How To Make A Career Change In Later Life

Image of Start Here painted on a pavement

Image: Gia Oris

In your 40s, 50s or 60s and thinking about making a move into something new? Worried you’ve run out of time, or that ageism will keep you trapped where you are? There are some unique challenges to making a latter-stage shift, but it’s absolutely possible. Here, Natasha shares where to start.

  • “I’ve plateaued in my career, and I know I have more to give – it’s just not available where I am.” – Annie (workshop participant)
  • “I did my time doing what I do for other people. Now it’s time for me.” – Greg (Launch Pad Alumnus)
  • “This worked for me, until it didn’t. And I want to spend the years I have ahead of me doing something that really lights me up.” – Sandra (workshop participant)
  • “I’ve spent my career taking care of myself and my family. Now, it feels important to give back in some way.”  – Raj (Launch Pad Alumnus)

No matter where you are in the story of your career, there are plenty of reasons to want to find something more fulfilling.

But when you have less time ahead of you in the working world than behind you, it can feel especially challenging.

Is it too late for you? What are people going to think? Are you going to face ageism or discrimination? Have you painted yourself into a career corner that’s too defined to escape? Is there even enough time left for you to find something new?

The idea of shifting in the latter stages of your career story can be confronting, and raises questions and concerns that are unique to this period of life. 

At the same time, being fulfilled at work is a goal that’s worth exploring. And plenty of people make successful shifts in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond.

The ageism question

Let’s start with the big one. 

I’d love to be able to tell you that age-related discrimination isn’t a problem in career change. 

But we both know that’s not the case. 

The unfortunate truth is that the older you get, the more likely you are to encounter later-life-related biases in the workplace – and that’s just as true if you choose to make a shift or if you stay where you are.

In fact, a 2021 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that ageism is currently the only ‘acceptable’ prejudice, with employers feeling that there were rational reasons to make workplace decisions based on age.

As such, as someone looking for a new line of work in the latter stages of your career, you may well encounter biases such as:

  • You have too much experience, or you’re overqualified
  • You’re not going to stick around for long
  • You’re less ambitious or committed
  • Your skill-set is outdated and / or you’re less able to learn new skills fast
  • You’re likely to take more sick days

Knowing that these perspectives exist in the working world can feel frustrating and demotivating before you even begin.

And if you’re experiencing regular knock-backs or difficulties in the traditional job market, it’s also hard to know if the experiences you’re having are due to ageism or other factors. Are you ‘overqualified’, or do they just not want to hire you? You’re left feeling uncertain and ill-equipped to handle the challenge you may or may not be facing.

So what do you do in the face of these stark realities?

How do you approach your career change, knowing that ageism does exist?

1. Decide: is it worth trying anyway?

There are thousands of factors at play in a career change. Some are internal - fears, ideas, and the practicalities of your life.

Others are social – employment statistics, economic trends, social narratives and cultural conversations. 

These social and cultural realities can immediately steal the wind from your sails. 

If it’s so bad out there, why bother? Isn’t it just going to be a long uphill battle?

At the same time: 

  • You know you have a number of years ahead of you in your career. 
  • You know what you’re capable of, regardless of whether or not others see it yet. 
  • You know that facts and figures tell a broad-strokes story: they’re generalisations that don’t always reflect the experiences of every individual. 
  • And (unless something radical happens in the next decade) this is simply the reality of the situation you’re facing.

So knowing that there will be challenges ahead, does the possibility of finding more fulfilling work still feel worth the effort of trying?

Knowing that the next however-many-years will pass anyway, is it worth using some of that time to explore the possibility of a career you love?

And in the awareness that nobody gets through a career change without facing some combination of external and social obstacles, are you willing to face yours?

2. Educate yourself 

Basketball star Kobe Bryant was known for an almost psychic ability to pre-empt and defend against the moves of his opponents. 

But he wasn’t psychic – he just spent hours and hours watching videos of the players and teams he was up against before he ever stepped onto the court.

Like most fears and concerns, your worry about ageism becomes more manageable when you can see it clearly.

So do your research on what ageism is, how it shows up (remembering that this may vary depending on where you are in the world), and what you can do to minimise its impact. 

  • At what point in the hiring process does ageism tend to become a factor?
  • What are your legal rights and options?
  • Who are the services and public bodies that exist to support people in your country (i.e. ACAS in the UK, and the EEOC in the USA)?

Understanding the reality of what you may (or may not) come up against will help you plan for the task ahead, and feel more confident in the choices you make about how to navigate forward.

3. Balance your diet

In the 1960s, researcher George Gerbner introduced cultivation theory as part of the Cultural Indicators Project to examine the influence of television on viewers, specifically in relation to the violence portrayed on TV.

The theory holds that long-term exposure to media shapes how consumers perceive the world, and conduct themselves. The more violence you see on-screen, the more dangerous you believe the world to be.

Nowadays, it’s a widely-accepted concept: the stories and ideas we consume form our world-view. 

In the mind as much as in the body, you are what you eat.

Stories and statistics of ageism can paint a gloomy picture of the world of career change. 

But they’re only part of the picture. And as much as it’s important to educate yourself about ageism and its potential impact on your shift, it’s equally helpful to feed yourself examples of successful later-in-life career changes.

Seek out people of your age and above who have moved into new careers. These might be people you already know in your own life, friends of friends, or stories online. 

For some examples from our community here at Careershifters, you might get inspired by:

Follow the work of groups and organisations such as the Stanford Center for Longevity, the Longevity Forum, CoGenerate and the Modern Elder Academy to help you reframe the conversation about the stage of life you’re in.

Start building the case for career change at any age – not as some Pollyanna practice of saccharine over-optimism, but for a balanced and rational viewpoint.

Beyond ageism

Tackling the challenge of age-related bias, is understandably, a core part of finding fulfilling work in the latter stages of your career. 

But it’s important that potential ageism doesn’t become the central narrative of your shift. 

There are plenty of strategies you can use to find fulfilling work, many of which are unique to you as a later-in-life career changer, and where you can harness your maturity to benefit your process. 

Let’s take a look at them.

1. Explore the unknown

The world of work is changing fast.

And if you’ve spent a long time in one industry – particularly one that hasn’t been floating your boat for a while – it’s likely you’re feeling out of touch. Out of touch with what’s available in the job market, what options might be available to you, and even what you enjoy.

So take some time to explore. 

Start with your curiosities – the things you know you have some interest in – and then begin to play with taking yourself into environments and possibilities that you’re completely unfamiliar with.

  • Always wondered about a career that ‘gives back’ somehow? Find out who you know that works in a charitable organisation and ask them for a chat about their work.
  • Think that the start-up world might be fun? Go along to a meetup to see who’s there and what they’re up to.
  • Curious about a creative career? Join an online class and see how it feels.

By taking yourself out of the bubble of your day-to-day reality, you’ll start to uncover options and ideas you’d otherwise never have come across – and begin to feel (rather than think), in real-time, the directions you might want to head in. 

Plus, there’s an energy that comes with venturing into new spaces. 

If life has been feeling stale for a while, or you feel you’ve lost your ‘zing’, it’s likely you’ll find yourself revitalised by the novelty and discovery of exploring new worlds. People meeting you for the first time won’t define you through the categories and structures that you’re usually known by. You’ll show up in different ways, and encounter different parts of yourself. 

Don’t expect to encounter your dream career right away. This initial exploration is simply a challenge to break out of the monotony of the familiar and the known – to inject your brain with new inspiration and ideas that you can then follow up, if they capture your interest.

2. Map your success story

There’s one undeniable benefit of changing career later in life: you have the ‘fresh eyes’ that someone new to a business or industry can bring, AND the life experience of someone who’s been around for a while.

It’s easy, when thinking about making a shift, to consider only your most recent experience. After all, the rest is ancient history, right? Wrong.

Take some time to sit down and map out the whole timeline of your working life. Do this on a big sheet of paper, or use an online tool like Miro if you prefer to work on a screen.

Sketch out the key chapters of your career, and then flesh it out with:

  • Achievements you’re particularly proud of
  • People you mentored, whether formally or informally
  • Situations that you helped with or supported, even if you wouldn’t normally include them on a CV or resumé
  • Projects and endeavours you participated in outside of work
  • Skills you developed – whether personal or professional
  • Connections you made – with individuals or industries

Start with the big, obvious items, and then challenge yourself to get granular. Was there a new hire at your last company that you took particular care of? The CEO of a start-up you got friendly with at your running club? A community initiative you supported outside of work?

To take this a step further, highlight the elements of your timeline that exemplify skills that improve with age, such as conflict resolution, problem-solving, resilience, people skills, and strategic thinking.

Seeing your life mapped out in this way can refresh the way you feel about your career; remind you that you have plenty to offer; and give you specific things to share when you’re talking to people in new industries.

3. Talk to the elders

One of the key principles we work with at Careershifters is the importance of connecting with people inside industries that interest you. 

In fact, I regularly offer clients the idea that career change is nothing more than a series of conversations. 

By having conversations and building connections with people doing interesting work, you’ll:

  • Understand the realities of the role or industry you’re drawn to
  • Get insights into ways to shift into the area that you might not have learned otherwise
  • Challenge your assumptions about the career change you’re considering
  • Be seen for who you are as a person, not just what’s on your CV or resumé

And as someone for whom the traditional job market is likely to hold biases and obstacles, this mindset is particularly important.

However, for people shifting later in life, I’d add something important to the idea above: do not be afraid to aim higher than you think you need to.

Many career changers start small, reaching out to whoever they’re already connected to, or who they assume aren’t ‘too senior’ to have the time for a short conversation.

But the people who are likely to understand the value of someone experienced in the workforce are likely to be those who are equally experienced – people of your age group or higher. And those people may well hold senior positions and be key decision-makers in their companies or industries.

So while it’s tempting to look for connections near the bottom of the ladder to minimise the risk of rejection, don’t be afraid to reach out to people higher up.

4. Tackle your niggles

Some fears are baseless. Others have their roots in rational concerns.

And it’s likely that you have some fears about ageism that can be set aside, and others that can be tackled.

  • Know that your tech skills aren’t as up-to-date as they could be? Try an online course to upskill in an area that would give you more confidence.
  • Worried that your career history is too focused on one area, and wish you had more breadth to offer? Explore volunteering, mentoring or retraining opportunities to flesh out what you have to offer (some options will even pay you while you learn).
  • Concerned that you’ll be thrown a bias-laden question in an interview and won’t be able to answer it elegantly? Practise with friends until you feel cool and confident no matter what comes your way.

It’s quite possible that your current skill-set and experience will be plenty to serve you in a career change without needing a boost.

But the niggles and worries that can come with a shift can be sticky and demotivating. And if you have the time and opportunity to tackle them head-on – to build your confidence and take their edges away – it’s well worth it.

5. Play with alternative options

‘Career change’ can feel like a huge move.

The phrase elicits mental images of big leaps – transforming your working life entirely – but it doesn’t have to look that way.

You may be certain that your role, company and industry are no longer where you want to be. Or, you may discover that there’s something much closer to home that would suit you well.

Maybe the environment you’re working in is the part that feels ‘wrong’, and you can take your skills and experience out of the realm of ‘employment’ to work as a consultant, freelancer, or set up your own business.

Perhaps you want to keep doing what you’re doing, but in a smaller organisation or a different industry.

Maybe the company you’re with is great, and you simply need to negotiate a move to a different department or role. 

To start assessing the size of the move you might want to make, it can be helpful to work out your priorities for the next chapter of your life.

  • Is it most important to you to focus on financial stability, building up your pension, assets and addressing debts?
  • Do you want to prioritise your health and wellbeing, with a more relaxed pace of life and time with family?
  • Is ‘giving back’ the primary consideration for your next career?
  • Are you mostly seeking a challenge – to stretch yourself in new ways and learn new skills?
  • Perhaps what you care about right now is having fun – doing something that puts a smile on your face and allows you to enjoy the coming years as much as possible?

Depending on what you decide is most important to you, you may find that the size of the shift you need to make becomes clear. 

And it might not be as big and as scary as you thought.

Karen Naya was particularly confronted by the prospect of, at nearly 50 years old, making a big leap from a long-term career in evaluation. But by getting clear on what she wanted and needed from her next steps, she managed to craft a portfolio career that used her existing skill-sets as well as taking her into new and fulfilling realms:

“I was 49 when I decided to make the change and join the Career Change Launch Pad. I felt that I was coming at this with so much baggage. I'd spent over twenty years doing what I did. How could I do a potentially complete one-eighty shift with all of this history behind me and no experience really in any other fields?

…. Now, I have my own company, and I have a portfolio career. 

I retained the best bits from my former role, and instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I now work for myself.”

6. Consider the long game

One of the biggest concerns I hear from latter-stage career changers is the sense that you’re ‘running out of time’ to make a shift. 

You don’t have decades ahead of you to take wrong turns or build up lots of experience in a new area. And career change itself takes time: learning what you want, developing connections in a new area, and testing out your ideas to make sure they’re viable options.

And this sensation is completely natural – the space-time continuum we live in is, fortunately or unfortunately, an undeniable reality.

At the same time, your career isn’t over yet – far from it. 

Our generations are living longer than ever before. Many of us will continue working beyond the previously accepted age of retirement. And, as Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott share in their book The 100 Year Life, this requires us to think about our working lives in a broader and more malleable way.

So the next step in your career isn’t ‘the final chapter’. You’re not trying to fill a short gap with a clear and defined cut-off date at the end. 

Instead, your next step is a chance for you to step closer to a more fulfilling working environment that will likely extend, whether explicitly or implicitly, into the stages of your life that follow.

Who do you want to be before and after retirement? What skills and interests would you love to incorporate into your life as a whole? What would be a fulfilling springboard into retirement and your latter years, setting you up for a rich post-working life of connections, experiences and value to offer?

A phrase my clients and course participants hear from me a lot is this: “If you’re not winning, move the goalposts.”

So if you’ve set the finish line of your thinking at retirement age, and it’s keeping you feeling cramped and hurried, move it. Don’t focus on designing your ‘last career move’ – enjoy crafting the human being you’re going to become.

A later-in-life career change comes with unique challenges – and with undeniable benefits

Whatever age you are, and whatever you’ve done thus far in your career, you’re entering this conversation with a rich and valuable set of resources.

Your life experience, the mistakes you’ve learned from, the parts of yourself you’ve met, the friends and relationships you’ve built, and the skills you’ve picked up along the way.

Career change isn’t just a switch from job-to-job; it’s an endeavour that asks us to take on practical, emotional, and philosophical questions – questions that you, as someone who’s been around for a while, are excellently-equipped to explore. 

Yes, there are new and specific challenges ahead of you. Yes, you’re doing something unusual and extra-ordinary. And the next ten, twenty, or thirty years of your life are yours to do with as you will.

What comes up for you when you think about making a shift later in life? Let us know in the comments below.