Women’s Career Change – Mid-Life Passage

The different life trajectories experienced by men and women especially around the physical and emotional demands of child rearing, mean that men and women often experience the arrival of mid-life in contrasting ways.

Individuals in their early forties often experience psychological changes including decreased positive self-concept stemming from social and work related changes. Both men and women may engage in “stock taking” which relates their achievements and expressed values to earlier goals, as well as questioning the meaning of life and re-examining personal values.

This reflection may inspire more attentiveness to inner concerns and may initiate a transfer of energy to more satisfying areas of life.

The demand for renewal is often triggered by some expectable motivators such as :

  • Departure of children
  • Career peak or plateau
  • Outdating of skill set
  • New responsibility for aging parents

The positive personal demands of mid-life include:

  • Wishing to set one’s own milestones
  • Becoming active again in controlling ones future
  • Acceptance of, and adjustment to, growing limits and decreasing energy levels

Sociall research by Neapolitan (1980) found that workers who made radical career changes from high level jobs at mid- life felt that they had drifted into their first occupation or had been pressured by family. They felt that the occupation either never did, or as a result of personal change, no longer expressed their values and beliefs nor did it offer a sufficient outlet or expression of their potential.

A similar study by Riverin-Simard (1990) of mid-life women and men in Montreal suggests that re-evaluating personal values can create a new or revised self-concept. This new self-view may create a mismatch between employment and personal aspirations which had not previously existed.

The positive career demands of mid-life include:

  • Reappraisal of career commitment and choice
  • Integration of the polarities of one’s personality with work
  • Appropriate modification of life structure.

Three potential avenues for change emerge from this re-evaluation:

  1. Renewal of commitment to career
  • Updating of skills
  • Simple maintenance of skills which “hold on” to the job while effort is invested in developing new aspects of self
  • Disinvestment from career in favor of relationships or outside interests and activities
  • Wholesale career change.
  • Many individuals experiment healthily at mid-life with alternative avenues for self-expression in leisure activities or avocations and the easiest career transitions are made by individuals who have knowledge and experience of the new field through having approached it tentatively as an outside interest, a hobby or volunteer position.

    When the transition requires extensive retraining, factors which enabled change include:

    • Lack of financial dependants.
    • Financial support from a partner.

    Research cited by Bejian (1995) suggests that:

    • Women who have made early choices in favor of professional careers experience similar concerns as men at mid-life regarding a desire to reinvest their energy in intimate relationships.
    • Women who had made early career choices based on the needs of intimate relationships voice fears and desires at mid-life related to undeveloped aspects of their selves.

    Over all, women who chose to de-emphasize their careers described the transition as less traumatic than those who chose to de-emphasize family in order to pursue new career goals.

    Mid-life change poses challenges and opportunities for renewal to both men and women. Historic changes in women’s opportunities and expectations have certainly occurred in our lifetimes…. but this last finding suggests that, for those of us currently entering mid-life, our experience and aspirations continue to be somewhat shadowed by the lives and attitudes of the parents who raised us…parents who themselves came to maturity in the climate and attitudes and beliefs about separate male and female roles which characterized the 1940’s and 50’s.

    It seems that the personal demand for self-actualization which arises at mid-life for women still does not sit easily with us.


    Bejian, D. V. & Salomone, P. R. (1995). Understanding Midlife Career Renewal: Implications for counseling. Career Development Quarterly, 44 (1), 52-64.

    Neapolitan, J. (1980.) Occupational Change in Mid-Career: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16, 212-225.

    Riverin-Simard, D. (1990). Adult vocational trajectory. Career Development Quarterly, 39(2), 129-142.