This is an article that I wrote for an assessment at uni on the experiences of people changing careers.

We can all remember a time in our childhood where we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. A fire fighter. A police officer. A doctor. An astronaut. Every kid had an answer. But usually it was just that, one answer. We expect that a person will eventually form an idea of who they want to be in this world, and stick to it. In recent years we have learnt that this is no longer the case, that there is a fluidity in our perception of a career.

The typical career spans across multiple changes, and it is no longer expected for a person to know what they want to be when they grow up. It is expected that people will become restless, or want to pursue a new, more ambitious goal. In 2014 the company McCrindle published research on the mobility of Australian workers. They showed that people change jobs an average of 17 times, with around 5 careers changes.

The research also showed that people change jobs an average of once every 3 years, 4 months, however there is a stark difference between age groups. People under 25 years change jobs on average almost every 2 years, whereas people over 45 years change careers almost every 7 years. Whilst younger people have pretty much always changed jobs more frequently, their research showed that this mobility has increased across all age groups in recent times.

Rachel* has spent the last 15 years working in human resources within state government. This has included positions within different sections of state government, including health and commerce. She was recently interviewed for a job in another section of state government. She is raising two young daughters, and is reluctant to mention this to her potential employer, as she fears discrimination. 

These days it is the norm for people to change careers multiple times, so much so that Rachel would be surprised not to see this on a resume. She said that would expect to see around seven changes. In her eyes, a person who has stayed in the same role for years on end would appear to be stale and without ambition. Change has become accepted in a way it wasn’t for previous generations.

Human Resources departments have needed to adapt to the mobility of employees. This mobility is especially true of younger employees. In the past Rachel has asked new recruits to complete a twelve-month performance development plan. It has become clear that this practice needed to change, as recruits were coming in to their roles with little intention of staying this long.

From Rachel’s experience employers do little to support current employees who wish to change careers. She said that there is often little opportunity for employees to gain experience in another role within their organisation. Sometimes the only choice to get this experience is unpaid work, which few people can afford to do. With potential employers desiring experience in their new recruits, it can make it difficult to move on.

Rachel said that it is common to see women in their 40’s undertaking a career change. For her, between the ages of 40 and 42 is when she has experienced the most change. She thought ‘I’m halfway through my life, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?’ Rachel believes that women often decide to change careers when their children become less dependent. A mid-life crisis, where people start questioning if they want something more out of life. Rachel said that she sees this in men at this age too; however it is more common for women.

A common reason for changing careers is rediscovering a passion at a later stage of life. A career that perhaps you didn’t feel could sustain you when you were first entering the workforce is now sought after with renewed energy. The safe bet was to work in administration or business, and now a more creative field is being sought. Alternatively, after a stressful office job a person may seek to do something with their hands, to build and create.

For Anna*, 40, a damaging workplace resulted in her undertaking a more creative path. She is finally following her dreams after recovering from depression. Anna is a slight thing, something like four foot tall, and full of determination. It’s not hard to see how she would survive in a room full of lawyers vying for the top job, or how she would crumble. There is a resolve in her which may well have kept alive at her darkest moments. Anna worked as an executive assistant in a top law firm, and endured a culture of bullying, paranoia and politics.

When Anna left high school, her grades weren’t great. She reluctantly followed her parent’s advice to become a secretary. Anna had fantastic organisational skills and excelled in this role. After a stint overseas, Anna decided to study business at university. She had big ideas and wanted the skills to back them. Anna finished her degree with a number of business ideas in mind. In the short term however; she decided to take a temp role in a law firm to make some money.

It was her role as an executive assistant that ultimately broke her, Anna said. Her direct supervisor was a bully, loathed by all, and Anna often found herself consoling his victims. Once he was fired, Anna was offered a permanent role, which she accepted. She said that she was full of self-doubt following the experience, and lost faith in her ideas after years of bullying. She found herself working for another lawyer, Wayne, whilst the company was going through a merger. It was a stressful time, and Anna said that the paranoia in the company was insane. The merger would likely redistribute the power within the company, and everyone wanted to ensure that their position was safe. Anna said that Wayne was set to take control of the company after the merger and that this turned the other staff against Anna.  She experienced bullying and harassment as a result.

This harassment, in addition to the unhealthy work environment, left Anna depressed and suicidal. She attempted suicide once, and later called Lifeline when she found herself planning her suicide for a second time. Lifeline called the police and Anna was taken to hospital. She was admitted to the Kiloh Centre in Randwick for six weeks. Under the care of Dr Gordon Parker, Anna was able to see how damaging her career was. She and her doctors all knew that she could not return to the corporate sector. Anna took stock of her life, and with the help of intensive therapy, decided to make some changes.

To begin with she decided to become a builder. She lamented that she had worked for years in such awful environment to buy the things that she wanted. This included an apartment in Dee Why, which now had concrete cancer and a monstrous strata bill that she could not afford. She decided to renovate the property before selling, which fulfilled her desire to work with her hands. The tactile became important to her. She recollects running her hands through concrete before she poured it. She said there was an immense satisfaction in the project for her, which didn’t exist when working in law. Anna stroked her hands across the tiles in her kitchen when she explained that there ‘was a sense of accomplishment, because when you tile this you’re finished, but when you work in law, you’re never finished.’ Anna ultimately didn’t become a builder; however the pride and satisfaction that she felt in completing the project ultimately enabled her to pursue other business plans.

In Anna’s experience, there isn’t a lot of support out there for employees who do become unwell. She was given the option to resign or to work for another lawyer who also had a reputation as a bully. To Anna, this was no choice. “I had to resign,” she said, “I didn’t have a choice.” She also witnessed other employees lose their jobs at a time of fragility or illness. A woman who had worked there for 25 years fell and hit her head. When a brain injury was suspected and the organisation had no time for her.

It has been a long road; however Anna felt it was worth investing time in. She is pursuing her business ideas, and says that she is now an entrepreneur, a writer, a copy writer, marketing strategist and a content writer.  Anna believes that there are more opportunities out there than ever, as businesses or ideas can be created online. Anna doesn’t believe that a person has to be just one thing anymore.

Other people are still working out which direction to take. Having enrolled in the first course she got in to, Ellen’s career was almost chosen for her. When she was in high school she was told to put a course that she didn’t expect to get in to as her first preference.  To aim high. When submitting her application she put the Bachelor of Communication and Advertising through Charles Sturt University as her first preference. She expected that to even have a chance of getting in she would need to attend an exam or interview, or to submit an essay. She was surprised when she got in without such a hurdle.

Ellen*, 29, went on to complete the course. After she graduated, she worked in communications roles in not for profits such as education and disability. After her first contract ended she moved on to another contract. However, after this contracted ended she found herself unemployed and uncertain as to what to do. Ellen didn’t want to return to a communications or advertising role. She had come to realise how little she enjoyed the work.

Ellen has been out of work for about six months when a friend in a similar position had an idea. Her friend Mathew approached her one day and asked her if she wasn’t to do market research. Ellen went along expecting to taste test ice creams, and instead found herself with a new job. It was a marketing company, which conducted research over the phone for businesses and government. Ellen hated the role; however she stayed there for almost five and a half years, due to the flexibility and other benefits.  She was able to pick and choose her working hours, and it actually paid quite well.

Ellen has since left this role to work in a contract role as a digital recording assistant. This involves ensuring that the information that streaming services provide is accurate. Despite this being a short term role which paid less, she was keen to leave her old job. As Ellen said, “When you’re sort of thinking to yourself, oh if I just break my leg I won’t have to go to work” you know it’s time to leave.

Ellen undertakes other bits of work on the side, including photography, baking and graphic design. Ellen bakes awe-inspiring cakes for family and friends, most recently including a Tardis shaped birthday cake, and a gluten free cake in the shape of a giraffe for a baby shower. Ellen said that these aren’t areas that she intends on pursuing in the long term. Creative work is not seen as tangible most of the time, she said, and therefore people often don’t feel that they need to pay for it.

Ellen’s contract ends soon. It’s a scary prospect, she said, the possibility of being out of work before Christmas. She said that her supervisor told her that she is still needed at the company, which she hopes is true. If Ellen is offered a permanent role; she would look at further study, to learn to speak Japanese fluently. She hopes to work in Japan, and needs to learn the language if she wants to do anything more than teaching English for work. She would look at staying in the music copyright sector, which has a similar structure in Australia and Japan.

For Sally, her health was a contributing factor for changing careers. Beginning her career in hospitality, she spent 10 years working as a chef, before deciding to make a change. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Science in food technology and nutrition, which she is due to complete at the end of the year. Sally, 30, has plans to enrol in postgraduate study next year.

Sally started her apprenticeship in a café restaurant in a garden centre in Sydney, before moving on to fine dining restaurants such as Astral at the Star and Pied à Terre in London. Sally said that she returned from London at a crossroads in her career. She felt that she either needed to commence a more senior chef role or to move on from the industry.

When she returned to Sydney, Sally started a sous chef role, working for a friend who ran a restaurant in Potts Point. It was at this point that Sally was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes immune cells to attack the lining of the small intestine when gluten is consumed. Sally said that this restaurant was the turning point for her. She and her friend had grand ideas for the restaurant, to turn it into a fine dining establishment serving a degustation with matching cocktails.

Her diagnosis of coeliac disease made her work more difficult. For her role as a chef, she needed to be able to taste the food that she was cooking. She said that not being able to taste things that contained gluten was a challenge. Sally said that she could have made it work and stayed in the industry, however the long hours meant that she had no work life balance. She said that she was constantly missing important events and rarely saw her friends.

When things didn’t work out the way she had hoped at the restaurant, with the degustation menu not being a success, Sally started considering university. She found a course at the University of Western Sydney which built on an interest in nutrition developed during her apprenticeship.  Sally said that she was nervous that she wouldn’t survive university. At the end of her first year she made the Dean’s Merit List and was offered a place in the Advanced Sciences program.

Sally is looking at postgraduate study, and has been accepted into a Masters in Dietetics at the University of Sydney, and hopes to commence a career in public health promotion or research. Her experience managing her gluten free diet to avoid getting sick propelled her towards this career path. Most importantly for Sally, she’s enjoying an improved work life balance, despite the long hours at University. “I don’t want to miss the big family moments and I don’t want to miss out on my own life,” Sally said. “Making a career change, hopefully one day it will allow me to have more of a work life balance.”

Sarah*, 29, has a restlessness similar to many her age. She has been with the same company for a number of years, however has been toying with the idea of change. She started off her career working as a legal junior, before transitioning to the music industry. Having studied a music industry course at TAFE whilst completing school, and with a passion for music, Sarah was thrilled to be joining this sector.

That passion hasn’t faded in the almost 8 years that she has spent at the company, longer than most people her age these days. She is currently working as a publisher representative in member’s services. The work is stimulating, and whilst it’s not as glamorous as people might imagine, Sarah says the role has its perks, attending gigs for free and with bands often performing for the company.

Sarah has continued to use the skills from her previous life as a legal junior. She says that this role taught her professionalism. It also taught her about law, helping her to navigate copyright. For Sarah, this is pretty important, and helps her to feel a sense of achievement from her work.  “I do feel like what I do makes a difference … and I’m working for a company that make a difference,” she said. “Copyright ensures that artists are paid fairly for the work they produce.”

Restlessness led Sarah to consider university, and she began researching courses. Sarah said that she considered a Bachelor of Communication. Her employer was supportive of this, and offered to reimburse the course fees. Ultimately, Sarah decided not to do the course. She said that she was surrounded by people who had been successful in their roles, despite having never been to university, and this was the norm at her company.

During a rough patch at work where Sarah felt that she was constantly clashing with the rest of her department, she searched for a role outside her company. She interviewed for a job with a publisher that she worked closely with, however decided not to take the role once she found a resolution to her issues at work, once she felt that she had been listened to, and as the relationship with her co-worker improved.

For Sarah, the restlessness won out. She is heading to Sweden in March next year, as there is a similar members organisation there. She has seen so many people stay at her company for years, without advancing or moving on, and decided that she didn’t want to do this. “As lovely as it is to work there and as cool as the people are there, if that’s all I do with my life that’s going to be very disappointing,” she said.


*names changed in respect of privacy.