Are you considering a career change at 40? Join the club! It’s common to hit your fifth decade, lift your head and realise you need a change. But it can be a tough transition to make. What do you want to do, and what would suit you? You might be struggling with career change ideas and have no clue how to find the best careers to start in your forties. Maybe you feel you’ve reached 40 and still don’t have a ‘career’ – whatever that means. Or if you’ve done one thing for some time and want to shift into something very different, you may be unsure whether retraining at 40 or later is the right thing to do.
Who Actually Changes Career, and When?
The average person will change careers 5-7 times in their lifetime, and 30% of the workforce change jobs every 12 months, according to career change statistics. But what these statistics hide is that many people tend to make these changes earlier in their career.
No surprises there. In some respects, of course, this is because career change is more practical when we’re younger. No kids, fewer responsibilities, perhaps better health – the whole idea of trying something new was just easier back then. Career change ideas weren’t quite so hard to come by.
But that’s not the full picture. While it’s true that at 40 you have more responsibilities and less time, there’s something else going on here. Life is starting to feel different.
Why Career Change Is Different at 40
Perhaps you used to love your job, or maybe you fell into your career by accident. You might feel that you’re 40 years old and still have no career to speak of – you just never really thought about your career properly. It just kind of happened, and you went along for the ride. But now you’re really looking around for the first time, and the world seems different. Finding the best career to start at 40 is a very different task compared to choosing a path at the age of 18 or 21. Life is just not the same.
But even though things are more complex and there’s more to juggle, when you change career at 40, you still have around 45,000 hours of your working life still to go – probably more. Your opportunity right now is to consider what you’re going to do with all those hours.
As we get older, and our parents and children and friends get older, we realise that our careers have become more complex. It’s not enough any more to let our working life just happen. That way, another 20 years will fly past and you’ll realise you didn’t actually took charge when it mattered. But of course, by then it’s too late.
Our needs are different, too. Finding career change ideas is not as simple as picking options that sound great and just doing them. Other things in life are more and more important – time, family, health, impact and – oh yeah – yourself.
So whether you’ve climbed the leadership ladder, coasted along or even reached 40 with no career to speak of, you’ve come to the conclusion this just isn’t what you want to be doing any more. It’s time you took control of your own career. But whether you leap straight into a new adventure or start a period of retraining, at 40 the career change process itself can seem like a big hill to climb.
Here’s how you do it.
How To Make The Change
Let’s not hide from the fact that making a career change at the age of 40 is hard. A successful career change needs plenty of time and energy. So think carefully before changing on a whim — you need to feel deep down that this is worth your time and effort.
There are 4 things you need to know for a career change at 40:
- What you want
- What you need
- What you lack
- What you bring
1. What you want at 40(+)
Career change ideas don’t come easily.
Yes, it’s good to know what you want for a career change at any age. But with your 30s now in the past, there’s likely to be some key differences in your priorities. For you, the best careers to start at 40 will be quite different from a decade ago. And you might also feel a little bewildered by not being quite so ‘young’ any more, and unsure what that means for your life decisions – for example, how will you compete with younger entrants, and is retraining at 40 a realistic aim?
But while you may have more responsibilities and less freedom to jump ship on a whim, there’s no reason why you can’t still seek fun and challenge and satisfaction in the work you do. Why should you settle? Why put up with less? And even if you fall into the category I mentioned above and think of yourself as “40 and still no career”, this is your chance to set things right.
Thinking about what you want
There are many ways to think about what you want. But here are 4 more questions to get you started:
1. What do you want to experience?
Too often, we think of careers in the long-term. But what about each moment? What about the day-to-day, how you’ll actually feel doing the job?
2. What activities do you want to do?
Forget about job titles, industries or other labels, just for a minute. What kind of activities do you regularly do, or would you love to do?
3. What benefits you want to enjoy?
Sadly, most of the cultural focus tends to be on what we can do for our work (i.e. our employer) and not the other way around. But work can bring us many personal benefits – satisfaction, growth, purpose – and when these things are lacking, we feel out of sync with our job or career. So finding the best careers to start at 40 means understanding what you want work to give you. Write a list of the essential factors, and exclude anything that falls short.
4. What do you want to achieve?
Look back from the future. When you retire, what do you want to say you’ve done? What would be unacceptable to you?
Want you want – key point
Trying to find a new career will require deep exploration into your values, interests and needs, all whilst fitting into your current life situation.
But it’s not all about the career you end up doing. The career change itself is a process that takes time, energy and commitment. Quick fixes just don’t work out further down the line. So for example, if you move fields and need new qualifications, retraining at 40 adds a significant step to the career ideas you find and the change you’re going to make. Do you have the time, money and energy to undergo significant retraining at this point? If you won’t follow through with it, don’t start along that path. But if retraining at 40 doesn’t faze you, or even excites you, it could be just the boost you need to propel you in a new direction.
2. What you need at 40(+)
In life, we do things.
OK, maybe not. But our work is just one kind of thing we do, only one of the many, many activities that fill our lives. Some activities we get paid for, some we don’t. Some activities we enjoy, some we don’t. So the best careers for you to start in your 40s probably won’t include every single factor you need in your life at this stage – so the task is to plan your work-life balance properly, to ensure you don’t leave those important factors behind with your career change.
Work-life balance is a complex topic, and one I’ve written about already. And certainly, there’s more to balance than just doing stuff (your health, for one).
But to start thinking about designing a better balance and finding career change ideas that will work for our life as a whole, we can boil it down to this:
forget about work vs. life
Instead, start to think holistically about all the activities you want your life to offer. How important are they? If you could cut down on X, what would be the effect on Y?
What you need – key point
Unless you understand the practical framework for your career change, you won’t be in a position to find suitable career ideas or make any decisions. So get it all down on paper.
3. What you bring at 40
Young ‘uns could be strong competitors for roles in your new field. And if you’re not willing to retrain at 40, you probably won’t have recent qualifications, so you’ll have to rely on something else.
Luckily, you embody years of experience, and not just in careers, but in life. This is often what trips younger candidates up at the first hurdle. Yes, they may not have much experience in the industry, but the key difference is that they have little to no experience in any career or in life at all.
You do! And it is certainly attractive to employers.
As Alison Doyle states in ‘Important Life Skills That Employers Value’, “There are certain life skills that almost every employer looks for when hiring new employees. Companies look for job candidates who can handle common challenges that arise at work”.
But I don’t have experience!
Ah, the dreaded career change dilemma. You’ve spent years doing one thing, so how can you prove your ability to do something different? Or if you feel you’ve reached 40 and still don’t have a career to speak of, you might think you’ve nothing to bring, and career change options seem thin on the ground.
Primarily, you’ve been in the workforce long enough that you understand how things work. Secondly, unless you’ve literally done nothing at all in the past couple of decades, you’ve built up many transferable skills and gained experience in using these every day. That’s not to say the best careers to start at 40 have to use skills you already have – that’s where retraining comes in. But for many, there’s real satisfaction knowing that they can still make use of the career they’ve had so far, even if it hasn’t ticked all the right boxes.
Transferable skills are abilities that can be used in many different jobs regardless of the industry (hence, uh, transferable). Skills such as leadership, research, and communication are highly transferable.
But this isn’t just about ‘soft’ skills. Strip away jargon in many job descriptions and you’ll find you can extract transferable skills from your existing career to match. All you have to do is to go through all of the specific skills you’ve developed in your career to date and find their ‘generic’ equivalents. Here’s an exercise to help you do just that – just sign up to download it for free:
What you bring – key point
Get specific about your skills so far and establish how they can be transferable. This will help you bridge the gap to a new career, particularly if retraining at 40 is not something you’re willing to consider.
4. What you lack at 40
Even when you do find exciting and suitable career change ideas, there will be gaps.
Some of them will be big gaps, particularly if you’re making a really big shift or you’re right about reaching 40 with no career behind you.
Of course, some will be skills and experience gaps that no amount of transferable skills can bridge. But once you’ve identified what you want to do, it will be easier to identify what courses or experience you need to gain to move in your chosen direction. Google will help you here, of course.
Worried about retraining at 40?
But for many, needing qualifications for a particular career path can feel really off-putting. Like we said a little earlier in this article, retraining at 40 can seem pretty daunting for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s been a long time since you studied, and you’re not sure about your ability to keep up with the younger students. Or you don’t want to spend that much time – tick, tick – studying something before you can actually do it and start earning money. If that’s you, slow down. First of all, mature students abound in FE and HE institutions around the world. In the UK alone, in 2018 over 200,000 people were retraining at 40 or over in HE, either as undergrads or postgrads. So yes it’s possible, and you’re in good company.
Secondly, let’s say it will take you 3 to 5 years to retrain – this isn’t uncommon, particularly when you need to work at the same time to make your transition affordable. This means the prospect of retraining at 40 can feel like a long time. But think of it this way: what do you want to be doing when you’re 45? Something you love, or something that’s barely OK? What will you regret not doing when you’re 50, 60, or in retirement?
Don’t forget, you don’t have to keep doing what you’re doing now until you finish your retraining. You can shift into a platform role – a job that isn’t perfect, but creates the right conditions (time, low stress, headspace, etc) to allow your bigger-picture, meaningful career change to take place.
Information you lack about yourself
Less straightforward is the other thing you lack: information about yourself.
Too often, career change (at 40 or otherwise) is planned as a paper exercise. We find some ideas we like the sound of, read up about them a little, and take the plunge on – let’s be honest – what amounts to a best guess.
But how do you really know which of those options will turn out to be right for you in the real world? How can you be confident that the best careers to start at 40 will prove to be as suitable in practice as they are on paper?
Well, you can’t – not for certain. And partly this is because trying to discover the ‘best’ careers to start at 40 is really asking the wrong question. ‘Best’ means “highest quality or most suitable”, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary. But the fact is a single standout option is unlikely – there may be more than one good option, or you might have to go forwards knowing that you’re leaving some pretty good alternatives behind. Either way, your task is to make an informed decision in all the circumstances, and predicting what your options will be like in reality is a crucial part of this task.
And you can do plenty to improve the accuracy of your prediction.
How to tackle gaps
When you’ve thought long and hard and come up with 4 or 5 career options, make a list of everything you don’t know. Separate this into 2 groups, covering all the things you don’t know about:
- The job (specific tasks, working conditions, etc)
When you’ve got this list, start filling in the gaps in both categories. Research, interview, and Google to find out how to fill Category 1 gaps.
When it comes to Category 2 gaps, I’m afraid Google doesn’t know the answer. And nor do you – yet. Which means you need to find out.
Category 2 gaps will produce a list of questions, such as:
- Would I enjoy… (not having fixed working hours)?
- Would I be good at… (organising promotional events)?
- How much would… (being on the road a lot) affect… (my relationship)?
The only way you’re going to answer these questions is by giving something a go. And if you don’t want to retrain at 40, then taking action immediately is a viable alternative. But don’t think I’m encouraging you to leap wildly into the unknown. No – that could be a disaster. Instead, figure out a way to test each of these questions in the real world without committing to a huge change.
Which means creating smaller, quicker versions of those ideas. What do I mean? Well, let’s say you’ve always worked in a big organisation, and one of your career options involves working in a very small team. You have no idea if this would suit you, and it could make or break the outcome. So you decide to test it out by volunteering for a small local project at your kids’ school, or with a local charity, and perhaps take some days off work to do so. If you thrive in the small group, you’ve filled a gap. If you hate it and wants to tear down the walls, guess what – you’ve filled a gap.
What you lack – key point
Of course, the above is a random example and might not apply to you. But the message is this: don’t wait for the career change itself to give you the answer. Instead, find a way to fill it and get in front of failure. But know exactly how you’re going to fill it – with transferable skills, retraining, or experience and testing. This way, you’ll identify career change ideas that are not only exciting and suitable but likely to work out.
A Finishing Touch
Making a career change at 40 can seem daunting. And it’s true – there are many moving parts.
These parts could include:
- not knowing what you want
- being unsure what the best careers to start at 40 for you could be
- having no idea how to transfer your skills or find career ideas to leverage your career so far
- feel you’re 40 years old and still have no career, and so have no experience to draw on
- being limited by your responsibilities and wider life needs and desires
- having gaps that seem too vast to fill
- being daunted by the prospect of retraining at 40…
The good news is that all of these challenges can be solved by slowing down and tackling them head-on using the techniques described in this guide. Everyone’s different – and as we saw, there’s no neat list of the best careers to start at 40. A list like that just wouldn’t help most people. It’s about finding what’s right for you. And to do that, you need to start with you.
But no matter what, don’t think it’s too late.
There are still 45,000 hours left on the table.