How to Escape Golden Handcuffs: Changing Careers in Mid-Life


by Don Smith

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Many of my clients come to me with the “golden handcuffs” dilemma. They are in a highly paid position with fantastic benefits, yet don't particularly like their job. Not yet at the point where they can afford to retire, they're in golden handcuffs created from their success.

What do you do if you're in that situation? Besides hiring me to help you figure it out, which of course, I think is the best choice :).

Well, you have a few options.

1. Stay at Your Current Job

Stop and do nothing
Stop Dreaming. Appreciate What You Have.

Doing nothing is the most common option that people select. It's the default and arguably the most comfortable option. Suck it up, keep doing what you're doing, fund your 401k, and retire in twenty or thirty years. It's a valid option and might be your best one if you don't hate your job. It is nice to go on those vacations after all, and the grass isn't always greener on the other side (although sometimes it is).

What I often recommend if you do this is renegotiating your current position or looking for another position within your same company. If you can reduce or change your hours and responsibilities, you may find staying to be your best bet, especially if you're the owner of the company.

2. Start Saving Up

Save up for a career change
Plan for a Reduction in Income

You may have to take a cut in pay to make a career change in your 40's or 50's. It is sometimes possible to increase your salary and reduce your hours by taking another job in your field. But if you're switching to a completely different career, there is a good chance you will be taking a step backward before taking two steps forward.

If you are a high earner, get your financial house in order before making a significant mid-life career change. Cut expenses, pay down your debts, create an emergency fund, and figure out your minimum required salary.

3. Don't Wait Too Long

The Longer You Wait, the Harder a Career Change Will Be

Like it or not, age discrimination is a real thing, and none of us are getting any younger. If you want to change careers, the longer you wait, the harder it will be.

I had a lady in her sixties approach me about changing jobs. While we did come up with a plan, with only a handful of years until retirement, that was tough. Many companies want young people full of energy who will take direction and work up through the ranks. The good news is that the right ones still recognize the value of experience.

4. Leverage Your Existing Strengths

One of the first things I do as a career coach is to figure out my client's strengths and weaknesses. I then use some software to match those strengths with positions that will give them what they want and a nice bump in salary, or at least not a massive pay cut. Leveraging your existing skills and education when making a change is your best bet for retaining a comfortable lifestyle.

5. Create a Side Business

Creating their own business is a goal for many high earners. It's not a guaranteed way to success, though. A large percentage of startups fail, and not everyone has the required entrepreneurial personality, which is why I recommend starting it on the side to minimize your risk. The best thing is that if you are a senior manager or are good at sales, you already have many of the skills necessary to make this a reality.

Once you've proven that you can get customers, don't hate it more than your current job, and have put a pencil to the numbers, including replacing your existing benefits such as health insurance, you can transition to doing it full time. I recommend hiring a reputable coach if this is an avenue you decide to go down, as it is easy to blow through a small fortune learning lessons the hard way when starting up a business. Without proper guidance, you can also get stuck in an even higher stress job you created for yourself as well.

Start Today

Many people have made mid-life career transitions and escaped those golden handcuffs, so it is possible. I recommend starting today, because the longer you wait, the harder it will be.

About the Author 

Don Smith

Happily married with five kids, Smith owns a technology company, has served on the board of directors for multiple companies, and loves playing soccer, hiking, and mentoring.

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