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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Starting Over: How to Make a Midlife Career Change

Starting Over: How to Make a Midlife Career Change
Credit: Gary Paul Lewis/Shutterstock

Years ago, people graduated from school, got a job and worked at the same company until they retired. Today, it's unusual for a young worker to stay at the same job for more than a few years in the first decade of their career. It's also becoming more common for workers to make a midlife career change, and completely switch gears after spending half of their adult life in the same industry.

While the reasons for wanting to make a career change can vary, it's most often because a person has a strong desire to do something more fulfilling with their lives, said Dean Niewolny, CEO of the Halftime Institute, an adult educational program that recently partnered with Pepperdine University in Los Angeles for the school's Certificate in Second Half Significance program. Typically, these individuals have spent the first half of their careers accumulating the money necessary to provide for their families, and as their family starts to grow up and move on, they seek a different, more meaningful path of employment.

"People want to be significant and make a difference in this world," Niewolny told Business News Daily. "They want a job, but they really do care about leaving a legacy. Folks are looking at careers differently at midlife. They're saying, 'There has to be more to life than sitting in this office every day and hoping I get the next raise or promotion.'"

"A lot of people move toward more meaningful, purpose-driven careers," added Gary Mangiofico, associate dean of executive programs at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management and instructor for the Certificate in Second Half Significance program. "This phenomenon hits in the mid- to late-40s or early 50s, and [they want] to start giving back. It's a natural thing to want to do." [Changing Careers? 4 Ways to Make Your Resume Stand Out]

What's your motivation?

Before you begin the journey to a new career, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Mangiofico said that switching careers just because of a bad boss or workplace isn't the best strategy, and you'll face a lot more of a struggle than if you were switching to something you were truly passionate about.

"Make sure you're moving toward something rather than away from something," Mangiofico said.

Niewolny agreed, noting that it's important to really get to know yourself and what you want before diving headfirst into something new.

"It's not an overnight decision," Niewolny said. "In a lot of cases, people will get frustrated at work and get to a point where they say, 'I've had enough; I'm out of here,' without taking the time to assess what [they are] passionate about and good at. Take plenty of time to analyze yourself."

Starting over

As one might expect, making a career change in your 40s or 50s is far from easy. You spent the last several decades climbing the ladder in one industry, and now you're back to square one. Some skills are transferrable, but you may find that your much-younger peers are light-years ahead of you, especially when it comes to technology.

"An older worker restarting their career in a new field will face stereotypes regarding their lack of knowledge about technology," said Mark Newman, CEO of video recruiting platform HireVue. "If the career is heavily reliant on new technology, they might also require additional training, and have a steeper learning curve. Also, older workers will likely face subconscious bias when going through the traditional interview process."

Going back to school or enrolling in a certificate program can help you get ahead if you're trying to close your skill gap for a new career, but this can present its own set of challenges if you're trying to pursue an education on top of your current full-time job. In addition to finding the time and money to make the commitment to your program, you need to find one that fits your personal learning style and career needs.

"The amount and diversity of educational resources available online nowadays is staggering," said Octav Druta, co-founder of programming educational platform Talentbuddy. "The problem is that they're not combined into a learning experience targeted towards acquiring the minimum viable knowledge and skills required to kick-start a career in a new field. Ideally, [you should] not only learn new concepts but also create something that you can add to your portfolio in order to show it to potential employers."

Druta noted that working with a mentor in your new field can help you stay on track with your studies and connect you with the real-world skills you'll need to excel in that work environment.

Leveraging your past successes

While you'll almost certainly have some new skills to learn, your second career may actually allow you to use some of your existing resources in different, unexpected ways.

"You have all your previous experience to draw from, and will discover skills you thought would never prove useful," Newman said. "Also, you have a vast network of connections that younger generations have yet to develop, and can provide added value to your new position."

However, Mangiofico cautioned career changers not to rely too heavily on their past. "Your past success may open the doors to new opportunities, but it doesn't guarantee success in a new career because the dynamics and circumstances have changed," he said.

Preparing for the transition

Unlike when you were in your early 20s, you can't afford to accept any opportunity that comes along. If you're picking up your life and making this transition, you need to make sure it's the right fit, especially since you'll likely be starting at a lower salary.

"It's hard to sort through available job opportunities to identify the ones where you can make a contribution but also grow at the same time," Druta said. "Hunt for entry-level positions [where you can] build your way up with the help of your new team members."

Once you do find the right job in your new field, be humble and open enough to accept the experience of starting from the bottom.

"Be flexible in your way of thinking, and know the processes that might have worked at your last job might be completely different than what you are expected to do at your new company," Newman said. "If you keep an open mind and are willing to learn, you will hopefully succeed in your new career."

Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.