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Updated on Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Chandrama Anderson was the senior director at a technology start-up in the heart of Silicon Valley when she decided it was time for a career change. At the time, she was in her early 40s and grieving the recent deaths of her daughter and grandparents.
She decided she wanted to do what she called “work of the heart.” For her, that meant pursuing a career as a family therapist.
Having earned her undergraduate degree in journalism and creative writing, she would have to go back to school for a master’s in order to transition to psychology. She quit her lucrative job at the tech firm and enrolled at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif., where she earned a master of arts in counseling psychology/holistic studies over the course of three years.
Going back to school after working for 25 years was daunting, but she didn’t let the intimidation factor stop her.
“A person said to me, ‘You’ll be 48 when you’re a therapist,” she recalls. “I replied, ‘I’ll be 48, or I’ll be 48 and be a therapist.’”
Fifteen years since she quit her job, Anderson, now 57, is the president of Connect2 Marriage Counseling, a couples counseling practice in Palo Alto. She oversees a team of therapists who see people primarily for marriage counseling, premarital counseling, grief and relational issues.
Running her own team of therapists wouldn’t have been possible if Anderson hadn’t taken a risk and made a career change later in life, when she truly felt it was time.
As Anderson’s example shows, switching careers in one’s 40s is definitely doable. But it does require the right amount of planning and forethought.
Kerry Hannon, a retirement, personal finance and career change expert — and the author of numerous books, including “What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job” — says there’s been an uptick in the number of people switching careers in their 40s and even their 50s.
Indeed, a 2014 study from USA Today and Life Reimagined, an organization dedicated to helping people reimagine their lives, found that 29 percent of people ages 40-59 were planning to make a career change in the next five years. Numerous factors are at play in such findings, but Hannon believes that among the biggest, it’s easier to start a business and ramp up one’s education online today.
Many people who change careers at this stage in life, Hannon says, do so because of defining and often tragic life experiences, such as a death in the family or a serious illness. That played a factor in Anderson’s metamorphosis.
“They pause and they say: ‘Is this what it’s all about? Is this what I really want to be remembered for? Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?’” Hannon says.
There are certain roadblocks to changing careers in middle age: Financial readiness is one, and workplace age bias another. One 2013 AARP study found that three out of five older workers said they had experienced or witnessed age discrimination at work.
Hannon believes making a career switch at this age can be done if one takes the right steps.
Move for the right reasons
Before anything else, take a long, hard look at why you’re intent on making this change.
“First, do your soul-searching about why you want to make this jump, this transition to something new,” Hannon says. Put another way: Really drill into your motivation and figure out if this is your passion, or if you’re simply in a rut at your current job.
To say Mounir Errami put some serious thought into becoming a doctor in his 40s would be an understatement. After working several different jobs over the course of his career, Errami — now a doctor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas — knew he wanted to return to medical school at the age of 38. He had initially started medical school at 18 in Lyon, France, but dropped out. He then pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry and bioinformatics, as well as an MBA, and started two business.
His first business went under and once he was in his late 30s, he sold his second one, a software company. He then took a few years off to spend with his family.
After a reset, he knew he wanted to return to medical school, lest he always have regrets.
If he hadn’t made that choice, he says, “it would’ve been sort of an unfulfilled quest that I had started and never finished.” He adds, “I’m very happy I’ve done it.”
Once you’ve identified your intended path, take a look at the marketplace, Hannon says. “What’s the market for it? What’s out there? Who’s currently doing it? Reach out to those people. If possible; network with people who are currently doing the kind of work that you would like to do.”
Just because you think you know your new life is calling, that doesn’t mean it’ll fulfill your every dream. After all, it’s still a job. Figure out if you’re OK with the inevitable downsides of a new career before diving in.
“If possible, it’s really, really important to do the job first,” Hannon says. “Volunteer or moonlight. Something might feel dreamy and like, ‘Oh my gosh, I always wanted to do this,’ but when you’re actually doing it every day, it might not have that glamour to it that you thought.”
Facing a pay cut
For some workers, the whole point of pursuing a new career in their 40s is to leave one low-paying field for a job with better financial prospects. But in reality, the opposite may be true.
“You absolutely have to get financially fit,” Hannon says. “It’s really critical.” She says it’s likely you’ll earn less when you begin your new job — either because you’re a newcomer or you’ve started your own new venture, in which most of the money goes into the business. Coupled with the fact that most career changes occur on a three- to five-year timeline, factoring in a return to school and additional training, you’ll want to save up.
If you’re taking a substantial pay cut, focus on paying down lingering debts or downsizing your lifestyle to fit your new, reduced income.
“At a certain life stage, you might also be able to downsize your home,” she says. Indeed, some people in this demographic might have children who have already left home.
Anderson and Errami were both fortunate to be in a solid financial condition before entering school. Anderson says she inherited some money from her mother and grandmother, while Errami used funds saved from his previous business.
Not having to worry about finances when switching careers means you can focus on the path ahead, in all its nuance.
“If you’re financially fit, then you have options,” Hannon says. “Then you give yourself the opportunity to try different paths, to try new things and move in a different direction without that burden of a must-have salary.”
Don’t quit your day job just yet
Changing careers after decades in a certain field isn’t something to be taken lightly. As previously discussed, it’s vital to make sure you aren’t just restless in your current position. Hannon says you should really identify your “why” before making any drastic decisions.
“What’s the motivation?” she asks. “Is it that you’re just bored with your job right now? Because there are lots of ways to fix that.”
Perhaps you need to work in the same field, but move to a different company. Or perhaps you need a new position within your existing field.
And if you ask yourself these questions and are still fairly certain you want to switch careers, do not quit right away. Saving up around six months’ worth of salary is a great way to ensure you’re financially ready for a change. If you don’t have this much money in the bank, stay at your current job for a bit longer and try moonlighting or working a side gig in your desired field.
Going for it
Once you’ve decided you’re ready to switch careers, Hannon suggests taking these four steps:
- Go slow. Take your time and do one thing every day toward making the change. Start out by asking someone in your intended profession for coffee.
- Again, don’t be so quick to quit your day job. There are exceptions to the rule, but most people shouldn’t quit their job. Instead, volunteer or get a side job.
- Take baby steps. This doesn’t mean you can’t get started right away. Just don’t spend a huge portion of money or dedicate an immense amount of time to your new career path until you’re absolutely certain it’s the right fit.
- Don’t be afraid. Hannon says she has spoken with hundreds of people who have made later-in-life career transitions. She says they invariably say, “I wish I had done it sooner.”