Starting a new career in midlife?
January 24, 2006 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone out there begun a totally new career in mid-life?

I've tentatively decided to pursue a new career (pastry chef) totally unrelated to my present one, and it requires a couple of years of schooling. I know that I'm fortunate to have this flexibility, but I'm afraid I'll feel old and ridiculous next to 19-year olds. I also can't decide if I'm just too old to get started in something new at this point in my life. I've heard all of the "go for it, you're never too old" stuff, but has anyone actually swtiched direction like this and made it work?
posted by Flakypastry to Work & Money (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Does it make you giddy just thinking about it? Who gives a rat's ass about being next to 19 year olds? If it's something that makes your heart happy, go for it. I'm just now learning this very important lesson and can't wait to make similar changes in my life.

For what it's worth, don't forget about all those "older folks" who start completely new careers after retiring.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:27 AM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I teach undergrads and we get a fair mix of mature students and the usual 18-21s. Check with the people you're thinking of taking the course with to see whether this is a non-problem from the start.

Even if you're the only one then why worry about it? It's likely that you're more secure in yourself, and you'll probably stand out as a harder worker (certainly my experience with mature students) due to having chosen the field rather than falling into it and having more ability to apply yourself in a work environment.
posted by biffa at 10:36 AM on January 24, 2006

...has anyone actually swtiched direction like this and made it work?

My friend's dad worked as a rocket scientist then as a chemical engineer for a large oil company. When he was about 50 he decided to drop all that and become a fishermen - got his own boat, had friends who were fishermen - and did it succesfully for about 10 years I think. Then, tired of that, he decided he wanted to be a chef. Helped out in a friend's restaurant for a while to learn the ropes and then later started his own restaurant. He did that a for a few years and then closed it down to start his own catering business, which is really popular.

So there's one story, if that helps. He's a happy guy. The local newspaper (not online) recently had this "expose" of how one of the town councilmen (him) and everyones favorite caterer had this interesting past as scientist and fisherman.

The limitations in life are only the ones you have decided to subscribe to.
posted by vacapinta at 10:37 AM on January 24, 2006

I changed careers from neonatal intensive care nursing to computer systems analyst. I found that the younger kids in class with me had more of a slacker ethos. By being focused, on-time and willing to work hard (all traits that come with maturity) I managed to do quite well in school.
posted by TorontoSandy at 10:39 AM on January 24, 2006

No, Flaky, you are a total and complete freak.

Just kidding. Two months ago, I waved goodbye to book publishing (with my middle finger, natch) to become a librarian. This seems a career that is friendly to career changers, and there are many people in my classes at library school who are my age (38). Or older. Seriously, don't worry about it. Especially if you're going to culinary school--it's not like you'll be worried about getting a date for homecoming weekend or whatever.
posted by scratch at 10:39 AM on January 24, 2006

You should go for it. I went from a decade of house painting to being a software engineer. I didn't get my BS degree until I was in my mid-thirties and didn't have any problems from my age. Yea I've ended up in class with 19 year old students who were smarter and had more energy then me but so what. Half of them were in college because they didn't know what else to do or mom and dad wanted them to. I was there because I wanted to learn.
posted by octothorpe at 10:45 AM on January 24, 2006

I switched from making documentary films to screenwriting about seven years ago (a much bigger jump than it sounds). I've never regretted it.

My father always wanted to be a farmer and never actually got to be one... the single biggest regret of his life I think. I was determined not to be haunted by that kind of mistake.

(Previously at university I switched from math to English Lit against all the advice of my professors, family etc... another decision which I am profoundly grateful I had the courage or stupidity to make).

I suppose a lot of it relies on your own judgement about whether you are the kind of person who lands on your feet or not.

Not having a plan B helped me stick to it.

The question I asked myself was: will I starve to death if this doesn't work out? If the answer was 'no' I figured it was worth a try.
posted by unSane at 10:45 AM on January 24, 2006

My mom, who has a masters degree in sociology and did market research for various companies for years, decided in her late 40s that she wanted to be a court reporter instead. She attended a technical school where most of the students were about 19. I think the most difficult thing for her was feeling like a lot of the other students weren't taking school very seriously, and that it was affecting her learning experience. I never heard her complain that she felt old - I don't think she cared, she wasn't trying to socialize with the other students or anything.
posted by amro at 10:46 AM on January 24, 2006

I started pharmacy school in my 30's which meant taking some prerequisites. So I took freshman biology while 33 and pregnant. My lab partners were born during my sophomore year of high school. Yikes! I felt very much NOT like the other children. But the thing is, I was way more aware of it than they were. When you are 19 you feel like an adult and it's only when you are an old bat like me that you suddenly begin to see 19 yr olds as youngsters. They were all cool about it and may not have even noticed the age thing if I hadn't pointed it out.

Plus, remember that a lot more people are going back to school in midlife these days. Everybody is living longer and student loans are easy to get. You may not be as out of place as you think you will be.

Also, define "midlife." You may be older than I was at 33, but still I wouldn't worry too much about it.

One thing I will say for going back to school with the youngsters - it really does push you to re-evaluate your hair. If you still have the same haircut you did 15 yrs ago, you need to start thinking long and hard about changing it.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:46 AM on January 24, 2006

I'm in the process of accumulating what I need to make a run at grad school in archaeology in a year or two. I'll probably be taking some undergrad classes in the fall, just to shake the rust off (I would have had a BS in anthro along with my BA in history 12 years ago if I'd just finished one more class).

I'm not worried about being amongst a bunch of 19 year olds. I work at a university, so I see undergrads and grad students all the time (*sigh* and now I'm older than incoming faculty), and I know how flaky undergrads can be. You'll be there knowing what you want and working at getting there. Some of the 19 year olds will be right there with you on that and you'll probably get on just fine. And some of them will clearly still be kids. I don't think you'll be the one needing to worry about looking ridiculous.

Also, don't worry how well you do when you start out. For something like becoming a pastry chef, you're probably going to need to let your body learn how to do a lot of things that you'll be really awkward at to start if you haven't been a kitchen pro beforehand. Just keep working away at it and you'll pick things up before you know it.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2006

When my mother was in her mid-30s, she went back to college after leaving her "assistant number cruncher" job, and got an engineering degree. She's worked as an engineer since then, and has done pretty well.

My grandmother went to college for the first time at about the same age, intending to become a teacher. She became a computer programmer instead.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2006

I forgot to mention my great aunt, who first went to college in her 70s. She has loved it.
posted by amro at 10:50 AM on January 24, 2006

My wife went from the corporate world to the baking world -- we own a small, neighborhood bakery. We make everything from scratch, which is a real rarity. You would not believe what goes on in most "bakeries." We'll have been open three years this May. She likes it, but would like it a hell of a lot more if she didn't have to deal with the public.

It's very, very hard work -- more physically demanding than you think. Your back, arms, legs and feet will ache like never before. You also won't get paid much. Pastry chefs make around $13 an hour.

I'd suggest getting a job at a bakery before you make the leap to see if it's for you. If you like baking the occasional scone/pie/cake at home, don't do it. You'll be baking and decorating the same things, the same exact way, many, many times. There's room for innovation but not as much as you'd think unless you get really lucky.

Don't worry about the 19 year olds. You already have a leg up -- real world experience, and, I'm assuming, drive and dedication. Personally, I don't see too much of that in the 20 year olds we've had at our bakery. The air is pretty thin.

Lastly, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading the pastry and baking forums over at eGullet. This question's been asked before and you'll get longer, more complete answers than mine.

All that said, if you still want to do it, I wish you the best. Feel free to email me with questions.
posted by Atom12 at 10:52 AM on January 24, 2006

My mother, at 48, left banking and went to school to be an RN. She's been very happy. You can do it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2006

Would a career change to pastry chef remove your ability to go back to work in your current industry? That is, if these people you're working with now knew you used to be a pastry chef, would they have ever hired you?

What I'm trying to say is that unless your industry by and large hates pastry chefs and discriminates against them, you can always go back to it afterwards, if the preparation of delicious foods doesn't suit/support you properly.

It's a fairly low-risk proposition you're asking about, but the potential payout for you is pretty high. From a practical and completely unromantic perspective I'd say go for it.

So, there, you have my permission.
posted by Hildago at 11:24 AM on January 24, 2006

My mom did data entry her entire life (until about 50) and about 5 years ago, started doing catering and a year or so later became a pastry chef for a pretty good restaurant. She never went to pastry school (or any other school), but took some classes. She loves it and is a completely different (better) person because of it. So go for it, life is too short!
posted by _zed_ at 11:25 AM on January 24, 2006

the more important question is: can your no-longer-a-teenager body handle the massive amounts of drug usage required of each and every pastry chef? are you up to this snow-white challenge?
posted by soma lkzx at 11:26 AM on January 24, 2006

My father-in-law went to medical school after a whole other career as a biomedical engineer. He was 40 when he finally got in. My husband went to medical school at age 30, after a career on Wall Street. My FIL likes to joke that maybe our kids will go to medical school at age 20. I don't care either way, but I wouldn't be surprised if either of them shifted gears career-wise -- there seems to be quite the genetic legacy.

Also, re: the competing with 19-year-olds, my husband did feel like he suffered in comparison in terms of sheer stamina (being able to study all night and not be all that affected by it), and because he didn't have all the unfettered time the younger kids did (we had our first kid during his first year of med school) -- but in the long run, his real-world experience having worked with people and having supported himself for years was a real asset. And because he was changing his whole life to do this -- and spending a ton of time and money to make it happen -- it really mattered in a way it just didn't to some of his younger classmates. (Which isn't to say that they weren't as serious as him, I just mean that it was really on the line for him, and he knew he had to make it work. He himself says there's no way he would have worked so hard had he gone to med school straight out of college.)

Long story short, it's been a hard road, and an expensive one, but he's SO much happier doing what he really wants to do with his life now.

Good luck to you!
posted by mothershock at 11:30 AM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in the process. Yes, I feel mildly out of place among the younger students, but it's not a big issue for anybody. You'll find plenty of other older students, at all ages and stages of life. For me, it's such a small issue when I consider that I am having a blast learning new things and going in an important direction. I've had a friend who did the same thing. The people I've met who chose to take this step seem incredibly happy with their choice. Really, you won't regret it. You're aligning your life to better match who you are and what you need and want. I don't think you could do a better thing for yourself.
posted by moira at 11:30 AM on January 24, 2006

My boyfriend has just started culinary school at the tender age of 32, and is studying to be a pastry chef. Not only does he absolutely love it, but he tells me that everyone in his class is around his age. I think culinary school tends to have a much wider variety of age ranges and folks who are starting a new career.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:31 AM on January 24, 2006

I'm 50, and on what's off the top of my head the third distinct career path of my life. In fact I didn't get my Bachelor's degree until I was just over 40.

Don't worry about it.

Your fear about "feeling old and ridiculous" is your beast; you created it, and it's up to you to ignore it. So ignore it already and get out there and chase a dream. You sure don't want to be on your deathbed wishing you'd sacked up back in '06.
posted by Elvis at 11:42 AM on January 24, 2006

I didn't go to law school until I was thirty-four. Interacting with the youngsters was a real bonus. It was like being reintroduced to part of a past life.
posted by Carbolic at 11:58 AM on January 24, 2006

I was going to post a similar question myself. I'm 40, and am taking classes in a field that's pretty far from what I've done for the last 20 years. I'm not the oldest person in the classes, and not the youngest, either; they range from early 20s to late 50s. I love the classes; they've added a whole huge new dimension to my life that will enrich it even if I don't end up switching careers.

I look around now and then to see if there are any social or networking sites that cater to mid-life career changers. If anyone knows of any, I'd be glad to hear of it!

Best of luck to you and all career-switchers.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:25 PM on January 24, 2006

Two positive stories:

A guy I worked with who was in the financial industry for almost 20 years up and quit his job to become a chef. He moved to another state with his wife and young kid, rented a house and found a job in a kitchen almost right away. I hear from his friends that he has never been happier, healthier, or more positive than he is now.

Next, my father was a 15+ year veteran of the advertising industry. He was the SVP of a modest sized advertising group. He was laid off in 2002 and decided instead of dusting off the resume, he would start another business. He has been in the restaurant and bar business with limited success before advertising, but he felt like he had to give one last try at self-employment. He started his own contracter/handyman business from scratch; the remainder of his liquid savings, no tools, no contacts, no employeers, no clients, etc. He has since built his business into a very successful local enterprise, has never seemed happier than now.

Do it now rather than later.
posted by suitcase at 1:04 PM on January 24, 2006

When my sister and I were finally off to college, my mother decided that she finally had the time to go to school as well. Working full time, she completed a 5-year undergrad+masters and got to be the high school teacher that she'd wanted to be way back when...
posted by john m at 2:26 PM on January 24, 2006

I think nowadays, it's unlikely anyone is going to have the same job for 30 years like our parents did. It's more than likely that we will enjoy multiple careers and change jobs every 3-5 years. That's just the nature of jobs in general in the US. You are not weird for changing careers. You are normal.
posted by CrazyJoel at 2:41 PM on January 24, 2006

First, I have a cousin who went back to medical school in her mid to late 30s because she was burned out on being a lawyer. She's happier for it. So add me as a vote of confidence. I wish you luck!

Secondly, in response to Atom12, I wouldn't assume Flakypastry means 'baker' when he/she says 'pastry chef'. There are a couple of eateries in town (SF) that I frequent for the exciting and delicious things, on a relatively smaller scale, the pastry chef, rather than the chef, is doing.

There's probably a lot more room for innovation as a pastry chef in a restaurant than as a baker in a fixed menu bakery.

(But as someone who's experienced overnight shoulder and finger pain from kneading bread that didn't turn out well anyway(!), I very much sympathize.)
posted by birdie birdington at 3:42 PM on January 24, 2006

This is an inspiring thread. I'm where the OP is. Let us know what you do.
posted by TeamBilly at 8:22 AM on January 25, 2006

I have a mid-forties friend who went from science geek work (testing lab) to successful artist. I think that's pretty cool.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:52 AM on January 25, 2006

Thank you for all of the great responses! This IS an inspiring thread.

Some backgound: I graduated from a over-achiever type women's college in the early 80's with a chemistry degree. I always loved pastry and bread baking (I still bake over 25 loaves per week - my neighbors eat really well), but thought that a culinary degree wasn't a good use for my talents. Well, 20 years later, I'm sick of my career and I STILL love baking and pastry arts, and still have the itch. Everyone around me is supportive, but it's hard to change direction after so long without fear and hesitation. Hearing about mid-life changes and success of others really helps.

I've applied to an accredited program, and I'll follow up if I decide to attend.
posted by Flakypastry at 11:10 AM on January 25, 2006

Go read Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life? for plenty of real-life examples.
posted by freston at 4:29 AM on January 26, 2006

Do you really need to go to school to become a pastry chef? I bet the quality of your product will be much more persuasive than any diploma.

As someone whop's changed careers, oh, about four times in the past 20 years, I'd suggest getting a job (becoming an apprentice) with a pastry chef and seeing how you like it first. Then, if you do love it, dive in and learn everything you can on your own. The learning curve will be much accelerated and you'll be "qualified" (whatever that means) in a fraction of the time of a degree program.
posted by wordwhiz at 9:23 AM on January 28, 2006

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