Why mid-life could be the best time to change careers

For workers who wish to find their way to new careers, it may be easier than before to land those roles, labour experts say.

Record low unemployment, innovation, longer careers just some reasons middle-aged workers can find new paths

For reasons ranging from technological change to fulfilment of lifelong goals, workers may wish to find their way to new careers. And labour market watchers say it may be easier than before to land those new roles. (Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock)

Changing careers at mid-life may be more feasible and desirable than it's ever been, labour market experts say.

For workers who wish to find their way to new careers — for reasons ranging from precarious employment to technological change to goal fulfilment — it may be easier than before to land those roles, especially given that Canada's jobless rate was at 5.9 per cent as of November 2019.

While there isn't widespread data available on career change and the ages at which it occurs, Statistics Canada does track the number of consecutive months Canadians have worked for their current employer.

Steven Tobin, executive director of the Labour Market Information Council, says that the amount of disruption in the labour market gets people thinking about more frequent career changes. (LMIC)

Some of that data, analyzed by the Labour Market Information Council (LMIC) in Ottawa and provided to CBC News, shows that among workers 45 and older, average time on the job started to drop in 2017.

Though those numbers don't differentiate between job changes and career shifts, the shorter tenures may indicate more career change — or at least the labour market conditions that help support it.

Job market watchers have been saying for years that modern workers will hold numerous roles over the course of a working life, and there are complex reasons why this may be more true now than ever.

"There's been a lot of talk about technology and artificial intelligence and indications that it will destroy some jobs and create new ones — but also, importantly, alter the way we do our current jobs," said Steven Tobin, executive director of LMIC.

But other factors, such as an aging population, shifting trade patterns and climate change, are also "really going to alter the employment landscape," he said. 

"As this sort of disruption intensifies, it's a reasonable assumption to think that this will entail people shifting jobs and finding new careers," said Tobin.

At 48, Sara Smeaton recently made a big career shift. Although she's had a few pivots throughout her working life, last year, she left her job as a managing editor of a non-profit to pursue a goal she'd set aside much earlier in life.

Assuming a long, healthy life, mid-life is the only time when we will have experience and possibility in equal measure.- Sara Smeaton, mid-life coach

While working in film distribution, Smeaton would often be sought out by others for informal career counselling.

"I got excited about it, but I also had an immediate inner voice, saying 'You're too young. Who will want to be coached by you?'"

Still, the desire to work as a coach stuck with Smeaton over the next 20 years. "It never felt like the right time," she said.

But in 2017, Smeaton started to realize she was ready for a new challenge. After a period of reflection, she found herself dusting off her old coaching goal, asking herself: "If not now, when?"

Sara Smeaton, 48, left her job as a managing editor of a non-profit in 2018. In January, she started a new job as a mid-life coach, helping other people who, among other things, wish to pivot careers in their middle years. (Amber Ellis)

After completing a certification program in 2018, Smeaton is now a mid-life coach, helping people in their middle years to achieve a variety of goals, career change among them. She said it's a stage of life that is full of possibility. 

"Assuming a long, healthy life, mid-life is the only time when we will have experience and possibility in equal measure," she said.

Smeaton said she's observed three main factors driving her clients and peers to switch gears in mid-life. Some, like her, simply reach a point where they can no longer ignore dreams they've long had on the back burner. 

Others experience a change in values. "Where we may have wanted a particular title, or a particular salary, or exciting travel, or prestige or visibility at one stage, there can be a shift for some people," she said. They'll instead begin to prioritize things like freedom, creativity, autonomy or meaning.

In other cases, mid-career change is brought about through circumstantial issues, said Smeaton. These can include corporate downsizing, reorganization or other disruptive forces at work. But they're just as often brought on by life changes, including demands of family, including aging parents, a relationship ending or a health scare, she said, or things that "make us stop and say, 'How does this impact the rest of life and what do I do now?'"

While some may be daunted at the prospect of beginning something new, Smeaton said she believes "you're really never starting from scratch at this stage of life. We can use everything that we have and put it into the next thing."

Opportunities to fill the skills gap

Training company Palette announced last June that it received $1.1 million in federal government funding to run a pilot program that will retrain mid-career workers for jobs in the innovation economy.

Co-founder and executive director AJ Tibando said the tech companies she hears from say access to skilled talent is their No. 1 barrier to growth. Palette aims to help fix that problem by pairing those companies with workers whose jobs are being disrupted by automation and technological change, she said.

Angela Payne, senior vice-president and general manager for Monster Canada, said interest in mid-life career change seems to be on the rise. (Monster Canada)

"As small firms in the tech space are growing rapidly, a lot of big traditional employers are shedding jobs and are changing dramatically," said Tibando. "A lot of the workers are skilled workers with strong backgrounds and skills and experience, and we see a lot of overlap in what's needed in these new industries and what's being lost in these old industries."

Palette's pilot project will train a group of workers — some with around a decade of experience, others with 20 years or more — to work in technology sales. That technical training will be followed by a three-month paid job placement. 

Angela Payne, senior vice-president and general manager of the job platform Monster Canada, said the pace of technological change has prompted many people to consider new possibilities.

"Think about heavy equipment operators who now are getting exposure to AI and machine learning through equipment. They don't have degrees in engineering, but they have expertise that's built on years of understanding of a market and a business that nobody else has," said Payne.

Same goes for financial professionals who now work in blockchain, and business analysts who've pivoted to data science, she said.

For 13 years, Mike Wallberg worked in investment banking before switching gears and taking a master of journalism at the University of British Columbia. He worked as a journalist initially and is now vice-president of marketing and communication at investment firm Leith Wheeler. (Mike Wallberg)

Payne said she believes there's an increased appetite for career change at mid-life, in part because "there's this movement about being the best version of yourself, finding your purpose, finding your passion."

"These things that impact how people think about traditional employment."

Overcoming ageism

One barrier workers may experience in their quest to land a job in a different field is ageism. 

"There's a lot of conversation around gender and cultural diversity, but I don't think there's enough of a conversation around age diversity," said Ian Brenner, a partner at business consulting firm Farber. "There's a richness that a mature individual brings to an organization through experience."

Too often, hiring managers overlook what a winning combination it can be to pair the experience of older workers with the high energy of new entrants to the workplace, he said. 

But recruiters would be wise to leverage that value, said Brenner, especially given that careers are lengthening, along with average life span. 

"Where two decades ago, I might have expected to have three or four careers, we can now expect eight or 10."

After 13 years in personal finance, it was during a yearlong parental leave with his daughter that Mike Wallberg began thinking about a career shift.

While he'd found his work in investment banking interesting, Wallberg had always had a love of writing. In high school, he'd written a column for a community newspaper, and he'd since enjoyed some writing in his free time. "I decided to get my master of journalism at UBC," he said. 

Wallberg, right, is seen on a reporting trip here in Beijing's 798 art district with former CBS News producer Peter Herford, left. (Leif Zapf-Gilje)

Wallberg was 38 at the time. "All of my classmates were younger. Most of them were in their 20s. Some were two years out of undergrad or less."

Wallberg worked as a freelance journalist after graduating, and eventually took a role as vice-president of marketing and communications for the investment firm Leith Wheeler.

"I'm really glad I made the change. I'm glad I listened to myself," said Wallberg, now 43. "You're only here once, so you might as well make it worth it."


Brandie Weikle


Brandie Weikle is a writer and editor for CBC Radio based in Toronto. She joined CBC in 2016 after a long tenure as a magazine and newspaper editor. Brandie covers a range of subjects but has special interests in health, family and the workplace. She is currently the acting senior producer for CBC Radio's digital team. You can reach her at