Starting Over at 40: Career Change Advice for Older Job Seekers

Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC
January 30, 2019

My Forbes post on landing a new job after staying at the same company for a long time clearly struck a chord because I heard follow-up questions from a number of readers. Irena asked about how to make a career change later in life. I’ve written before about starting over after 40, and about how my own career change after 40 led to real estate in Costa Rica. Now this aspiring job seeker faces the double constraint of age and long-term unemployment:

Is it possible to start over at 40 after being unemployed for 11 years? – Brian

It is always possible to start over professionally since the job search really boils down to a match between two parties — a company hiring to solve a need and a job candidate applying to fill that need. This means that, if you can identify what the needs are and position yourself to meet those needs, then you can land a job.

When you’re an older job seeker, prospective employers may make assumptions that hurt your hiring chances. When you have been unemployed for a long time, you may face additional negative assumptions. Coming back to employment is a career change after 40. Put together age and prolonged unemployment and you have to reassure prospective employers concerned about both. More difficult still, employers often do not ask about their concerns outright, so you need to address these issues in your marketing and networking, well before an interview. Here are five concerns employers have about older and long-term unemployed job seekers that you need to address in advance:

Your skills are out-of-date

If you haven’t been in the workplace for a while, you have to show in some other way that your skills aren’t rusty. One client I worked with had taken over 10 years off for family reasons. She didn’t have paid work experience as proof of her skills, but she had extensive volunteer experience (fundraising, in her case) and was able to restart her career with a sales-oriented job that built on her fundraising experience.

The fix? Get projects under your belt that show specific skills and ideally some tangible results. These don’t have to be paid projects—volunteer, take a leadership role in a community organization or activity – but be active and involved.

Your expertise is out-of-date

This same client had a sales background prior to taking time off but in pharmaceuticals. She ended up back in sales but for financial services, not pharmaceuticals. Her fundraising volunteer efforts had put her in front of many finance executives in the community (that was the main industry in her area) so it made sense that her career change after 40 represented a new industry where she now had expertise and contacts.

Similarly, if you have been out of the workforce for a while, your industry expertise and contacts may be different now than when you last worked. Changing areas of expertise is understandable. Lack of expertise altogether is not. Not keeping up with the learning is particularly damaging to older candidates because it plays into the negative stereotype that older candidates stop improving and learning as they age.

The fix? Demonstrate in your cover letter, your social media updates, and your communication and networking with prospective employers that you have kept up-to-date in the same or in a new industry, by maintaining activity in professional associations and/or staying current on news and trends.

You won’t work well with others

When you haven’t been in the workplace for a while, it isn’t apparent, unless you have other collaborative and social examples, that you can work well with others. As an older job seeker, there is the additional concern that you may not work well with younger employees, some of whom may be senior in the company at this point.

The fix? At a minimum, include in your resume and online profile specific examples of when you have worked with others—volunteer, community-based activities are still fine for this purpose. If you can get people in your network to make introductions for you, that would be ideal, especially if your referrals are coming from various levels and ages.

Your cost outweighs your value

If it’s been a while since you have worked for pay, you may not be up-to-date on what the market will pay for your level of skills, expertise, and experience. I have seen too many unemployed job seekers hinder their job search with overly high salary expectations. When there is an employment gap, especially a prolonged one, you cannot expect to come back at the same salary as when you left off because your contribution is likely not going to be where you left off.

The fix? Research the companies you are targeting and identify a realistic level where you can get hired. Then, match your salary expectations to that level, not where you might have been 11 or more years ago.

You are a hiring risk

If you have been unemployed for a while, employers can’t know for sure why no one else has hired you. That’s a risk. You are a bigger risk than someone who is coming in from another job or even someone who has a shorter unemployed period because there is more time spent in the unknown. Add this in with some of the unknowns about older workers—will they expect too high a salary? Will they pull rank and not want to work with junior people?—and employers may just assume you’re too much trouble.

The fix? Recognize that employers are risk-averse and focus your job search on downplaying that risk—get introductions so that someone vouches for you, start as a temp or consultant so employers have a trial period.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC, a member of the Columbia Career Coaches Network, specializes in career change as a coach, writer, speaker and co-founder of SixFigureStart® career coaching and, a real estate and early retirement blog. She has coached executives from Amazon, American Express, Condé Nast, Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey, and Tesla. Ceniza-Levine spent 15 years in strategy consulting, executive search, and HR. She has been a repeat TV guest on CBS, CNN, CNBC, and Fox Business and has been quoted in major media outlets, including BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, Inc, NPR, and Success Magazine. Ceniza-Levine is a career columnist for Forbes and wrote for,, CNBC, and Portfolio. She is the author of three books. She teaches professional development and negotiation courses at Columbia. A classically-trained pianist at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music, Ceniza-Levine stays active in the arts, performing stand-up comedy. Learn more about Ceniza-Levine and other members of the Columbia Career Coaches Network.

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