How to navigate a midlife career change

Moving into a new career in midlife still carries a stigma in some societies, a hint of failure or time wasted. But why should this be the case? If your current career isn’t serving you any more or you feel drawn towards professional reinvention, maybe it’s time to take off one metaphorical uniform and put on an entirely new one. Let’s take a look at the questions to consider when weighing up a change in career later in life…

WORDS: Caroline Pattenden
ILLUSTRATION: Klara Gryglicka

How did Kerry Ashby embrace the reinvention offered by a new career?

Starting out as a florist, Kerry plodded along in her role, unfulfilled and frustrated, until, at 30, she swapped flowers for bandages and a career in nursing, retraining from scratch. Rising through the ranks, she found herself as head of paediatrics at a corporate healthcare company. Although at the top of her field, the 60-hour weeks and long stretches of time away from home took their toll and she reached a point of burnout. Instead of taking time off only to be thrust straight back in again, Kerry’s inner rebel kicked in and, at the age of 50, she walked away for good – a decision that was welcomed by the rest of her family. ‘It was an overwhelming sense of relief,’ says Kerry. ‘I was looking back and seeing how far I’d pushed myself. It wasn’t a quick fix, either. It took six months to start recovering.’

Pondering her future, she decided she would return to floristry, but this time on her terms. Realising that her calling involved a hybrid of her skills, she embarked on a business-coaching career, mentoring other florists in creating sustainable business practices. While this new venture gave her a degree of satisfaction, however, it also took its toll and, recognising the symptoms of burnout, Kerry was quick to make the changes needed to avoid a repeat of her previous experience.

No stranger to change, she found one more twist in the tale and, once again, changed up her professional life, realising a long-held dream of owning a shop. Her UK interiors business, appropriately called Rebel and Ashby, in Cambridgeshire, is where Kerry has finally found her happy place. She plans to hand over the business to her children when she retires. Believing that if she can make several career changes, anyone can, she says: ‘You can do whatever you want to do at any age. Don’t let age stop you. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you, either. Do the thing you love. Do the thing that puts the fire in your belly.’

Why a desire for change is natural and normal

While Kerry’s ‘What’s-the-worst-that-can-happen?’ approach is commendable, for some, the response might be: ‘An awful lot.’ Change is scary. It has consequences and they can impact you and your dependants. A more pertinent question might be: ‘What happens if it all goes wrong?’ The truth is that risk is an inherent part of change. How much you’re willing to risk is something only you can decide. Another point to consider is that a desire to change career or other aspects of your life is natural and part of life’s cycle.

In 2007, social economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, working for the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, published their working paper, Is Well-Being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle? This study, using data from 500,000 Americans and Europeans, dug deep into the relationship between ageing and wellbeing, and the results were fascinating. Self-reporting from this pool of individuals showed life satisfaction represented as a gently curving U. Starting off high in younger years, it reaches its lowest point in the mid-40s, before gently rising later in life.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Kieran Setiya, who teaches philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (otherwise known as MIT) in the US, said this about the study: ‘The reasons for the “mid-career crisis” are not well understood. Why does job satisfaction suffer during midlife? Judging by my own experience, and by conversations with friends, there are multiple factors: the narrowing of options, the inevitability of regret and the tyranny of projects successively completed and replaced. Turning to philosophy for help, I found that although they have rarely addressed midlife by name, philosophers ancient and modern offer tools for thinking through the shape of our careers and the attitudes we take toward them. These tools are therapeutic but also diagnostic. They can help you learn whether your malaise at mid-career is a sign that you need to change what you’re doing or to change how you do it.’

How can a change in values contribute to wanting a change in career?

While Setiya takes a philosophical view of midlife change, the factors driving that decision can be far more practical, according to career design coach Lauren Young Durbin, who specialises in mentoring women through career changes. Based in Virginia in the US, she believes that, sometimes, it comes down to a change in values, where you might feel at odds with the culture of your company, but there are other more pragmatic reasons, too. She says: ‘It’s feeling stuck, and what’s behind that is, often, a person has been passed over for promotion and isn’t getting the money they want to make. Sometimes, they’ve fallen into a career and they’re questioning that.’

One question that Lauren explores with her clients is whether the desire for change could be met by a more straightforward change of job or whether a professional sidestep is really the answer. When it is, Lauren believes, the benefits are significant: ‘The first thing I see is career fulfilment and better alignment of your values because your values do change. You can grow professionally, expand your network and start learning again.’ She also points to the knock-on effect of increased energy levels, improvements in your relationships and a more general sense of wellbeing born out of making a positive decision for yourself. But Lauren is also aware of the risks, some of which might be financial, while others are experienced on a more existential level, where identity and career are inextricably linked. As with any big decision, it’s wise to step back and look at the whole picture before jumping.

How should you go about taking the leap into a new career?

The concept of learning something new is a theme that runs through both Kerry and Lauren’s beliefs. For some, it will mean taking a course and learning the basics of a new profession, while for others it might be expanding existing skills. Accessing education might be signing up at your local further education college or taking an online course. But whether learning for a career or because a subject has piqued your interest, it’s never too late.

In her LinkedIn article, Why Changing Careers Midlife May Be the Best Decision You Ever Make, Lauren points to designer Vera Wang and chef Julia Childs as prime examples of women who made significant changes and never looked back. She succinctly sums up: ‘Where do you want to be 20 years from now? Start making those changes, because you know how fast time goes, and take the leap. Older you will thank you.’

And if you’re not ready, that’s fine, too.

What are some top tips for professional reinvention and making a midlife career change?

  1. Define your goals. Think about your career in the short and long term. What do you want to achieve in the short term and how can you get there? What does the long term look like? Where would you like to be professionally? Use these to start mapping a path towards both those goals.
  2. Find time for self-reflection. Take time to really think about what you want. If it helps, write down your strengths and weaknesses. Remember, your weaknesses don’t rule you out of achieving what you want – you can use them as a stepping stone towards learning the new skills you need. Don’t rush headlong into making decisions until you’ve taken the time to understand your motivations for change.
  3. Do your research. Which industries or job roles light a spark in you? What are some of the requirements you’d need to take on that role? How might your current experiences help you in a new role and what might you need to train for? Can you spend time with someone who works in that field or shadow someone for a day? Other options might also include volunteering or offering pro bono work.
  4. Engage a mentor. If you’re struggling to see the next steps, talk to someone with experience in career development. This might be a life coach or career mentor or involve becoming part of a professional network where you can get advice on specific topics from those working in the field.

Lauren explores these themes more deeply in her LinkedIn article, The 3 Cs of Career Transitions, Part 1: The Significance of Clarity and How to Get It. Find it here:


You can read more articles about changing career and reinvention in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.