26. June 2024

Building a new career in your 40s – this much I know

Yellow sign saying fresh start ahead

In 2023, my first career ended for good. I’d been studying and working in the legal sector in one capacity or another since September of the year 2000. Then, AI took over my final role in the industry as a legal translator.

I knew I was beaten, and that there was no point in carrying on with translation. Going back to the practice of law? No thanks. It was time to make a clean break and look for pastures new. The chapter of my life marked “law” was closed.

I started over with my career. And, I have discovered, setting up a new career in your 40s bears only a tenuous resemblance to the process I went through in my early to mid-20s.

What has it been like? Here are a few of my observations…

1. The glass ceiling – I ain’t bothered no more

When I was in my 20s, the glass ceiling was a THING. My decision to go into banking and finance law was partially motivated by ambitions of breaking through it. I was here, I was a fearless female, and I was going to show those guys what-for! I would wear snappy suits (and not be at all uncomfortable), work all hours (and love it), bask in the respect of my male colleagues (certain to be forthcoming), and smash up all manner of female stereotypes like some kind of corporate She-Ra.

Whether I would enjoy what I was doing and how that might impact on my career success didn’t really factor into my considerations.

Big mistake.

Now I know: you are unlikely to achieve great success in something that you don’t have a basic affinity with. I admire my own youthful willpower – but the high-octane career project did not end well. I was all burned out and depressed by 31. A far cry from the corporate stardom I had imagined would be mine by that age.

These days, I just don’t give a damn about the glass ceiling. I care about the men I work with treating me with respect, which they do in the vast majority of cases. Still – even the nicest of my male colleagues can fall into that habit of simply talking amongst themselves and forgetting to actively draw any females present into the conversation. Even if the intent isn’t to exclude the ladies, that is the effect.

Changing priorities

In years gone by, I would have been incensed by this kind of exclusive, cliquey behaviour and used every opportunity to elbow my way into that conversation and make my voice heard. “Being present”, we ladies were told, was key if we wanted to get on in our careers. I went for that line hook, line and sinker.

These days, if I notice the guys are drifting off into their own little world and not taking me with them, then – unless I would suffer a detriment – I just sit back and let them get on with it.

Because, at 42, I am absolutely done with charging into battles that don’t matter in the great scheme of things.

I now operate on the assumption that my career progression and any respect I reap from others for my work is because I’m good at it. Proving some big gender equality point is no longer a primary aim, but rather a happy by-product (if I think about it at all).

I have come to think of feminism less in terms of abstract ideas, slogans and shouting about injustice and unfairness. It’s about knowing your job, getting on with it and doing it well.

2. Do the TradWives have a point?

I won’t lie – at several points during the last 18 months, I’ve been so frustrated at being back at the bottom rung of the career ladder. Feeling clueless when I used to know what I was doing, making baby steps instead of big, authoritative strides. Often, I just wanted to down tools and quit the world of work entirely. I’ve been listening to Sherri Jackson’s “Maple Tree” on permanent repeat. That’s the kind of headspace I’ve been inhabiting.

Retirement not being a realistic option, my fed-up mind wandered to other ways to withdraw from the grind of the working world. It was then that I discovered the TradWives, a social media trend which has sprung up in the past few years where (mostly younger) women celebrate and aspire to lead lives in conformity with traditional gender roles. Man = breadwinner, woman = homemaker, that kind of thing.

Thanks for sharing, but it’s not for me

Far be it from me to criticise women for making an informed choice to pursue this kind of life – feminism is, after all, about being empowered to make your own choices. And for career-weary women like me, a life at home – just cooking, cleaning, shopping, putting on makeup and looking tiptop for hubby when he comes home – does sometimes seem like a hell of a tempting deal.

But even as I was flicking through the videos of peachy-skinned TradWives in floral smocks and aprons who look like they’ve come skidding in sideways from the 1950s, I knew this is not the life for me.

As superficially attractive as this homemaking utopia seems, it lacks several little perks of living like an equal which I happen to be very attached to, both philosophically and practically. Like having my own money and not having to rely on an allowance granted at my partner’s beneficence. The thought of having to ask him for money to buy my own clothes makes me shudder. And the knowledge that – should The Other Half up and leave me for another lady – I could survive just fine on my own without having to claw half of his assets off him. Yes, I need that.

Added to this is the inconvenient fact that I am constitutionally incapable of conforming to any kind of female stereotype, nevermind those of an ultra-traditional bent. I say what I think, talk back, argue my point of view with verve and generally have very little interest in traditional female stuff like children or clothes.

The TradWife life? Forget it. No matter how pissed off I get with it, this woman’s place is at work.

3. Follow your passion? Please…

If I go to any networking event these days, I can more or less guarantee that, in the course of the evening, I am going to meet several life coaches and photographers. Maybe even an influencer if I’m “lucky”. I can also predict with a degree of confidence that any conversation with these people is going to feature some statement along the lines of “follow your passion and career fulfilment and everlasting happiness will be yours”.

I don’t mean to be impolite (or maybe actually I do), but once that phrase or any of its variants hits my eardrums, I’m silently checking out of the conversation and thinking of ways to move on to more interesting ones.

Let’s not beat about the bush or be diplomatic here: the notion that everybody should be following their passions in their work lives is bollocks of the highest order.

Look, I’m a realist. I’ve also been around the career block a few times. And by now, I am sure: most of the time, aspiring to feel passionate about your work is honourable, but not realistic. Under no circumstances should you hate what you do – nobody knows better than I do how badly that ends (see above).

But a basic affinity to the work you do in a professional capacity is just fine. As long as it interests you enough to want to sit down and do it every day and do a good job and it pays you enough, then that is just fine. Anything more than that is a perk, a luxury, the tasty jam on your bread and butter. Nice, but you can survive without it.

4. You have to put together a whole new career-construction toolkit

In the great game of snakes and ladders that is your working life, it sometimes happens that you slither down on a snake – right back to the very beginning if you’re unlucky. In Monopoly-speak, you do not pass go or collect € 200.

That’s what happened to me. Dumped unceremoniously back on Square One, the natural reflex was to start building my new career just how I did the first time around: same attitude, same strategy, same approach.

Except that – surprise! – starting a new career in your 40s is a whole other ballgame than starting out in your early/mid-20s. And, consequently, the tools you took up back then now look absurd in your hands, like sitting down to do embroidery using a hammer and nails.

Take decisions, take responsibility

In my mid-20s, I was all about the ambition. I was all about the (will)power. I was all about solving problems by going at them full tilt with a (metaphorical) battering ram. And to be honest, I did get an awful lot achieved in a relatively short space of time on an atypical career path in a foreign country where I first had to learn the language – so I’m not going to unpick all that now.

25-year-old me rocked! She was driven. She was impressive.

42-year-old me doesn’t have the same energy. Any attempt to solve problems in my old high-octane way isn’t sustainable anymore. My ambitions are now rather less “shoot for the stars” than “if I can earn a living with this and stay self-employed, then it’s fine because my freedom is more important than a huge salary”.

I now get that galloping at problems at high speed isn’t really that smart. Often, you just end up hurting yourself. I’m not going work 12-hour days every day for months or years on end just to maintain some kind of image. If that means not being Sheryl Sandberg – well, the number of flying proverbials I give about that is precisely zero.

It’s all about understanding what you want at this phase in life, taking responsibility for the consequences of your decision and sorting out a plan for getting what you want. And it’s about putting down that battering ram in favour of more subtle methods better suited to who you are now rather than who you were when bootcut jeans were last in fashion.

5. Patience, dear

I am happy to report that I am in both rude health and excellent shape. But I’m not young anymore. The energy that used to spurt from every pore in my 20s now flows at a more sedate pace. I need longer to regenerate after sporting challenges or illness. I am very keen on afternoon naps.

I used to think nothing of working 50-60 hour weeks, training for a marathon on the side, socialising a bit and doing all the other regular stuff like washing and cleaning on top. Nowadays, intense periods of work mean winding down my sporting ambitions a bit until things are calmer and spending evenings on the sofa rather than at a bar. Like any other limited resource, energy needs to be husbanded to get everything done that I need/want to and avoid another crash-and-burn episode.

“Slow and steady wins the race” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day” are more likely to be the phrases going round in my head when I’m feeling a bit demotivated or tired or like there’s still so far to go. Well, f*ck it – there’s no trophy going for beating myself up about not getting things done at maximum speed. You can’t run a marathon at a sprint (I should know – I’ve done three of them).

I say to myself: keep going, keep your cool, keeping chipping away at the task, keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll get there in the end.


Related articles:

These work email behaviours will have me loving you…or judging you

The AI mindset

The career chrysalis


Photo credit: BrianAJackson on Envato Elements