Old Dog, New Tricks: Is It Too Late for a Career Change?

Business.com / Careers / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Is it too late to change careers? The answer is maybe. Learn what it takes to successfully navigate onto a new career path.

One of my long time friends posted this on his Facebook, "Sitting here watching TED talks about creativity and education and wondering at what point in my life I went from being a truly creative person to just being a good test taker and hoop-jump-through-er." 

He's in his mid-40s and actually works in a creative field, but he's run into the bureaucracy that tends to squash creativity. Like many of us, he thinks about changing something, but is it too late to change careers?

The answer is maybe.

For some people, it's too late to change careers after you're 22. Others? They can change careers up until death.

Here's what you need to know about career changes.

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Are You Willing to Take a Pay Cut? 

I actually changed careers in 2009. I went from corporate HR to freelance writer. The pay cut? Dramatic at first. 

But, in 2015 I earned only $1000 less than I did in 2008. Seven years to get up to the same salary. And keep in mind that if I'd stayed in the corporate world, there's a good chance I would have received raises each of those seven years and probably received a couple of promotions, which means I've given up a lot more than seven years of low pay. Does that mean I regret my decision? Absolutely not. I love my career as a writer. 

When you change careers after you've established yourself, a pay cut often comes with it. If you're not willing to face that, career change is probably not for you. 

Why the cut? Because you may be an expert in your old field, but you're not in the new field. Now, you probably won't have to drop back to entry level because many skills are transferrable. And chances are, you'll climb rapidly in the new field because you have general experience in your back pocket.  

Are You Willing to Get Additional Education or Training?  

You can't just wake up and say, "Gee, I've always wanted to be an engineer!" and go apply for an engineering job, if you've been working as a marketer for the past 20 years. It doesn't work that way. You'll need to get more education. You can do this by quitting work and dedicating yourself to your new educational goals, or you can work and go to school, or you can get non-traditional training.

What kind of non-traditional training exists? Well, my favorites are MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses.  The open courses are free—just signup. But there are classes you pay for that are conducted in a similar manner. The paid courses (and sometimes the free ones) often offer certifications at the end. You can find classes in just about everything from just about everyone.

MIT and Stanford both offer online courses that you can sign up for. They aren't degrees, but they may give you the boost you need to move into a new job.

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Are You Humble? 

Another friend of mine did a career change--a big one. He's also in his 40's and is doing his medical residency right now, alongside 25-year-olds. It's his dream, and he decided to chase it. He's glad he did, but make no doubt about it; it can be quite humbling to be back on the bottom of the food chain when you've been clawing your way to the top. If you can't handle that, this is not something you should do.

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

Sometimes career changes just happen. For instance, a lot of people who work in small companies end up getting new tasks thrust upon them, and they have to sink or swim. When they learn to swim with the new tasks, they may find they like that better than the old stuff and happily take it on. Other people are looking to change careers to solve some sort of problem. What problem are you looking to solve?

For instance, if it's all about the money, going into $100,000 worth of debt to get a new degree probably won't solve your money problems. If it's about being bored, a new job in the same field might fix that without the downsides.

If it's to pursue a dream, will that dream keep you at the same standard of living you had before? You may be happier as a high school teacher than as a corporate attorney, but the pay cut is a killer. You may not be bored anymore, but you'll also have to move to a more affordable house.

How Old Is Too Old? 

As I said at the beginning, some people are too old at 22. Changing careers is hard work. You have to learn so many new things. You have to listen to people you may feel like you should be supervising.

If you're stuck in your ways, it's too late to change. If you're not, though, it's never too late. So what if it takes you four years to get that degree--you'll be four years older in four years no matter what. Why not go ahead and make the change?

Is It Bad to Stay in Your Current Career? 

Of course not. We read a lot about people who move to different jobs every three years or so. That's fine. But, it's also fine to say in the same field when you make those moves, and it's okay to stay at the same company on the same path. It's all about your choices. You have tremendous control over your future. Take advantage of that.

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