Career change at 40: Everything you need to know before taking the plunge

Your forties are as good a time as any to rethink your career - here's all the guidance you need if you're considering it.

Career change at 40: How possible really is it?
Career change at 40: How possible really is it?
(Image credit: Copyright Maskot (Copyright Maskot (Photographer) - [None])

Your forties are as good a time as any to rethink your career - here's all the guidance you need if you're considering it.

A career change at 40 can feel like a daunting prospect. Two decades or so into your professional life, you’ve likely established yourself in an industry and climbed your way up the ladder somewhat. So in theory, it makes sense to stick with it.

But is that what life is really about? Sticking with something because it’s the first choice you made? If you find yourself with a yearning for change a little later in life, perhaps it’s time to listen to that voice inside - because a career change in 40 is totally doable if you arm yourself with all the right information.

There can be a multitude of reasons people decide on a career change during their forties; being fed up with the status quo, wanting a new challenge, family dynamics, health reasons… Here, we chat to three women who have bravely taken the step already, and quiz career experts on exactly how to navigate that career transition. 

Career change at 40: Genia

Journalist to fashion designer

“I spent almost 10 years at the BBC World Service working across News and Current Affairs - live TV, radio, presenting, reporting, online news - before moving into Communications. I was extremely lucky to do meaningful, impactful work for some of the most amazing people and organisations in the world, like being part of the UN’s Global Goals campaign team. I didn’t plan to change my career at 40, but when I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary, Hugh’s War on Waste, three years ago, I was reminded about how much waste we’re all creating and how little is done about it. I’m naturally curious, wanting to figure out where the ‘away’ when we throw things away was, which led to conversations with incredible people rescuing discarded materials and turning them into something exciting. One thing led to another and I found myself doing a Sustainability Degree at Cambridge (at night, when the kids were sleeping) and shipping samples of recycled materials to my house from around the world. At a certain point all my recycled materials fell into a product. My challenge was to show that it was possible to design an awesome looking product entirely from what would have ended up in landfill. When the first product happened to be a handbag and all my friends wanted one, I put it on Kickstarter which got funded in one day, and BEEN London was born. 

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I have two kids and a mortgage, so there was no option of crashing on my parents couch ‘while I was making it work’. I kept a bit of freelance work going and my amazing husband kindly offered to be the one with the stable job for a while. As the company grew, I started paying myself a tiny bit, to cover my personal expenses and a small part of the mortgage. My income is half of what I was earning before, but it's absolutely enough. As I jumped into an industry I had no knowledge of, the learning curve was (and continues to be) so steep that sometimes you just want a break. But in general, it gave me a brilliant kick. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me feel more alive. That’s great at any age, but especially in your 40s and onwards.”

Genia’s advice: “Surround yourself with people who made the jump and it’ll look less daunting. Find something you would do for free - something you’re truly passionate about - and it wont feel like a job. It will feel like the best decision ever.”

Career change at 40: Puja

Marketing to life coach

“I had been in marketing for almost 20 years when I was made redundant whilst on maternity leave. I loved my job. I was doing PR for some incredible destinations around the world, so I was able to travel every few months, and I learnt so much. It was really difficult to hear that I was being made redundant, but I knew it was time for a change; after suffering a breakdown a few years prior I wasn’t sure that this was going to be my long-term career. I had been diagnosed with burnout and depression and when I was healing, I learned that I was putting too much into my career at the expense of my happiness. I was really passionate about my work but I couldn’t take the immense pressure of performing all the time. The depression taught me so much; I learned that it could have been prevented. I could have lived my whole life completely differently if I’d had the guidance to support me. 

I always knew I wanted to help people, and I wanted to be able to just be me, rather than a corporate version of myself that I didn’t like. I decided to be a life and business coach so I could help other people find direction and be content with their lives. But for that I needed to retrain. Finances were a worry; my redundancy pay was only two months wages and I had only been getting statutory maternity leave. I tried looking for a job so that I could start retraining on the side but after 50 applications, 20 interviews and no takers, I decided I just had to get moving with my retraining. Age wasn’t really a factor for me; I’ve always been a determined person and it was actually a chance to do life on my terms, which was exciting. The worry was finding clients and, to be honest, it’s still the hardest part of the job. But I loved the ability to learn again and found that I was better at learning at 40 than I was at 19; I had a new appreciation for education and I wanted to see where it would take me. 

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My new career is the best. It doesn’t feel like work, and I like not having to answer to anyone. Money and loneliness are the biggest downsides. It takes time to build a business and to hit your financial goals. It’s difficult working on my own at times, as I’m a very social person, but I have made some incredible friends who are also doing it on their own so I have a small community of people that ‘get it’. Professionally, my job is unbelievably fulfilling. I get to change lives! I get to live life on my terms and I wouldn’t have known how important this was to my mental wellbeing unless I’d made this move.”

Puja’s advice: You have to believe in yourself and what you want to do. If you don’t have the belief that you can do it, you’ll get demotivated easily. And when you change careers, you’re effectively starting again, so be patient and compassionate with yourself, others and the process. Keep focussed on your goals and why you’ve made the change and, over time, it will get better.”

Career change at 40: Cate

Law to personal training

“I started my legal career at age 21. Law was the only subject I felt drawn to in college so I got a job in civil litigation that required me to commute 50 miles each way to Manchester City centre. I enjoyed what I did, and was always hardworking, but it was just a job to me. I’d never considered switching careers until the onset of early menopause aged 40. The symptoms gradually intensified to the point I felt like I couldn’t cope with simple day to day tasks. I couldn’t make it through the day without breaking down in tears at my desk. I was mortified - I didn’t know who I was or what was happening to me. It was a job I knew inside out, but I had changed completely. After months of uncontrollable tears came the inability to feel anything; no joy, no anger, nothing. I was just existing. I shut down completely and stopped communicating. 

I was on sick leave for 6 months when my employers invited me in for a formal meeting. I knew how these meetings usually turned out, and there was no way I could cope with driving that far anymore with complete overwhelment, so I resigned. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The only thing I had was going to the gym, which I started in my mid 30s after having children and had always enjoyed, so I decided to become a PT. I signed up for a PT course and went from there. I found it tough; I knew it was a huge leap and I knew I couldn’t have picked a worse time due to my health, but I felt I had been forced to make a change. I pushed through and became good at putting on an act, and when I was prescribed HRT I didn’t need to pretend anymore; I started to feel a real change. Then the pandemic hit, which forced me to pivot online. I knew I didn’t want to be just another zoom PT coach - it was the personal 1-2-1 that I enjoyed most - so I enrolled on a course about selling online, and went on to develop my own brand of women’s nutritional supplements which I sell on Amazon and on my own website.

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I absolutely love what I do now and I’ve found what I’m truly meant to be doing: helping women feel better about themselves, because I know how bad it can be. Now life is at a better pace for me; I know I could never go back to that life of commuting. I describe menopause as having both devastated and transformed my life in equal measure. It’s given me a much better work/life balance, I wish I’d had the foresight and bravery to change careers much sooner, but it was never even on my radar that I could. 

Cate’s advice: It’s never too late. I’ve met so many other solo female entrepreneurs on my journey.”

Considering a career change at 40? Expert advice on how to go about it:

Work out if a career change is really what you need

"Signs that you are ready for a career change are often individual - what one person is happy to compromise on can be a complete no-no for another," explains Jill Cotton, Career Expert at Glassdoor. But some of the most common signals you’re ready for a career change include:

  • Dreading Mondays - your heart sinks a little when Sunday evening arrives, impacting your mood and wellbeing.
  • Not making a difference - we get satisfaction from contributing to the success of a company and if this isn’t happening, demotivation can quickly sink in.
  • Being bored - do your skills match the job you have? If you’re not being challenged in your role it’s easy for boredom to take over.
  • The next step isn’t inspiring - you have outgrown your role but you’re not excited to see what else is available to you. Growth and development are key reasons why we want change in our career.
  • Feeling stagnant in your role - being at a standstill can lead to unfulfillment and frustration.

Don't talk yourself out of it

Doing something new is always scary, but that doesn't mean you should convince yourself not to take a leap. "The way we think of a career has changed because of modern influences on work and workers," explains Dr Naeema Pasha, author and Director of Careers & Professional Development at Henley Business School. "Careers are not linear since late last century, and do not now follow a straight trajectory," she adds. "Once you free yourself from the notion that you are going off-grid by changing career path, and accept its pretty normal (even if it feels risky), you can start planning the changes in a more open way."

Find inspiration for what to do next

"Ask yourself what it is that you love doing, what you are good at, which skills aren’t being fully used, and what’s preventing you from making the move," suggests Jill. Dr Naeema agrees. "Start to evaluate what is important to you for a next career, such as key needs from values/skills/lifestyle etc, and assess where you are now and what you need to do to (skills and experience wise) to build the bridge to the new career."

Don't think of age as a negative thing

"The first thing I would say is not to think of career change at 40 as 'later life'," advises Dr Naeema. "Age at 40+ can feel a problem, but more important to age is having and displaying self-confidence, growth mindset and job-related abilities - and it is those to focus on." Sage advice indeed.

Do your research

Once you've decided what it is you'd like to do next, Glassdoor's Jill advises gathering as much intelligence on the industry. "I strongly recommend connecting with those already working in the career you want to move to," she says. "This will help you to have realistic expectations and a clear understanding of what a role in your new chosen industry will look like on a day-to-day basis and what’s needed to get yourself there."

Pick up some experience

Sure, you've had what feels like a lifetime of experience in one sector, but it's still always advisable to try your hand at a new career before diving in. "If possible, get some experience in your new career area," suggests Dr Naeema. "Not only will this help make your mind up, it will help your CV stand out. The importance of a good LinkedIn profile and resume can’t be underestimated at job hunting times."

Don't be put off by a pay cut

Everyone's financial situation is different, which means on a practical level, some people can more readily take a reduction in pay than others. That aside, don't think of a pay cut as any kind of failure or a step backwards in your career - because that's not necessarily the case. "A lot of our research shows that pay and money are of course important motivations – but they are not the top," says Dr Naeema. "Things like job satisfaction and even if the organisation was aligned to our values meant more than higher pay. Dropping salary to start a new career path is very common," she adds.

Have confidence in yourself at interview stage

"Interviewing for a new job can be stressful, even if on paper you have all of the right experience, skills, connections," says Glassdoor's Jill. But remember your interviewer is only human. "If you feel that you are out of your depth in an interview, embrace transparency and help the hiring manager understand why you’re trying to make the career pivot. Explain your passion for the role and the company and hone in on anecdotes that show you as a quick learner and someone to embrace and succeed at new challenges," she suggests.

Good luck with that career change!

Catriona Harvey-Jenner

Cat is a Senior Editor at Marie Claire, covering news and features across the brand's key purpose pillars, including women's issues, politics, career, mental health, female empowerment and equality, as well as books.