A Complete Guide on Making a Career Change at 40

Illustration of a woman slightly smiling standing in front of  mountain peaks that feature two flags at their tops

During the 20th century, many employees would stay at one job throughout their entire working life, announce their retirement and then receive a gold watch. This is no longer the norm.

Today, the state of employment has evolved, with many workers changing jobs as many as 15 times throughout their lifetime. But what about changing careers? The data is not as complete because there is no consensus on how a career change is defined. Suffice it to say that the number will likely increase. 

In recent years, a lot of professionals have been participating in a midlife career change. It is a giant leap that requires faith in the future and confidence in your abilities.

The reasons for a career change at 40 vary, but a few of these could explain why you might consider it at this point in your life. For example, you could be mentally or physically exhausted by your job or dissatisfied with your career choice and professional growth. You may also find that you have a poor work-life balance or that the industry you are employed in is drastically changing. 

Trying to make change your career at 40 can seem like an impossible task. However, with the right moves and a little bit of luck, you can be on your way to a more fulfilling and profitable career.

Unsure where to begin? We have compiled a complete guide to help you with your midlife career change. 

1. Understand why you want to change careers

It is normal for a lot of 40-year-old professionals who have been entrenched in their careers for a decade or two to start questioning their job satisfaction. Accountants, attorneys, marketers or human resource managers – you may be thinking about transitioning to another career, despite being closer to retirement. Because this could be a life-altering decision, you must sit down and start listing off reasons why you want to change careers this late in the game.

Is it because you dislike the company that employs you? Is the work not challenging? Do you find your colleagues abhorrent creatures? In the end, you might find that it is not your career that bothers you but your employer. That said, even if you desire a new career, you need to compile a list of legitimate reasons before making that drastic choice. 

2. Don’t be impetuous

You decided you wanted to change your career on Sunday, so you submit your letter of resignation on Monday and begin looking at alternatives on Tuesday. This may not be the best course of action.

Even if you have found that you loathe your title, position, duties and overall career, it is better for you and your pocketbook to adopt a more gradual approach to changing careers. Put simply, don’t be rash and impetuous. You’re a 40-something with a mortgage, a spouse, two kids and a pet goldfish. So, what should you do instead?

Let’s look at the more responsible way of doing it: 

  • Research other careers that you find interesting and rewarding. 
  • Find out if there are jobs available in the different fields you want to work in. 
  • Determine if you have transferable skills (see below) that’ll allow you to transition into a new career. 
  • If you’re taking a pay cut, calculate how much you can afford in reduced salary. 
  • Estimate how long it would take to find a job from the day you would quit. 

At first, you might feel like it is the best decision to quit as soon as possible. But you will start feeling regret and consternation if you do because you’re now out of work and not collecting a paycheque, which would force you to start taking any job that would hire and pay you. This, in the end, would defeat the entire purpose of starting anew.  

3. Be prepared to start at the bottom

It took you about 10 to 15 years to grab that brass ring and climb to the top of the ladder to retrieve that championship: a six-figure salary, generous benefits and a celebrated position. You shouldn’t think that you will experience the same level of success as soon as you transition into a new career.

You need to be prepared to start at the bottom, despite being in your 40s. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to become a senior manager or executive at a new company with no experience in your new occupation, even though you have been in the workforce for a couple of decades.

You will need to begin at the bottom ring and work your way up the corporate ladder, which is a normal thing to go through in any new field.

4. Consider your transferable skills

In economics, there is an important principle known as a sunk cost. This is when a cost has already taken place, and it cannot be recovered. At the same time, there is also the sunk cost fallacy: continuing something once the investment of time, money or effort has been made. This philosophy can be applied to careers.

On the one hand, you have invested potentially 20 years of your life in this field. On the other hand, are you expected to spend another 20 years being unhappy because of your applied investment? 

Therefore, the best solution is to start thinking about your transferable skills. A transferable skill is something that can be utilised in various occupations or roles. The more common transferable skills are: 

  • Leadership 
  • Organisation 
  • Time management 
  • Communication (written and verbal) 
  • Analytical and numerical skills 

But these can be rather vague. Do you have any specific transferable skills that could be applied to a new career? From your education to your list of duties, you can always come up with a diverse array of abilities or expertise that could be useful to an employer in a different industry. 

5. Change your CV

Here comes the hardest part of your new journey: Revamping your CV. The last time you did this, you may have been ringing in the new millennium!

Since you finished college 20 years ago, you have compiled an enormous amount of experience, plenty of certifications and designations and a lot of achievements. But now you need to tailor these successes into a completely new CV that somehow alludes to your accomplishments in your previous career and is still relevant to the new one.

Put simply, you need to devise a document that showcases your experience, education, skills and anything else relevant to your job search.

But how do you achieve this?

You do have a list of positions, education, certifications, qualifications and other important achievements, but you should limit your resume to two pages or less. The other mistake that some 40-year-olds make is listing every job they ever had on the resume, which is a waste of time - instead, either place somewhat relevant positions on your CV or jobs where you really experienced success.

Also, leave graduation dates off your education and try to list classes that would be suitable for the new career.

When it comes to producing a resume, use the hybrid format that merges chronological and functional resume structures, which allows you to concentrate on skills and qualifications over traditional experience. Plus, introduce an objective below your contact information that summarises your skills and experience. 

It may be easier said than done, but these are the best methods to update your CV during your midlife career change. 

6. Sell yourself in cover letters and interviews

When your resume falls short of matching you with a new career, you might need to home in on your cover letter and interviews. This is the personal touch that could potentially prove your worth to a private firm willing to take a chance on a 40-year-old neophyte! 

Some people make the mistake of trying to avoid mentioning their old career in the cover letter. However, this is your best asset, and you need to exploit this to your advantage. How? It begins by explaining how your previous career prepared you for a new role. It also affords you the opportunity to highlight your transferable skills and convey the value you can bring to any organisation. 

The same reasoning applies to job interviews. Obviously, at this point, the hiring manager was interested enough to invite you for an interview. Perhaps after reading your CV and cover letter, the employer wanted to learn more.  

Here are some recommendations for a successful career change interview

  • Outline your plan for attaining new skills. 
  • Spotlight your flexibility and willingness to learn more and advance throughout the company. 
  • Come up with legitimate reasons for why you want to change a career so late in the game. 
  • Understand and be aware of any corporate culture changes.  
  • Be true to yourself and refrain from coming across as phoney or over the top in your answers. 

7. Network on social media

Twenty years ago, when you were embarking upon your career in horticulture or corporate law, social media was not around. Fast forward to the present, and social media is an integral factor for every aspect of life, including your career. Is it time to add social networks to your arsenal of professional tactics? Yes. 

It might not be the most important factor to your new endeavour, but it doesn’t hurt to network on social media, particularly LinkedIn. The website is a great way to find work, learn about industries, connect with other people in your field and market your abilities.

Will LinkedIn hook you up to a new job opportunity? Possibly. But it is also a sublime tool to incorporate into your overall strategy. 

8. Research online certification programmes

Most jobs now are high-tech and advanced, which could seem intimidating for a professional in their 40s. You might be proficient at Word or Excel, but these are prerequisites for most positions in today’s labour market. You need to know more than typing in a word processor. Therefore, you need to advance your skills and evolve your human capital to add more to your resume.

Distance learning is certainly one of the best ways to do it, especially if you already have plenty of commitments in your personal life, whether it is raising children or caring for a loved one. 

If you have learned that the career you are interested in requires certification or a set of skills that you do not already possess, you should consider enrolling in an online certification programme. Or, at the very least, a continuing education programme. 

For example, if you want to get into coding, you could always peruse platforms like Coursera, The Khan Academy, Udemy, edX or BrainStation. 

9. Seek out professional assistance

Believe it or not, career experts and guidance counsellors are not only for young people who are in university or who have recently finished college. In fact, because of people who are going through midlife changes, these professionals have become more important than ever before.

Although you are in the 40-to-49 demographic, you should consider searching for professional job employment assistance, especially if you feel like you’re stuck or you think you’re doing everything wrong. This could range from a guidance counsellor to a therapist to a life coach. These individuals can inform you of the latest changes in the job market, and what the trends are, particularly from a technical standpoint.

This can be a trying time, and it is not something you should be doing alone if apprehension and frustration wash over you.

10. Gather referrals from colleagues and managers

Let’s be honest: If you have been successful in your career for the last 20 years, you have inevitably accumulated a long list of referrals from colleagues, managers and clients. Yes, they might be from your past professional life, but they can still be an integral force for your career change and new position at a new company in a new industry.

Testimonials from your Rolodex of co-workers, professors, employers and anyone else relevant to your job search can be of tremendous value to changing careers. Whether they highlight your dedication or your flexibility, referrals and professional connections can place the spotlight on your character, integrity and work ethic. 

If you went above and beyond in your previous career, why wouldn’t you do the same for a new one? 

11. Prepare to tackle negative reactions

Will you have the support and kindness from your friends and family? Or will they rain on your parade with showers of negativity? This is a common reaction, mainly because when you go through an enormous life-changing event, it forces the other 40-year-old person to lift a mirror upon their own life, which might be mundane, disappointing and perhaps full of failures.

That said, you may need to get ready for the bombardment of negativity. Maybe the best thing you can do is to keep quiet about your decision and not let anyone know until you have a position lined up. 

12. Consider your finances first

For someone who is 44 years old, changing careers may not be the most financially responsible thing to do, especially if you have a family to support. Indeed, transitioning to a different job or career may be feasible for a 20-something, but it is a lot harder for someone who is in the 40-something category. In your 40s, you have more bills and responsibilities than what you had 20 years ago.

Put simply, you need to crunch the numbers, assess your finances and determine if it is fiscally possible to shift to an entirely new career, one that might potentially pay you less.

A career change at 40? How can you make it happen without falling on your face and retreating to your bread and butter for the last ten to 20 years? It is true that a midlife career change is a frightening prospect, especially if you have a family to provide for and the labour market is not as robust as it used to be. But you can mitigate this unnerving feeling by being confident in your skillset, producing incredible CVs and cover letters and showcasing your passion – not your age – in your job interviews. And, of course, ensuring your that your career search is fruitful.

Sure, you don’t have to have a midlife career change. But if this is something you feel like you need to do, why should fear and uncertainty stand in your way?