Why A Career Change at 30 and Beyond Is So Hard

It doesn’t take algorithms to realize changing careers is really hard. We cringe at the idea. And the cringing gets worse the older you get. If you want to change your career when you’re 30 and beyond? Good luck, because it’s hard. But it’s not impossible, and that’s the key differentiator here that many people forget. And it’s the biggest reason they give up.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane here. I want you to think about a cringeworthy time in your life. Like, cringe with intense agony just reliving it in your mind. Something super embarrassing or humiliating. I know you’ve got it in you. Basically, the stuff you shake your head at and hope to never experience in your life again; once was enough, and the sheer thought of it makes you physically want to crawl in a hole and fossilize in a slab of amber.

So you’ve taken a horrible trip down memory lane by now. The situation sucked, no other way to put it. Collectively, I can probably name a few common scenarios where we’ve been crippled like this.

You’ve probably heard how people put a fear of public speaking above death. I don’t really plan to take the time here to wonder why the hell people put public speaking above the finality of death, but let’s go ahead and assume it’s true. If so, I’m a firm believer changing careers is right up there. I know it’s a bold statement. Then again, so is saying you’d rather die than giving a public speech.

But I didn’t just pull that out of my ass; research on stress has shown that changing jobs kicks the brain into thinking you’re threatening its survival. In fact, the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory puts changing careers as one of the most 20 stressful things that happens in your life. Apparently, it’s right behind the death of a close friend. Changing careers is literally a sliver of a hair less stressful than the death of a close friend, according to science.

All this said, it’s obvious that a decision to enter the depths of career switching scares the living shit out of people. It’s stressful for a multitude of reasons: the unknown factors of finances, whether or not you’ll enjoy it, whether you’ll regret it, and more.

But at some point, the misery of your current line of work takes hold and doesn’t let go. And it tightens its grip on your neck, getting tighter and tighter every few months. It’s a terrible feeling.

Why then do we find ourselves in the same career 20 years from now? Better yet, why did we end up in this crappy career in the first place? Life would be a hell of a lot easier if we got it right the first time. But that’s the funny part – life isn’t supposed to be easy.

A Brief History of Why You’re In The Wrong Career In The First Place

Every kindergarten teacher loves to ask her students the same question at the start of the school year:

“What do you want to be when you grow up Tommy/Jill/Susie/John?”

It’s endearing, because it lets our little pea-sized brains go wild. The world, as they say, is our oyster. There’s no judgement here, because we don’t know what the hell judgement looks like. You see all the coolest things out there and think they’d be awesome careers. Money, prestige, comparison, and judgements don’t enter the picture. Mrs. Smith has the biggest grin on her face as she hears each pupil in the class, including you, speak to your heart’s content. Whether the grin is genuine happiness or a sly laugh because she knows we’re all screwed when we grow up, she encourages your fairy tale.

Kids smiling and sitting on the floor
The innocent look we get fooling ourselves into thinking we’ll do what we want in life.

You hold onto your vision with your little tiny hands throughout elementary. Then middle school rolls around and we’re exposed to some of the toxicity of life. Maybe our ideal career has changed since kindergarten, but who cares. We’re so far removed from having to worry about it, we don’t. High school rolls around and more toxicity has seeped into our pristine bubble through osmosis. We’ve learned what the art of comparison is, how to judge, and how to be complete little shits.

More than likely, your ideal career has changed, but again…you aren’t too worried about it. You’re just worried about passing school, asking your parents for money, trying to rebel, and figuring out which college you want to get into. Eventually, you figure that last one out. You get an acceptance letter, and off you go.

Now begins the dirty introduction to how miserable careers start.

Before your sophomore year of college ends, you have to declare a major. As much as you want to fill in “I have no idea”, you can’t. But really, you have no idea what the fuck you want to do. You’ve been too concerned about one of two things: partying and trying out 18 strains of low quality weed, or making good grades in the hopes your future looks bright.

Either way, you’ve taken a plethora of random classes but nothing really interests you. You wish you could just major in General Studies, but your school career counselor shakes their head side to side. Your second best option then is wishing you could major in something like Art History or Philosophy. Those classes seemed pretty cool, which just means you didn’t fall asleep during Professor Jones’s lecture. But your parents put an end to that, too. “Get something practical.” is the motto of every concerned parent who’s fronting your higher education. “Get something practical” just means “get something that makes money.” Can’t blame your folks. They hate to see their kid starving. And more than likely, they don’t want to be your personal bank.

So with all this in mind, you end up declaring a major in something which isn’t really that interesting to you, but satisfies your parents and the part of your brain that thinks practically through logic. You think you’ll figure it out at a later date. Hint: you really don’t.

Once college ends, you’ve now got a degree in hand, five-figures worth of debt, and no clue where to start your job search. The easiest thing you can do, of course, is start with what your major is, assuming you didn’t get something in the arts or humanities. Since, you know, that’s your best chance of getting hired. You figure no big deal, if you want to change careers by the time you’re 30, you’ve got plenty of time to figure things out.

Not so fast.

Why We Get Stuck in Bad Careers

Fast forward a bit, and you finally land a job in your major post college (if you’re lucky). Now the fun begins.

Your mind tells you two things:

  1. It’s ok, I’ll scope this career thing out and decide if it’s for me.
  2. I’m now making money. I have debts I have to repay. I have social obligations. I need this job.

Here’s where things start getting tricky. Those two things your brain tells you? They’re in direct conflict with each other. On one hand, you want to determine if the job you have is the right one for you. Do you enjoy your coworkers? Do you enjoy the work? Do you want to shoot yourself sitting there? On the other hand, it’s a steady stream of income, and money’s flying out of your account at a record pace. Debt and useless crap like bar tabs will do that to you. Either way, you need to know that every two weeks, you don’t cry looking at your bank account.

Empty bar with stools.
Where half of your money goes in your 20’s.

Not too long after starting your post-college adult life career, you start flirting with the idea you’re not really happy where you are. The flirting turns to nagging, and it gets worse and worse as the years go on. Then, by the time you hit 30, you probably figure one pretty obvious thing after exiting the denial stage: you’re not in a job you enjoy. More than likely, you’re not in a career you enjoy. And because of it, you’re unnecessarily suffering.

Simple math says there’s an easy solution: you walk away and find something that you do enjoy. But as mentioned, life isn’t simple right? You don’t walk away from that awful career because you’re not really equipped to make a smarter move. I don’t blame you. We really don’t have the knowledge we need to choose the right career in our 20’s, let alone our 30’s. It takes a lot of moving pieces: knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your values and goals, and much more. it’s a complicated equation, one which doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.

In the meantime, your responsibilities increase. You might have a family/kids/a significant other to take care of. You have a car payment. You have a house mortgage. The wife says little Tom Jr. needs to attend private school, because the public school system is for peasants. This is life for most people, post 30.

Finally, you somewhat snap out of denial about your career and now you want to find one you enjoy. But you get stuck. You are stuck. You’ll more than likely stay stuck.

But are you? Is it worth it? Let’s take a look at the toll it has, and the numbers behind it.

The Toll Staying In a Bad Career Past 30 Has On You

The Career Happiness Project

The quest for happiness is all around us. We’re told if we do X, Y, and Z we’ll get there. We assume if we find the perfect career, it’ll answer our prayers for pure joy.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true. Happiness won’t show up in an Easter basket on your front porch. But it gets worse: if you stay in a bad career, your happiness and mental health plummets. Why? Happiness is found through doing things that fulfill you. Having a shitty job where you spend 40 hours a week, on top of driving time, doesn’t exactly contribute to a fulfilled feeling.

Is it possible to be in a bad career and still be happy? No. It is possible to be in a mediocre career and still be happy? Yes. But how? Well, if you can somehow manage to separate your career from your identity, and spend 100% of your free time doing projects/hobbies/things that fulfill you, it’s possible. But really, really rare. Because let’s be honest; we don’t exactly spend all our free time doing fulfilling things. Our insurance company is due up for a renewal and we want a cheaper rate. Our doctor’s appointment is scheduled for tomorrow. The list goes on.

Then there’s the flip side. Can you be in a seemingly perfect career (don’t joke yourself here), and still not be happy? Of course. I’m sure it happens all the time to people. Life isn’t just about work. Even though it’s a big portion of your life, it doesn’t necessarily define you. Or does it?

There’s two types of people in this world when it comes to careers: those who need their job to be part of their identity, and those who can succeed at a job but simultaneously not care for it, all the while defining themselves outside of work. You’re generally either one or the other. I’m the former, but I know a lot of people are in the latter. Neither is wrong.

The first step towards happiness is figuring out which one you are. It makes the process of going in a direction much easier. Trust me on that one. I tried to convince myself for almost a decade I was the latter – that I could work a shitty job (subjective) and be OK with it for the rest of my life as long as I found cool hobbies and friends. It didn’t get me very far.

It’s important to then either find a job that gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment (if you tie your identity to your career), or find hobbies, activities, and fulfilling things outside of work (if you can separate the two).

The Career Numbers

If you need a little understanding of what staying in a bad career can do, take a look at the numbers. For the purpose of this math lesson you never wanted and I’m pushing on you like your 9th grade Algebra teacher, assume the law of averages – you’re an average person working an average job for the American definition of the average week. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with being average.

Let’s say you’re 30 years old and at a point you want to switch careers. Assuming you went to college and started working at the age of 21, this means you’ve spent nine years on the job. That’s 2,340 physical days at the office, assuming you work Monday through Friday. 468 weeks worth of work. Need one more reminder? 18,720 actual hours spent being somewhat miserable at a crappy job. Or if you’re lucky, just slightly miserable.

Line graph showing weeks spent at a job relative to age.
The time spent in a job skyrockets after staying flat through college.

The average life expectancy in the United States is a hair over 79. 79.3 exactly, but we’ll go with 79 here. That means you’ve got 49 years left to work, assuming you work up until the day you croak. That equates to 12,740 actual days (assuming M-F again) at work. And assuming you again work 40 hours a week, 101,920 actual hours will be spent doing your job.

That’s a lot of time left, even if you felt you wasted a lot so far. Newsflash: you did waste a lot. But the good news is you’ve got large numbers in front of you and you can start chasing after the things you want. Now imagine if you got stuck in a bad career and didn’t change for the rest of your life. You’d have wasted the equivalent of 120,640 hours of your life sitting, doing something you hate so much you’d easily give it up and get flogged by 10 Samoan dudes with wet noodles in a sauna instead.

This isn’t really what you grew up thinking you’d stoop down to. And it shouldn’t be.

Is Changing Careers Hard?

Of course. If it was easy, we’d all be in the perfect career. And unfortunately for us, it isn’t the case. If it was, we’d probably have landed on Mars 30 years ago, eradicated every illness known to man, and stopped all crises and conflicts in this lovely place we call Earth.

But alas, people are miserable, and a big part of it has to do with spending so much time doing shit you absolutely can’t stand. You know, the kind of stuff you’d easily give up to get flogged by 10 Samoan dudes with wet noodles in a sauna.

Wrong way to live. Time to change.

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