Changing Careers After 40: Real Stories, New Callings

By Terry Pile and David Lingle

In researching our forthcoming book, Changing Careers after 40: Real Stories, New Callings, we chronicled the experiences of over 50 successful individuals who were inspired or forced to start a new career after 40 years of age. They are Ph.Ds and high school drop outs, CEOs and blue collar workers, logical thinkers and impetuous doers. Most assuredly, they are role models for anyone considering a career change. Through their stories, we studied the struggles and triumphs of mastering a career change. We also identified common principles and significant themes that can be valuable to career counselors working with the growing number of middle-aged clients considering a career transition.

Career Change: A Growing Phenomenon

A recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) claimed 57 percent of workers 45 years and older were delaying retirement or returning to the workforce for economic reasons. In a study published in 2008 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 65 percent of the workers who started a specific job between the ages of 38 and 45 changed jobs again within five years. Several studies estimated that most workers will have on average three to seven careers in their lifetime — that’s careers, not jobs. The changing nature of the way companies do business is forcing us to change the way we think about being employees as well.

By interviewing individuals who had accomplished careers and left them to start over, we identified four common principles shared by successful career changers. Career counselors who are familiar with these principles can better prepare their clients considering such a transition and strategically guide them through the various phases.

Fundamentals of Career Change

The phases in the career change process include:

  • Being open to change

  • Feeling confused about next steps

  • Creating a positive environment

  • Willing to take a risk

Some career changers traveled through each phase quickly. Other stumbled or got stuck. Through each phase of the process, they gained value insights that allowed them to move closer to finding a new vocation.

Opening the Door to Change

The end of a career, whether forced or self-induced, requires a period of mourning. Similar to the death of a loved one, career changers experienced varying degrees of anger, fear, sadness and self-doubt. After working through these powerful emotions, all eventually reached the stage of acceptance and were ready to move forward.

Unfortunately, not everyone can work through these stages of grief effectively. Some get stuck for years in anger or self-doubt resulting in poor career choices. They are either paralyzed by their emotions and find excuses not to look for work, yearn for the good old days or return to a similar job because it is “what they know” not “what they want.” A skilled counselor can help his/her client recognize these barriers and develop strategies for overcoming them.

Experiencing Career Chaos

Each career changer struggled with the question, “What next?” For some, this period of confusion lasted a few weeks; for others, several years. This period of career chaos was inevitable. It forced the career changer to explore options, reactivate networks and test the waters. There were false starts and a few failures. But in each case, the career changer got right back on his horse. By accepting that a period of uncertainty is part of the career transition process, a career changer can allow himself or herself to become more purposeful and open to the exciting part of change: exploring new possibilities.

Building a Supportive Environment

The successful career changers interviewed all had a strong support networks. In most cases, it was a spouse, but friends, co-workers, classmates and mentors also served to provide encouragement, positive energy and in some cases, permission to take the leap. Occasionally, career changers had to make a conscious effort to separate themselves from negative people or unpleasant activities, especially if they involved close friends or family members. The career counselor plays a significant role in the client’s support system and in some cases, may be the client’s only positive anchor. In this role it is important for the career counselor to help the client develop a network of support through multiple channels.

Taking a Calculated Risk

In all cases we studied, successful career changers were willing to take risks. Those who were more risk adverse took longer to make the transition and were far more cautious in their approach, but to make the transition, ultimately some level of risk had to be accepted. In each case, the career changer had to be willing to trod new territory and overreach the boundaries of his/her comfort level for change to occur. Career counselors can help their clients work through a risk analysis to measure risk tolerance. By developing worst-case scenarios and back-up plans counselor and client can better determine whether a career is realistic and worth pursuing.

Next Steps

 Identifying the principles of career change was the first step in this study. In phase two, we will extract common themes and develop templates that career changers can use based on the real-life examples. Part II of this study will profile Harvey, as he navigates a survival job into a successful career. It will appear in a future issue of Career Convergence.


Career Consultant and Coach
Terry has a private practice, Career Advisors, and is president of Restart Enterprises, the resource for mid-life career changers.  Terry has a master’s degree in education from Indiana University and a certificate in career development from the University of Washington. She is certified by the Center for Credentialing and Education as a Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF). In addition, to consulting and training, Terry writes occasional feature articles on career issues for newspapers and e-zines. She has published five electronic books on career topics through Get to the Point Books, www.gettothepointbooks.com.

David Lingle,MA, MS, MBA
David has had several careers: soldier, educator, software developer. He is currently, CEO of Restart Enterprises, a resource for mid-life career changers. A former IT executive, David has contributed to the success of large companies such as Hewlett-Packard as well as several technology start-ups including Isilon, Appliant and Adaptis. David received a Bachelors and a Masters degree in Mathematics from Southern Illinois University and a second Masters Degree in Computer Science from The State University of New York at Stony Brook. In 2004, David received an MBA from the University of Washington's Executive MBA program.

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1 Comment

Dr. Kathryn Russ   on Tuesday 06/01/2010 at 07:53 PM

After almost 30 years in sales and marketing for a large corporation, I took early retirement, went back to school for my doctorate in Counseling & Supervision and have now been teaching for several years. Love it - just wish I had done it 30 years earlier. Sometimes career change comes when you no longer have a mortgage and children to educate. You then have time to determine what you REALLY want to do and go for it.

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