Thinking about a midlife career change can be frightening — and exhilarating, often simultaneously.
“By the time you’ve reached your late 30s or 40s, you’ve likely invested significant time and energy in building not only a career — but also the lifestyle that goes along with it,” as Anna Bray, a career coach in Jody Michael Associates’ Chicago office, points out.
Changing the status quo can trigger a variety of fears: Will I be able to support my family? What if I’m not good at my new career? How will my partner/kids/parents feel if I make a change?
“These fears can be based on reality … or your perceptions,” she says. “It’s important to recognize the difference in order to address and move past — or flip — them into excitement.”
The differentiating factor between fear and excitement — which produce the same physiological sensation — is how you interpret the feeling.
“If you identify a feeling as ‘fear,’ there is a good chance that you will react by pushing away something you view as a challenge. And that keeps many people stuck,” Anna says.
On the flip side, defining a feeling as excitement is far more energizing, and encourages you to move forward in pursuit of positive change.
3 Common Fears Accompanying a Midlife Career Change
As if change itself weren’t unsettling enough, three of the most common fears many midlife professionals experience when considering a different career involve the ripple effects of change:
- Fear of dismantling the life you’ve created
Most people begin the investment — emotional, financial and energy — in their careers with a college education, often an advanced degree. They might feel stuck in their chosen field because not using their education or accumulated experience feels “wasteful,” Anna says.
Moreover, as Anna explains, “It’s impossible to consider career in isolation from ‘life.’”
Swapping a financially lucrative career as a lawyer for one that carries higher risk — e.g., a start-up entrepreneur — might carry ramifications not only for your own lifestyle, but also for your family’s.
Financial considerations are just one piece of the puzzle. Routines, habits and social circles also come into play.
“We’re often defined by careers, especially when we reach a certain age,” Anna explains. “And those definitions impact our relationships, both inside and outside of our work spheres.”
- Fear of upsetting others
The uncertainty of change — or of what a new career might involve — can threaten the dynamics of those relationships, causing tension.
Your kids might not like it if your new career renders you unable to be home after school; your partner might worry about your availability to accompany him to client dinners; your work friends might “just not get it.”
This fear of upsetting others often stands in the way of change. But it doesn’t have to.
Engaging in open, honest conversations will help you understand, acknowledge and address others’ concerns. Together, you can brainstorm to explore with possible solutions that are agreeable to both parties.
- Fear of starting at ground level
Once you’ve dismantled one career, you start the other — usually at a much lower level of the corporate ladder if you change industries. That shift can be unsettling.
Many clients considering a midlife career change wonder if they’ll be able to contribute at a significant enough level if they take a few steps down the ladder — or the learning curve.
Additionally, it can be hard for many mid-career professionals to report to a manager who might be ten or more years younger, who seems less experienced in the “real world,” but who has actually logged more time in this area.
Hierarchy may end up not mattering as much as you imagine if your new career is better aligned with your values, interests and aspirations.
Having a flexible mindset will allow you to find a way to respect — and even appreciate — the perspective of a younger manager. It will also help you consider ways to leverage your previously-used knowledge, abilities, and contacts in your new role.
Flipping the Fears: Embracing Change
As we get older, it becomes increasingly important to feel that our work has meaning, Anna says.
But because values are abstract, it can be hard to weave them into tangible action steps. Midlife career professionals often mislabel their stifled passions as ‘dreams,’ downplaying or dismissing them altogether.
In doing so, they rob themselves of myriad opportunities.
“Developing a keen awareness of your values will allow you to prioritize them — and to make sound decisions accordingly,” Anna suggests.
She advises career coaching clients to think about what’s most important — right now, in the short term and in the longer term.
While the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with saying that “change is the only constant in life,” he probably wasn’t referring to career.
But by embracing change in your career — even in midlife — you open doors. You welcome prospects for growth. And you allow possibilities that you may not have been able to envision in your younger version of yourself.