Don't Underestimate the Difficulty of Changing Careers After Age 30
It used to be common to say that the average American will have seven careers in a lifetime.
Experts have long been skeptical of that, and I am as well. While it might not be unusual for people to make radical shifts in their career while in their 20s, in my experience, it is extremely difficult to fundamentally change careers after age 30.
I’ve had three different careers. My first was technology and management consulting, mostly with the firm Accenture. I spent about 17 years in this field. Then I transitioned to urban policy, and spent about 11 years doing that. Then I switched to writing on men’s issues and the future of evangelicalism.
I can tell you that each of those transitions was difficult for me to pull off. It took me about seven years to transition into a fully sustainable career in the cities world. That attempt to change careers easily could have ended up a complete failure for me. The transition to my current approach took about the same amount of time, and I am only just now getting to the point where I could say my work here is financially sustainable. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like a few more of you to become paying subscribers.
Another person I know who made a radical career shift had to go back and get a second degree to do it. Despite lots of hard, disciplined work, her transition also took about six years. Another woman I know here in Indy used to work in pharmaceuticals. She went to law school and become a successful lawyer, but her work focuses on intellectual property, which is related to her old field. One of the main reasons people enroll in MBA programs is to change careers. While the degree can help, it’s still typically necessary to leverage something of your old career in order to make a pivot, not necessarily a leap. For example, someone burned out on engineering might be able to transition to consulting through getting an MBA, but would find it much harder to move into advertising. All of these transitions involved going back to school, which took years and cost a large amount of money.
The truth is that it’s just very hard to move into something fundamentally new. We read stories all the time about people like Mitt Romney, who bounced from private equity to governor of Massachusetts to running the Salt Lake City Olympics and then to the Senate.
Don’t be fooled by this.
People who pull that off are highly unusual. They tend to be wealthy, have connections, or just have a unique talent set that lets them make what seem to be big leaps. A guy like Mitch Daniels was able move from politics into being president of Purdue because while governor he had appointed many of the board members that selected him. But for that, he never would have gotten the job. Then his exceptional leadership skills allowed him to be a transformation agent there. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t operate at that level.
Most people tend to keep doing basically what they know how to do over time. A former colleague of mine at Accenture made a list of over 30 of our friends who had left the firm over the course of a decade. Virtually 100% of them were still in essence doing corporate IT work. Basically none of them were able to even transition into the Silicon Valley tech startup world.
Even what might seem like a major career change sometimes is less than it appears. What I do now is not in essence different from what I did in the urban policy world at the Manhattan Institute. It’s just that I’m addressing a bigger set of topics than my previous narrow focus. I still actually get called on to do public policy type work from time to time. I’m speaking at a conference in Canada in a few weeks on the topic, for example.
In short, don’t underestimate how difficult it is to change your career after age 30. It typically takes years to transition fully. You may never achieve the same level of success and income as in your previous career. (I still make less than I did at Accenture over a decade ago, without accounting for inflation). It can also be high risk.
That’s not to say it’s not worth doing if you have a particular passion or some other reason. I really did not want to get into writing in this space, but I had insights I didn’t see other people addressing and so felt obligated to step up.
But make no mistake: it’s not easy. You should think long and hard before undertaking the attempt.
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I feel like a little fish here, but my dad told me at age 18 in 1988 that no one in their late teens or even early 20s knows what they want to do for their entire life, but that I couldn't just "spin my wheels" meaning just hang around the house and farm not being productive. So I enlisted in the Army. Had the grades and smarts for just about anything but was a little fearful of college level effort and I was absolutely clueless about a major (dad was tight with money of which we rarely had, and I didn't want to waste money on a degree that I might not use for a lifetime). I figured that I would, while in the Army, figure something out...but the Army just got into me.
20 years and a family of 3 girls and a son later, we were called into ministry (it had been happening my last 3 years in the Army). I became a missionary to the Army/military with Cadence International. Or I should say we did, as the ministry involved us all, and my wife to be honest is a better teacher than me. Her work with Army wives is amazing.
It wasn't an easy transition though. Mostly spiritual warfare and the Lord seeing fit to work out circumstances to make my wife and me a true partnership in ministry and work. I had over the years in the Army been getting Bible college credits here and there and Cadence allowed us to join with much less Bible education due to lifetime experience of the military (Cathy was a child of a career Army dad and grew into her early teens in Germany).
Lots of words but sometimes when that career change is a calling it can be much easier. The finances took a long time to get back to what I had, and inflation adjusted never have. But we are well provided for and the kids are all grown now.
My commander just before I retired had offered me a job as a civilian instructor in the school I was working at (lots of military retire into contract jobs) with a salary to match and quickly exceed my current pay. He also, once he knew we would be "raising our support" for mission work (I think he researched my pay schedule with Cadence), took Cathy aside and told her about the offer he made me! Our decision baffled him.
The Army does one thing though. It forces you to accept change. Every 2-4 years you make big changes usually involving a move. You work at varying levels of leadership and administration. You see all sides of one occupational speciality. It is odd that just as you master a job and understand the people you leave for another (rarely is the new job so similar to the last or any previous that you don't struggle to adjust), but it works and I think it betters you.
I find this very interesting as I just left Accenture this week after close to 20 years there. I’m in my late 40s and needed a new challenge. I can relate to getting rejected as I don’t have the depth of industry knowledge but I do believe the management consulting path would be a good one for someone who still doesn’t know what to do when one grows up. IT skills, especially data fluency, can be very portable making the shift that much easier. I’m not saying it’s easy with a large family and being the sole income, it makes it riskier but I’m excited for what is to be.