Changing careers at 30, 40, or 50 can feel like a big deal because change at any age affects more than your work life. At any age, you want to consider these things:

 

  • Am I making a change reactively? Or has this been a long time coming?
  • Do I need to make a big or little change?
  • What skills and connections do I have to help make this transition successful? And how does that affect my timeline?
A career change affects more than how you spend your day. It affects your energy level, the time you have for family and hobbies, and how much money you earn.
 
Before you read further, it’s important to know the kind of person who is writing this advice.
  • The thing I aspire to do the most is spending as much time as I can helping people, writing, and going for walks.
  • I like living without debts and not worrying about money.

For some, this view may be too simple and lack ambition. For others, it feels too grand. If you define success by owning a lot, having fancy titles, and retiring early, this might not be the article for you. But, if you’re trying to build ease and joy into your career and wondering what to consider, read on my friend.

 Everyone changing careers in their 30s, 40s, or 50s should look at their finances

At any age, it’s a good idea to look at your finances and what you need in a job. And also be realistic about what you need in life. If your dream is a huge house, cabin, and fancy cars, then be honest and true to that when looking for new work. But, if you’ve been living beyond your means and value leisure time and less stress, what can you change to allow you a job that pays less?

You might find it surprising, but a lot of people come to me looking for how to take a step back in their career. Rather than make more money. I find the older people get, the less they care about salary if they’ve always had a decent salary. Know what is prompting your career move.
And, you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a career change. I wasn’t making much money when I started my career change in my 30s, which made it easier. I stood to win more by changing things than I did by staying put.

Changing your career in your 30s

We’re all different, so your 30s will look different than my 30s and my neighbor’s 30s. So, I’ll speak in generalities here about where many people are in their 30s and it’s perfect if this not you too.

Often before you change career in your 30s, you’ve hopped around in a sector a bunch, or you’ve moved around in many sectors, or you’ve stayed put in one sector or company. By this point, you’ve studied something and are starting to realize you love it or you made a mistake. (I thought I had made a mistake). 

One client, Smithers, felt he had made a mistake. He had worked in one sector, non-profit program management, but it wasn’t his thing. 

“I moved up and people know me, but I get stressed out thinking about work,” he said. “I can’t see myself being here longer than a year, but I don’t know where to go.”

That’s the most common action I see, people thinking about the sector more than the skills. The trick is the opposite. In your 30s, pay less attention to the sector and more attention to your skills. What is the thing you enjoy doing? 

If Smithers lands a similar job in a new sector, he’ll be content at work at first and then that will waver. And that can make you feel even more lost. (If you want to assess what hidden career patterns hold you back, make a career map). I advised him to identify his career skills and start there. This may feel like a time you should have everything figured out. There won’t be an easier time to make a transition. 

If you’re thinking about making a move, it’s a good idea to pinpoint what is making you unhappy in your current job. 

If you’ve only held junior roles, that can make a career change easier. You’re likely to land a junior role in a new sector without losing status or income. Many people worry that if they held a leadership role in one sector, they have to start from scratch in a new sector. You often don’t. Highlight your leadership wins rather than your specialty in the sector.

Try this career stories exercise #41 (access the complete Career Stories Exercises as part of the Career Stories Membership)

 

Career Stories Exercise #41: Track the bad

While it’s important to know what work makes you happy, it’s even more important in your 30s to know what type of work doesn’t feel good to do. For the next 7-10 works days keep track of things at work that you don’t enjoy.

  • What work do you put off?
  • What kinds of meetings drain you?
  • What does your manager do that frustrates you?

Track all of the instances that have you thinking about making a career change. Is it the job or is it the company? If it’s the job, make sure any new position you’re thinking about going for doesn’t include too much of this type of work.

Changing your career in your 40s

In your 40s, you’ve likely acquired 20 years of work experience. And, are planning what the next 20 will look like. Often people in their 40s think of career moves as choosing what they’ll do for the rest of their lives. Nah. Instead, think about what you love doing, especially if you’ve not acted on creative desires. I’m not saying to quit your banking role to paint all day. But if a passion like that has not lessened with time, it’s worth exploring. 

I had a client who was making a career change in her 40s, who was an engineer but also created CNC cutting machine videos as part of her job. She experienced job loss because of COVID-19 and was thinking about a change. 

In every story she shared about her job, she mentioned making videos and training. She loved the video technology and editing. She started highlighting this in her resume and landed another technology training role. She has a long term goal of working as a video or film editor but will learn it through intensive classes on the weekends and online tutorials. 

A career change doesn’t always mean dropping everything right away. It often looks like intentional steps that bring you closer.

If you’ve worked for most of your life, you’ve likely moved past into middle or senior roles. It’s important to consider what your level is comparable to in the new sector. I worked with a client, Jo, who had a director-level role with a non-profit organization. When they tried to land director-level roles in a graphic design firm, they were underqualified. This confused Jo, “I’ve been a director for five years, but they’re not accepting it.” Look at the position you’re thinking about moving into. A director’s responsibility (and salary) differ from one sector to another. Before leaping, consider what experience you might be lacking. look for ways to build those skills before you jump.

The hardest part about transitioning at 40 if you’ve specialized in one area is helping people to see you in a new way. That means highlighting transferable skills more often. The other difficulty is that if you’re downgrading your job because of disinterest or burn-out, but you built an expensive life. I see many people striving for six-figure jobs when everything they want is achievable for less. This is about your life’s work, not who has the biggest house. What if simplifying your lifestyle allowing you to take a job you’d love and thrive in? I wrote about how I budget for much less than I make in this post. You can get great resources from Sarah too. 

 

Changing your career in your 50s

The beautiful thing about making a career change in your 50s is how inspiring you are to other people. It’s common in your 50s to start to think about the next 15 years of work and decide to make a change. Like making a change in your 30s and 40s, you want to consider how big of a career change you want to make. I’ve seen inspiring career moves made by people in their 50s. Do you want to leave your sector or look for a different specialty in a sector you already know?
 
If you want to work for another 10-15 years, it could be your best working years. 
 
I get a lot of calls from burnt-out 50-year-olds. They say things like, “I want a job where I don’t feel like this, and I don’t have to take anything home with me at the end of the day.” In most cases, they need a break, not a career change. But for the ones, who want a career change, I tell that you take time to reflect on what status you want in your next job. I had a client who said she wanted a low-status role and took a sabbatical from her job. During the sabbatical, she found a volunteer role with a local organization and within weeks she was running a project there.
 
I laughed and said, “you can’t handle a low-status role, you like making things happen and telling people what to do too much.” Be honest about what you need and how you thrive.
 
One surprising consideration when making a career change in your 50s is facing ageism. This isn’t a reason not to, but it’s best if you’re aware of it from the beginning rather than let it surprise you. It’s extra important to know your skills and what you offer. The resume and networking style you used at 32 could use a refresh. Having a social media presence if you’re moving into a sector that also hires 20-year-olds, can go a long way. 
 
Also, at the executive level, expect the conversation to take a long time. Often they’ll talk about the opportunity months or years before it is available. Plan for that.  
 
And, if you’re thinking of dropping it all to become an artist, the best gift you can give yourself is some sort of steady side job — maybe consulting for a firm you like or teaching. A job that takes the stress off of needing to make money off your art right away. 

Start with your reflection and stories

Regardless of if you’re changing careers in your 30s, 40s, or 50, taking time to think about what you’re trying to achieve and what work makes you happiest, is a great place to start.

And also you’re brave. Millions of people are happy to just slog along for the pension. You wanting more than that is exceptional. You can make it happen, and if you’d like help making it happen, I’d love to help.