When Is It Too Late to Change Careers?

When Is It Too Late to Change Careers?
portrait of Stephen Gaffney
By Stephen Gaffney

Published on June 11, 2020

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"It's never too late to change careers," claims the old adage. But is this really true? Is it smart to change careers when you've already vested so much time and effort into your current profession?

Long ago, it was common to choose a career and stick with it or a certain employer for decades until you eventually retired and received a gold watch as a reward for your efforts. This isn't the case anymore. Nowadays, more people are changing careers — and they're doing so across all age groups.

Of the 662 full-time workers surveyed, 49% had already made a dramatic career shift.

A recent survey from the job site Indeed found that people are changing careers in record numbers. Of the 662 full-time U.S. workers surveyed, 49% had already made a dramatic career shift. Among those who had not, 65% were thinking about entering a new field. In addition, nearly 9 in 10 people who changed careers were happy with their decisions.

One reason more workers are considering a career shift is that they simply have more time. People are living longer and therefore working longer. According to Gallup, Americans' expected retirement age in 1995 was 60 years old, whereas today it's 66 years old.

With the upward shift in retirement age, workers in their 40s and even 50s still have plenty of time to change professions. Most Americans make the decision to pursue a new career at 39.

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Why Do So Many People Want to Change Careers?

Just because you chose a specific industry or occupation straight out of college doesn't mean you're stuck with that path. Very few of us are lucky enough to find our "job soulmate."

Don't be afraid to look for a more rewarding profession if you've experienced a change in your goals, interests, or circumstances. Below are some of the top reasons people give for deciding to change careers.

A Desire to Find More Meaningful Work

One of the most common reasons people change careers is that they want to leave a positive impact on humanity. Working for the good of others can offer a sense of personal fulfillment that other jobs simply can't provide.

People in search of a more meaningful career tend to seek out opportunities in sectors such as nonprofit work, education, healthcare, and environmental work.

Access to Better Pay

According to Indeed, 79% of workers who changed careers did so mainly to earn more money. As people enter their 30s, they typically begin having families, making money a natural driving force. What's more, for many occupations, annual pay increases aren't enough to keep up with inflation.

A recent BestColleges survey backs up this finding. Compared to older generations, millennials were more likely to want to change their college majors — and thus their careers — in order to secure better compensation or job opportunities.

Too Much Stress or Career Burnout

Job stress is another top contributing factor for those seeking a career change. The need to constantly meet quotas, rush through tight deadlines, work long hours, and constantly worry about job security can wreak havoc on workers' physical and mental health.

These days, more people are pursuing careers that offer better work-life balance.

No Longer Feeling Challenged or Passionate About Career

What might've sounded like a challenging and exciting career fresh out of college can easily lose its luster over time. This often occurs when you've been following the same daily routine for 10 or more years.

The BestColleges survey from earlier this year found that older Americans regret not pursuing their passions while in college. Fortunately, it's never too late to pursue your life's passion, and going back to school as an older adult is increasingly commonplace.

Aging Out of the Industry

Aging out of an occupation or industry is a real problem for some people. Certain jobs, such as professional sports, require a particular level of physical activity. As a result, many workers find it difficult to keep pace as they age.

Industry Is Dying and/or Outsourcing of Jobs Has Increased

Sometimes people are forced to look for a new career because of disruptions to their current occupation, such as decreased demand for their industry or a switch to outsourcing.

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7 Factors to Consider Before Changing Careers

Some careers, such as public relations and advertising, tend to skew toward a younger demographic. Unfortunately, in these types of industries, it can be difficult — though certainly not impossible — to find entry-level opportunities if you're past the age of 40.

Most likely you'll have to begin with an entry-level position. That being said, your previous work experience and acquired skills should put you on the fast track for moving up the ladder.

Chances are good that if you're changing careers in your 40s or 50s, you'll end up working for someone who is (potentially much) younger than you. Make sure this won't cause you any discomfort.

Even if you're passionate about your new career, it's important that you do some research so you can ensure it'll stick around awhile. The Bureau of Labor Statistics can offer guidance on projected career growth in the coming decade.

Entering a new career may mean furthering your education. Thankfully, online classes — many of which are free or inexpensive — make it easy to acquire the training you need. Learn more about different educational opportunities for a variety of occupations in the BestColleges career guide.

You'll need to ensure that your finances can handle the transition to a new career. Remember that it may take some time to land a job in your chosen field; you may also be starting out at a lower pay rate than what you're used to.

Taking online or night classes can be a great way to get the education you'll need in your new role without having to immediately leave your current job or salary.

You may be surprised by the number of skills you've picked up over the course of your career that can easily transfer over to your new profession. Be sure to list your most relevant skills on your resume/cover letter and point them out during any interviews.

How to Change Careers Successfully

You don't need to rush into your new career. In fact, the average worker takes about 11 months to plan out a career change. It's critical that you take your time and weigh the pros and cons of your desired professional trajectory before making any decisions.

6 Ways You Can Ready Yourself for a New Career

Go back to school or enroll in a few courses that may be required for your new role. Work toward earning any necessary certifications for your industry. Complete some volunteer work in or related to the field you want to enter. Begin building your own brand and become a thought leader in your new occupation by leveraging social media and blogging. Talk with industry veterans and mentors who can give you insight on what to expect in your new role. Join an industry network or group. For example, if you're a woman pursuing an engineering career, you might join the Society of Women Engineers.

Changing careers is a big decision. Whatever your reasons for wanting to enter a new field, do your research and consult others in the industry.

Many famous business owners and entrepreneurs reinvented their careers after age 30.

Never let your age be a factor in your decision to change professions. Many famous business owners and entrepreneurs reinvented their careers after age 30. Julia Child published her first cookbook in her late 40s, Jeff Bezos worked in computer science before launching Amazon in his early 30s, and Vera Wang didn't enter the world of fashion design until turning 40.

Even if you decided to change careers at age 50, you'd still have a full 17 years until retirement ⁠— that's plenty of time to make an impact and climb the ladder to success.

No matter your age, there is always something new you can learn and an opportunity waiting around the corner. If you're motivated and passionate enough about what you want to do, it's never too late to embark on a new career path.

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