Is it really possible to change careers later in life?
January 19, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Is it really possible to change careers later in life? Can some older and wiser folks give me some perspective and much needed reassurance?

I'm feeling extremely unenthusiastic about my current job and the career I've stumbled my way into. There's a common belief that people change career 2-3 times in a lifetime. Is that really possible anymore? I'd like to hear from some elders who can give more perspective and reassure those of us stuck in a rut that there is hope.
posted by deathpanels to Work & Money (22 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 45. I just finished my Master's program in English so I can teach. For the past 20 years, I was stuck doing administrative work because I'm "good" at it and it paid the bills. I'll be better at teaching. I just know it.

So, in answer to your question, yes you can change careers mid-life. It's perfectly do-able.
posted by patheral at 7:41 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not what I'd consider an elder, but YES it's possible -- of course. Totally. So go for it.
posted by pupstocks at 7:42 PM on January 19, 2012

i was blue collar, i went to law school when i was 40, now i've got a good job at a good firm. age is one of those things that's only a big deal if you think it is. does your brain still work? you should be fine.
posted by facetious at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Um, yes.

I spent the first 6 years after I graduated from college doing one thing -- or, more accurately, stumbling into and then working towards a career in a particular field -- and once I got somewhere in that field, I realized I didn't really want to be doing that after all. So I left, went to law school, and am now an attorney. (Which I actually love, which may make me a bit of an anomaly.) My husband similarly started out after college doing one thing, then transitioned into a different field and then, at the same time I went to law school, went to grad school for yet something else. He's on his third career, by my count, and he's not yet 40.

So, yes.

And, yeah, I wouldn't consider myself an "elder."
posted by devinemissk at 7:45 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was 38 I left my little self-employed business and the rest of the life I'd built since college to move halfway around the world to pursue a PhD. That meant living as a grad student long after most people my age had started focusing on accumulating wealth, or at least the trappings of comfortable middle-class living. Seven and a half years later I'm in a completely different career, and much happier all around.

Definitely yes.
posted by Superplin at 7:52 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was a primary grades teacher, bailed out at age 29, became a museum programmer. Yes.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on January 19, 2012

There are also a lot of career switches that don't involve going back to school. I've worked with a number of folks in R&D or engineering who've moved to marketing and sales in the time I've known them, not counting people who've gone into business for themselves or founded start-ups together with friends and transitioned from engineering to business that way.
posted by Lady Li at 8:19 PM on January 19, 2012

Oh, and one of my absolute favorite electrical engineers used to be a chef.
posted by Lady Li at 8:20 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I switched careers at age 31, which isn't that old. My aunt went from retail to nursing in her mid-30s. It depends on what you want to do and how much time/money you are willing to spend to get up to speed in your new field. If you can't afford to get necessary training or take a lower-paying job at the entry level of your new field, then your options are more limited, but if you can take the hit for a few years, then definitely.
posted by elizeh at 8:27 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it is quite possible to do so :-) A fellow I know used to work in hotel management, then became a project manager, and then he's on his way to becoming a lifestyle coach. Similarly, my fibre teacher was a geologist for 17 years before going to art school and getting her MFA. Myself, I was a web developer and now I'm more into records management.

I would say, look for the common threads in things that you want to do or the career you might change into. The first person I mentioned is extremely people oriented; the teacher probably has a very curious and exploratory nature to her; I've always loved technology and big piles of data.

If possible, see if you can take a personality test called the Birkman Method. I recently had it done and it was very interesting. It tells you if you are people-oriented or task oriented as well as the work environments that you need in order to be happy and thrive in. One section of the test also explores the kinds of careers you would be interested in. Mine came out overwhelmingly as knowledge worker, so it makes me happy that I'm on the right track.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:34 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

of course! I'm a constant learner and I maximize the work opportunities that I get. Here's my story:

I graduated from university as an economist
Then I went back to university right away to do a masters in comp sci
I was a developer/programmer for many years
Then I moved into marketing for many years
Stopped working for 18 months to do an MBA in Management of Technology
Upon graduation I worked for a few years in strategy/marketing - mostly in ecommerce

And as of five or six years ago I moved into project management, which is a profession that I love.
Who knows what I will do, next decade?
posted by seawallrunner at 8:36 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I kind of was forced to change careers. I went to Japan in the mid-90s to goof off and "teach English", and found that I actually enjoyed it. So, I went back to school for a year or so, and got a BEd, with the hope of becoming a high school teacher in British Columbia. But I loved Japan, so I went back, and ended up operating my own school.

After about 5 years I decided it was time to return to Canada, where I could become a teacher in British Columbia. However, at the time there were no teaching jobs, but I needed to feed my family, so I ended up working as a speechwriter for government, a technical writer, and then as a researcher, proposal writer, and survey designer.

I eventually got a job in a related field in government, which was kind of what I had hoped I would do. And then the bastards in government laid me off.

I'm now a marketing writer. It was not easy to get this job, because everyone looked at my resume and said "Teacher. Can't use him. Non-profit work, too. That's bad. Oh, and government? Could never work in industry."

But I made the change (again). If you need to do it, or if you want to do it, you will do it.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:39 PM on January 19, 2012

How are you defining late? My dad started law school the same year I started high school. I was 14; he was 40.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:39 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes. Obviously.


It's much more possible if you're motivated by passion in something else rather than loathing for what you have now. If you go by the second path you'll basically end up right where you are now.
posted by Ookseer at 10:26 PM on January 19, 2012

I was a photographer for 25 years and at 46 went back for another masters degree and now I'm a very happy therapist. Not only possible, often preferable. (I loved photography - for 15 of those years I was a photo professor - but I needed something more visceral, more connected to people.)
posted by johngumbo at 10:32 PM on January 19, 2012

To be honest, doing one thing for 40 years is rapidly becoming the exception, rather than the rule. Since graduating from university about a decade ago, I've:

- Made coffees
- Been a temp filing at a bank
- Worked on an IT consultancy's graduate programme, doing training and comms
- Worked for a recruitment marketing firm doing internal comms, employer branding and ad-writing
- Now work managing website projects for a digital agency

The only real common factor of the last three jobs is that I sit at a desk and frequently say the word 'project'. Workplaces have become steadily more open to 'outside talent' coming in to an industry from another one (it got me my last two jobs), especially if that's how you position yourself. Equally, even huge changes of direction requiring additional schooling can be made, as long as you actually get on and do it instead of wondering aloud about it for years.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:34 PM on January 19, 2012

Oh, and as mentioned above, changing careers isn't usually some kind of blind strike out into the darkness ("I hate this, so I'll try that"). In my experience it's an ongoing process of looking at the things you know you like doing and iterating until you find a role that is more awesome than boredom. For instance, I realised from my first job that I liked talking to people but service industry wages wouldn't pay off my student debt. I realised from my second job that I actually quite liked figuring out smart ways to do big, dull tasks. I realised from my third job that I despised presenteeism and some aspects of consulting, but loved working on many different projects and being given responsibility. I realised from my fourth job that I loved writing but hated nebulous projects without solid end results and also, in the process of building an internal version of Wikipedia for the company, that I loved nerding out on information, content and the technical underpinnings that make them usable. Now I'm in a job that is 98% awesome stuff and I've never been happier.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:41 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got another masters (already had one and a PhD) at age 58 and do not regret it one bit. I was lucky to get a job in my newly chosen field relatively soon after graduating and thoroughly enjoy it.
posted by mareli at 5:33 AM on January 20, 2012

I'm not sure of your age, so I'll comment on my own experience - I hope that it is relevant to you.

When I was 40, I embarked on career #3: software testing. My previous careers helped prepare me for this one in terms of detail orientation, comfort with a software development environment, and critical thinking skills. My education (masters in tech communication, J.D.) didn't hurt either, but it was pricey.

There are rumblings about my field going the way of the dodo bird and the way companies act nowadays, I wouldn't be surprised. I feel like making a T-shirt that says "Not adding value since 1965" since my aptitudes tend toward the nebulous, at least in Corporate terms. (Frankly, I don't believe that I don't add value, and the whole "adding-value" concept is just absurd anyway unless you are eating bonbons at your desk for eight hours a day.)

So I might have to move back into one of my previous two careers or, who knows, strike out on a fourth. I hope I don't wind up doing something rote and manual; that would just about croak me. I've thought about biotech/medical lab work (again, the injunction against rote/manual applies) but have not investigated much.

tl;dr version: I have found it more than possible to change careers midstream.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:05 AM on January 20, 2012

Can it be done? YES! Started out 40 years ago as an elementary school teacher. Went back five years later for a masters degree and switched to university administration. Went back 10 years later in my 30s later and got a PhD in education and eventually became a dean of students. At 50s I began volunteer work for a science education center and got interested in ornithology. I'm now a bird bander and field scientist. I also make fine wooden furniture on the side and could make a good living if I chose to go that route. I couldn't imagine a one career life.
posted by birdwatcher at 6:35 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes. new careers are being invented all the time because of changes in technology. Demographic changes mean that some careers will see a strong need. A lot depends on you - the question could just as easily be Is it really possible to change later in life? Visit a library with a reference librarian; they can help you research the job outlook for various careers. Read What Color Is Your Parachute, and any other books the librarian recommends. Do information interviews with people in different jobs.

One caveat is that you might have been in your current job long enough to have a good salary, which you may not (or may) be able to find as a newbie in a new career. I have a friend who refers to her golden handcuffs. Make sure you look at your current job, with pay, benefits, if any, vacation time, pension, etc. Another friend likes her job a lot better, knowing that she can retire pretty soon, and that her pay would be very hard to find elsewhere. knowing that helped her value her job more.

Change can be stimulating and fun - Good luck!
posted by theora55 at 8:37 AM on January 20, 2012

I'm 52. From the age of 21 until the age of almost 50 I worked in IT/business and went down the programmer/analyst/project manager/consultant route. There were a couple of minor hiatuses but that was basically my job.

In April 2009 I quit, because I was mad as hell and I wasn't gonna take it any more.

I am now a train driver, and as happy as Casey Jones.

Hell yes, it's possible.
posted by Decani at 12:38 PM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

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