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Midlife Career Change: How to Make a Smooth Transition

Katharine Paljug
Katharine Paljug
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 12, 2022

Ordinary people and household names alike have made successful midlife career changes. Here's how you can do the same.

  • The first step in a successful career change is to abandon the notion that it’s impossible. Household names such as chef Julia Child, former President Ronald Reagan and fashion designer Vera Wang have all switched industries.
  • A successful transition begins with establishing a goal and a plan to learn the relevant skills to achieve that goal.
  • Networking within your desired field can help you find opportunities for a midlife career change. Once you enter the industry, you’ll need to learn how to work with younger employees.
  • This article is for midlife professionals considering a career change.

Believe it or not, changing careers is often more challenging in theory than in execution. After all, the average person holds 12 jobs over their lifetime – some of which are unrelated to their prior positions. As of 2021, roughly half of U.S. employees would be interested in a career change. Read on to learn ways to navigate a new career path.

Successful career transitions

It’s understandable to think that a midlife career change isn’t possible, but that’s simply untrue. In fact, you know more stories of such changes than you realize. Here are three examples of individuals who entered new fields with little experience after working in another industry for years.

Julia Child

In the world of cooking and food media, few people are more famous than Julia Child. But before the late icon brought her French cooking to the United States and hosted The French Chef, she was a copywriter and intelligence officer. Child didn’t become a celebrity chef until 1961 – when she was nearly 50 – upon publishing the bestselling cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Did you know?Did you know? Julia Child didn’t become a famous culinary figure until she was almost 50. That’s more than half a lifetime for most people!

Ronald Reagan

Actor Ronald Reagan entered politics in his 50s after announcing his candidacy for governor of California in 1966. He won, and served two terms. He failed to obtain the Republican nomination for president in 1968 and 1976. However, he finally received it in 1980 and eventually became the 40th president, serving from January 1981 to January 1989.

Vera Wang

Before making herself the namesake of what’s now one of the most iconic wedding dress brands, Vera Wang was a figure skater and journalist. She attempted to make the U.S. Olympics team in the late ’60s and then took an editing job at Vogue. After working there for 17 years and spending another two years at Ralph Lauren, she left to launch the Vera Wang label at age 40.

How did these all-stars successfully transition careers? They followed these seven steps into a new role.

1. Determine a new career goal.

Many workers choose to make midlife career changes to do something more meaningful with their time.

“People want to be significant and make a difference in this world,” said Dean Niewolny, chairman of the board of the Halftime Institute. “They want a job, but they really do care about leaving a legacy. 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.'”

John Henry Weiss, author of Moving Forward in Mid-Career: A Guide to Rebuilding Your Career After Being Fired or Laid Off, noted that a career change isn’t always so positive for midlife workers. “A mid-career worker may realize that she is totally unhappy with the type of work she’s doing every day … [or] that he’s in a business that is going away, like print media.”

Another major reason for career changes? Getting laid off. Weiss added that many workers make the mistake of believing that their job will last forever. “[They] do not build a personal network or keep up with the ever-changing workplace. When they are laid off, or fired, they have nowhere to go … All workers must be prepared to move forward at any time.”

No matter what prompts a professional transition, it is possible to stay competitive in the job market and make a successful career change in midlife.

2. Learn the relevant skills.

Changing careers midlife is far from easy. Some skills are transferable, but you may find younger colleagues are ahead of you – especially when it comes to technology.

Mark Newman, founder of video recruiting platform HireVue, said it’s important to identify both your strengths and potential challenges when transitioning to a new company and role.

“An older worker restarting their career in a new field will face stereotypes regarding their lack of knowledge about technology,” Newman said. “If the career is heavily reliant on new technology, they might also require additional training and have a steeper learning curve.”

Going back to school or enrolling in a certificate program will help you obtain the skill set needed for your new career. Online resources like Skillshare covers newer technologies, such as social media and database management. Additionally, check job postings or review similar LinkedIn profiles to see what skills employers in the industry seek.

3. Try it out.

Before committing to a new industry, do your due diligence. You could informally learn about the field through informational interviews with employed personnel. Alternatively, you could gain hands-on experience through freelance work. Freelancing both teaches you new skills and pads your resume.

4. Update your resume.

Weiss recommends giving your resume a thorough redesign to showcase your strengths. Include strong headings, like “Technology Expertise,” to reveal you are ready for the demands of a new industry.

Weiss also suggests highlighting your project management skills and areas where you have achieved revenue goals or stayed within a budget. “Business is all about the bottom line. This holds true even for nonprofit businesses.” [Learn more about how to make your resume stand out when changing careers.]

5. Prepare for younger colleagues.

While some midlife workers may be able to transition to professional-level positions in the new field, others may have to start back in entry-level roles to learn the ropes. This can be jarring, especially if this is your first time with superiors who are younger than you.

In this situation, it’s important to be humble and to accept the experience of starting from the bottom. Your new co-workers may feel equally unsure about how to interact with you professionally, but showing that you respect their knowledge and skills will ensure a smooth transition.

Being a good team player will also help your new peers recognize and appreciate the value of your professional history.

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

6. Network within your desired field.

It’s much easier to break into a new sector with someone there to gently push you into it. Proper networking can help you find that person. For example, let’s say you’re currently an arts publicist but human resources is your true calling. Without formal HR education and experience, it’s much easier to get your foot in the door with someone in the HR field vouching for you.

Maybe that person is someone you meet at an HR industry event. Maybe they’re an old college acquaintance who works in HR. If you’re lucky, maybe you have a close friend who’s high up at a firm in the field. In any case, reach out to these people and briefly explain your situation and what you bring to the table, then continuously grow the relationship. Networking may be your door into the field.

TipTip: Switching to a new field is typically easier when someone in the industry vouches for you. Follow these tips to grow your professional network and maintain good business relationships.

7. Challenge your assumptions and be confident.

If you are making a career change in your 40s, 50s, or even 60s, there is no reason to assume that you will be any less successful at starting over than a worker in their 20s.

“We are more physically and mentally fit to be productive workers well into our 70s and even 80s,” Weiss said. He added that, whatever your reasons for making the switch, a midlife career change is an opportunity to find work that you feel passionate about and motivates you.

“Learn what kinds of work you really like to do,” Weiss said. “If you look forward to going to work each day to do something that has meaning, your chances of success increase dramatically.”

Max Freedman contributed to the writing and research in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

Image Credit:

Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Katharine Paljug
Katharine Paljug
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Katharine Paljug is a freelance content creator and editor who writes for and about small businesses. In addition to Business News Daily, her articles can be found on Your Care Everywhere, She Knows, and YFS Magazine. Visit her website to access her free library of resources for small business owners.