing the BoSox, but who cares?), it's time to make sure you hit the ground running.

Finding Success in Your Second Career

We discussed the differing perspectives of those brand-new to the workforce and those who've been around the block. Once the second career has been embarked upon, the older worker once again has the advantage.

In a 2009 AARP study, 91 percent of workers who were 51 or older when they changed jobs said they were happier as a result [source: Hsu]. Less stress and more flexibility were the reasons cited, which, you'll remember from the introduction, are both leading reasons for seeking a change in the first place.

And because mid-life workers are often more focused on personal fulfillment rather than climbing the corporate ladder, they can concentrate on the work instead of angling for the boss's favor. This translates into added value for the employer. According to a study released by Bank of America Corp., 94 percent of employers think it's important to retain older workers. To do this, companies are offering scheduling options, telecommuting policies and retirement planning, and the statistics are bearing out the value companies are placing on senior staff. In May 2011, the U.S. unemployment rate for workers 55 and over was 6.8 percent, several points lower than the national average [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

Finally, and this is the area that may be causing the most hand-wringing, be prepared to report to someone younger than you -- maybe a lot younger. Bridging this potential generational gap will be a big factor in how much fulfillment you get from your new role.

There are a few ways to do this. First, avoid making generalizations. Not everyone born after 1980 is a slacker, honest. Plus, if you can demonstrate early a few key competencies (particularly in the areas of technology or new media), you can help obliterate any prejudices they may have toward the older crowd. Another way to make this relationship work is by encouraging feedback. One of the stereotypes that dogs older workers is that they're set in their ways [source: Hering]. Crush this right off the bat by actively soliciting input from younger team members. Finally, don't be afraid to wield your experience. If you have something to offer, don't keep it to yourself!

Making a career change is never easy, and doing so later in life carries its own set of challenges. But as you can see, with a little preparation, it's much more manageable than you might think.

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  • Bastien, Stephen. "12 Benefits of Hiring Older Workers." Entrepreneur. September 2006. (July 22, 2011)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The Employment Situation – June 2011." (July 22, 2011)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "National Longitudinal Surveys." July 2011. (July 22, 2011)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." July 2011. (July 22, 2011)
  • Hering, Beth Braccio. "The elephant in the interview room: Are you being passed over because of age?" July 2011. (July 22, 2011)
  • Hsu, Tiffany. "Job downgrade = more job satisfaction for older workers, says AARP study." LA Times. May 2009. (July 22, 2011)