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Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mid Life Career Change

Firmly anchored to your office chair in a career where you feel under-appreciated and un-fulfilled, you start to daydream about what could have been if you just had the nerve to follow your dream of becoming a cruise ship captain 20 years ago. You would rather be breathing the salty-air and carving foamy-white ripples through the blue Pacific just like your idol Captain Merrill Stubing, who confidently steered the “Love Boat” through the cheesy mists of comedic storms every Saturday night. Instead, here you are-over 40 and treading water the in a job you settled for…instead of the glamorous career that you really wanted.

As we get older and more pigeon-holed by our previous experience, our window of career change opportunity can get smaller. One of the biggest benefits to being young is having the luxury of time. Plentiful time allows for explorations, wild idealism, and the time-cured mistakes that can result. When changing careers over age 40, careful movement and maximizing your career reward-to-risk ratio becomes even more critical. Those of us over-forty are often burdened by personal responsibilities which cannot be stalled when we finally decide to press the career “reset” button. Before deciding on a mid-life career change, there are several questions you must first ask about yourself and your “dream career”:

1. Is the career field in demand?

In today’s job market, the pressures of new automation technologies, reduced spending, and competition from an increasingly globalized labor force have greatly reduced the demand for many professional fields. Before embarking on a journey towards your dream career, it is important to remove emotion from the decision-making process and first analyze the potential rewards from attempting a career change realistically and objectively.

2. Is the career change path practical?

Depending on how closely related your previous job responsibilities are to those of your new one, your career change path could either appear to be a seamless transition or you might end up feeling like you did back in your early twenties: stuck in the no experience/can’t get hired because you have no experience paradox.

3. What are the required sacrifices and investments?

Above the age of forty, you are probably swamped with several social and financial responsibilities that can’t easily take a back-seat when it comes time to start on a career change path. Before beginning, take stock of the type and amount of personal sacrifices that may be required during the career change path. Such sacrifices could include leisure time, money, sleep, and even some relationships.

4. What are the earning expectations?

Doing what you love and getting paid for it is generally considered the perfect career scenario. However, if the starting salary of your dream career does not fully cover your near-term midlife financial obligations, you may have to consider downgrading your lifestyle for a while. If that is not an option, the risk-to-reward ratio may prove too high to justify making a full-time career switch.

5. Will the change allow me to meet my financial goals?

Just as near-term financial obligations must be taken into consideration when deciding on a mid-life career change, so must long-term goals. The cost of financing a college education (not just for the children, but possibly yours as well), mortgages, and retirement goals must be weighed against the amount of income that you hope to generate in your new career. If it does not contribute towards achieving your ideal future financial goals, sticking with your new career might end-up setting you back in the long-term.

6. Do I really have the talent, passion to succeed in your new field?

Lingering career dreams are often a source of hope and inspiration that can put a positive spin on the harsh reality of having to actually earn a living. As we get older however, our reduced physical and emotional ability to struggle while pursuing dreams born during our energetic youth can make them appear even harder to obtain than before. Before beginning, you must consider if you really have the tools to succeed in both the journey and after reaching the destination. Instead of over-glamorizing your dream profession, assessing whether you have the right amount of talent, energy, temperament, and passion to succeed should help you attach a realistic price on your dream career.

Successfully completing the path to a new career can depend on your ability to examine current trends, adjust, and handle short-term disappointment. In mid-life however, bad career change decisions or poor timing can risk ruining your current finances and turn a potential dream into a nightmare. On the other hand, the advantage of mid-life change is that even if your career change fails, at least you will still have marketable skills from years of experience in your previous profession to fall back upon. To some, pass or fail-just making the attempt at achieving their dreams would be satisfactory enough. Then, with the un-answered questions gone, you may no longer feel that you are stuck in the harbor drifting aimlessly. You can then free yourself to consider other practical and satisfying career options while smooth-sailing towards the horizon of your golden years.

Mid-Life Career Change Tips:

Provide a cover letter with your resume that briefly explains why you are seeking a career change and how your personal skills and previous experiences would benefit your new employer.

To counter a lack of experience in your target field, consider a part-time internship in order to gain experience before officially making the switch.

Estimate and finance the cost of education from current income, not from new career salary expectations.

Stay current and informed of your new career choice by reviewing trade publications.

Take advantage of message boards and ask questions to learn what others are currently saying about your target career sector.

Michael Viola is an entrepreneur and webmaster with a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Southern California.

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