Am I too old to change career?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

Whether you’re in the early stages of your working life, or you have decades of experience, research shows that probably only around 20% of people love the career they’re in and are passionate about the work they do.

That means an extraordinary 80% of people feel they have made the wrong career choice! Couple this with the reality that we are living longer and facing longer careers – most people now will be working for up to five decades – there is a compelling reason to take some positive action when you know you’re in the wrong place – no matter what your age or career stage.

As a Career Coach and HR Consultant I work with clients at all stages of their lives who have decided to make a career change. I support them through the process – using my toolkit and drawing on years experience to help them explore where they want to go, and establish how best to get there – providing direction and support every step of the way.

In this article I explore some case studies of people changing career at different stages of their life. I’ll explain the process they went through and how they overcame some of the blocks and challenges they faced – and it might surprise you to know that a lot of the perceived obstacles are either in our heads, or wrong or outdated assumptions.

Is it too early / too late for me to change career?

The simple answer is ‘No' but the fact that the question is asked at all, means there is an underlying belief or assumption that there is a perfect point in our lives when it is OK, and that’s simply not true!

So if there really isn’t a right or wrong time to change career – and you’ve realised you’re not as happy or fulfilled as you believe you should be, or would be in your perfect job. You owe it to yourself (at least!) to do something about it sooner rather than later.

When we're not happy at work it spills over into other areas of our lives and impacts other people as well.

Changing career early in life

Sam was 29 when she came for career coaching. She explained that she had "taken the wrong degree’’ and as a result was hating her job working as a junior scientist in a laboratory.

While to the outside world it appeared that she was set on her perfect career, she was very unhappy. She dreaded going into work and this had an impact on other areas of her life.

She explained that at the time of making her choices for further education, her well-meaning teachers at school had encouraged her to do a science degree, ‘’because she was good at science”. And because she didn’t have any other ideas, that was the path she took.

Why so many of us take the wrong path

We make career choices very early on in life, before we really have any idea what options are open to us and it can feel that our choices have narrowed before we’ve even started.

Children have always been asked ‘What they want to be when they grow up?’ and of course, the implication is that you already know what’s out there to choose from. And that you are already equipped to choose your career path. Ridiculous really!

The purpose of schooling is (or ought to be) to prepare us for life – to provide the knowledge and skills we need and for us to discover what we’re good at and what we really enjoy. But before we’ve reached our teens we’re having to make subject choices that start to shape how we see ourselves, the world and the opportunities that are out there for us.

Why we find it so hard to change career

In earlier generations, perhaps our parents’ or grandparents’, there was a concept of ‘a job for life’. You’d leave school and go into a job or career and you’d stay with the same company until retirement. And that seemed to be the blueprint for a perfect life.

The lucky ones are very happy with the choice they made. But often – more often than we realise – we're not happy with the path we've chosen.

Of course, there is security that comes from having one job and not having to think or worry about finding new employment. But staying in the same job simply to avoid change – when you know there’s no chance of becoming any happier or more fulfilled – can be soul-destroying. Especially when you suspect there may be jobs out there that you'd love!

Finding your passion

In Sam's career coaching sessions we explored what was important to her and where her passions lay.

She loved the outdoors, she was passionate about nature and the environment and more specifically, loved plant life. When she spoke about this, her passion was evident – her eyes lit up and she spoke excitedly about how alive she felt in that environment. Before long she had discovered her ideal career – Horticulture - combining her love of science, nature and the outdoors.

After doing some initial research, she found the degree course she would need to take to qualify and had arranged to spend a week on a voluntary basis working out in the field, to ensure that she had a good understanding of what the work would entail.

But then came the time to make some decisions. And at that point, Sam, like many of us, felt the pressures, both internally and externally, of taking the next step forward.

The barriers to change

Sam knew what she wanted to do next, but first there were barriers and obstacles she needed to overcome. It was as though she needed to have the permission of others before giving herself permission and moving on.

When exploring what stood between her and taking the next step, these were the questions she needed to find answers for:

  • What does ‘changing career’ say about me?

  • Will it negatively affect how I see myself?

  • Should I just be happy I have a job, at a time when others aren’t so lucky?

  • What will other people think?

  • How will I explain this ‘change of heart / mind’ to others?

  • Have I wasted my education?

  • What will it look like on my CV?

  • Can I actually make this change?

We tackled these one by one:

1. What does this say about me and how might it affect how I see myself

What it says is simple. Sam knew that her initial degree was taken without any knowledge of the working world, or where she would find happiness and fulfilment.

Once she had knowledge of the working world and had found that she was in the wrong place, she knew she had to make a decision to get out sooner rather than later.

She knew that any time delayed would be time wasted – which would certainly have had a detrimental effect on the way she saw herself in future, as well as the contribution she could make in a field she was truly passionate about.

She realised that not only was it OK to change, but that staying where she was would absolutely NOT have been OK.

2. What will other people think?

The simple answer is ‘who cares what other people think, it’s your life’, but let's not dismiss this real question.

Your parents, partner, friends, colleagues, present employer, future employer, recruitment agents may all have views and opinions on the choices you make.

- Friends and family

They may feel that you’ll have wasted time and any money spent on gaining a qualification.

But whether or not anything was ‘’wasted’’ is for you to decide. You'll have learned a lot through your experience. Maybe it was wasted, maybe it wasn’t. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, you want to be happy and have a fulfilling career. And that is where your interests and the interests of those who love you, have common ground. They want you to be happy and you want you to be happy.

And hopefully the people in your life will put your future happiness above everything. Because the alternative is staying in your unhappy career forever, being miserable, knowing it’s not the right place for you, but doing nothing about it for fear of upsetting others.

It’s your life, and you’re going to do this, hopefully with the understanding and support of those you love, but if they don’t get it or support it, you know you need to do what makes you happy.

In the majority of cases, people in our lives quickly see how happy we are once we’ve made the decision to go down a different path.

- Business

What do you tell your present employer? This depends on your situation and whether you want to stay where you are while you study further, or whether you plan to leave. Once you’ve made your decision, having an honest discussion with your line manager is the best way forward.

In Sam's case, her employer gave her the opportunity to work part-time while she undertook her further studies. In a lot of cases this might not be possible, or you might not want to do this.

Where there’s a will there’s a way, and you'll find your way.

Explaining to a future employer or a recruitment agent is quite straightforward – they see this all the time and if they ask the question about your change of direction, it’s good for you to have a clear and brief explanation ready.

Sam's was simple, "I did my degree without knowledge of the working world and once I realised I was in the wrong place I decided not to waste any time and I made the change.

No apology needed! Keep the message positive and you'll be seen as decisive and forward-thinking.

3. What will this look like on my CV?

Recruitment agents and employers live in the real world and they are very used to seeing CVs of people from all walks of life who have had careers spanning decades, across a wide variety of fields.

The fact that you have changed direction will not be an issue at all, but as mentioned above, have a clear and concise explanation ready for the times you are asked.

4. Have I wasted my education?

What you learned may or may not be useful in your future career. Of course it would be good if you can apply some of what you’ve learned previously, but even if you can’t, it’s certainly not a reason to stick with a career that isn’t right for you. And the experience will have taught you something.

So, wasted or not wasted, it’s irrelevant – it’s water under the bridge and you need to accept it and move on!

5. Can I make the change?

That’s for you to decide. The world out there is very supportive of people who are determined and live with a clear purpose and know what they want.

If you know what you want and you are determined, yes you can!

7. How do I make the change?

If you already know the path you want to take, then you will need to explore what it will take to get there. Do your research, talk to people and take the necessary steps.

If you have discovered you’re in the wrong career, but you don’t know where you want to go next, a career coach can help you explore your options and to put a transition plan together to get you from where you are to where you want to be.

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