When you’re fresh out of college, job searching is easy, inexpensive, and visionary. You have most of your life ahead of you, you’re not really sure where you’ll end up, and any changes you make can be done with very little pain or effort because you have yet to establish yourself in any particular field.
Why it’s difficult as you get older
It gets a little tougher in your 40s.
I hit a rough patch at 40 when the NASA program I was supporting was canceled. Having spent my 30s trying to get into the space business, I then faced the very real possibility of having to give it up. Where should I go now? What should I do? On that particular occasion, I was fortunate to have a manager who went out of her way to ensure that as many of us as possible managed to stay employed at NASA, albeit in areas outside human spaceflight. So: crisis (eventually) averted.
But here’s why career changes are harder in mid-career:
- You’ve probably gotten used to a specific income level.
- You’ve developed a specific set of skills–some of which might be transferrable to another job or industry, but much of which won’t be.
- You might have a lot of your personal self-worth invested in a specific career.
- You’ve got a reputation, clients, and group of friends that derive from what you did before. A new industry means starting “at the bottom,” getting to know to a whole new group of people, and facing some very humbling learning experiences as you have to start all over in a new line of work.
- You have more responsibilities to handle: spouse/significant other, home, car, small humans, pets, and all the expenses that come with them.
- Change is stressful. Your significant other has his/her own career or lifestyle to worry about–how does your change affect them? Will you have to cut back on your expenses? Get a smaller home? Sell the car? How much savings do you have built up?
This isn’t to say you can’t have these problems as a younger person. You can and do. However, the older you get, the more responsibilities, people, and stuff you have take care of, the more complicated and painful a massive change can be.
What to do first
This is going to sound a tad touchy-feely, but bear with me. Priority one is to treat the loss of your chosen job/career as a loss, equivalent even to a death, and deaths require a grieving process. You have to acknowledge that pain and take care of yourself or you won’t be able to get beyond whatever ugly little thoughts are running like a barbarian horde through your brain. There are good reasons why being fired or retiring from work are among the top ten most stressful life events, some of which I mentioned previously.
Many companies provide access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help individuals cope with unemployment. This can cover everything from emotional counseling to job search assistance to seeking financial or other assistance such as substance abuse counseling.
Once you get your head straight and grieve the loss, you can start making decisions about your future.
Brainstorming your future
The transition from your previous career to the next one will depend a lot on your specific life circumstances so I won’t even begin to suggest that what worked for me will work for you. Still, the questions you ask should be similar and will go a long way toward helping you nail down the “what do I do now?” question:
- What’s your current financial situation? This includes things like how much savings do you have, how many bills do you have to pay, and what can you do to cut expenses NOW until you’re settled into the next thing?
- If necessary, who can you borrow money from to tide you over?
- How long can you operate without income? Have you contacted your state’s unemployment office?
- Is your resume up to date? If you are a technical writer (the primary audience for this blog), do you have a portfolio of products you can show to prospective employers or customers?
- What are your transferrable skills? Which industries or customers might be in need of those skills?
- What are things you’ve wanted to try but haven’t because you were established in your previous career?
- Where do you want to go–professionally, geographically, and personally?
I encountered another career hiccup in my mid-40s when my employer faced cutbacks due to a government shutdown (the company has since recovered). Instead of seeking another job, I decided to take a leap of faith, move back to Florida, and try freelance writing. To make this happen, I needed to suck it up and spend some time living with my parents and then house-sitting for a couple friends of theirs for the bulk of a year. That little-to-no-rent period gave me the breathing space to find paying gigs while most of my stuff went into storage. If I’d had a spouse, kids, or other related responsibilities, I would’ve taken a much different path, but the decisions have been made, and here I am.
The last piece of advice I’d offer to the mid-life career changer is not to be too hard on yourself for making decisions that work for you and yours. For instance, you might find that you have to move away from your current neighborhood or city to find the career you want. Or you might have to withdraw from specific activities to reduce expenses or concentrate on your new career. Social safety nets, severance pay, and unemployment benefits aside, you are on your own when it comes to managing the next steps in your career. You have to do what works for you.