It’s fine to have no idea what you want in your third decade
They say that you will have five careers over the course of your lifetime.
According to my imagination, I’ve had almost all of them already. When I was a kid I dreamt of becoming a doctor. After that, I pivoted towards education and decided that I wanted to be a university lecturer. (I had just seen Mona Lisa Smile. It all seemed impossibly glamorous.) What followed were the years when I was convinced that I would be the female Indiana Jones, part-time teacher, full-time archaeologist extraordinaire.
Writing came after that, and only because I started reading magazines and I realised that not only was someone sitting at a computer somewhere writing those stories, but that they might be getting paid to do it, too. The gap between imagination and reality closed for a while, and my fourth dream career became my first real one.
But I’m only 27. There’s plenty of time to dream up a few new jobs and turn them into realities.
I’m right on track, too. According to research conducted by LinkedIn, millennials will change jobs on average four times in the 10 years since their graduation and they’ll explore 60% more industries in their first five years out of university than previous generations.
Crucially, more than half of British people are unhappy at work, according to a 2018 study. Where previously we might have wallowed in our unsatisfactory jobs, convinced to keep calm and carry on, now we’re more empowered than ever to make positive change in our careers.
And your 30s might be the best time to do it.
Think about it: we’re living longer and living deeper than ever before. With that extra time comes the flexibility to constantly reshape our lives. The pension age keeps getting pushed further and further back, a reflection of how much longer our working lives are expected to be. If you’re not going to retire until you’re in your late 60s, then why stick it out in a job that you don’t love from your 20s?
It’s normal to wake from the hangover of your 20s to find that you’re stuck in a place you don’t want to be, dealing with the wrong relationships, the wrong friendships, the wrong cities, the wrong habits and the wrong careers.
Your 30s is the time to make real positive change in your life. It’s the time when you can throw yourself into further study, if your career change requires that. It’s the time when you can devote yourself to starting from the bottom again, if needs be. It’s the time when you can be brave and bold enough to try new things, new places, new people. It’s the time when you can look at yourself and think seriously about what it is that you want, what you really, really want.
It’s fine to know where that is. But it’s also fine if, when you hit 30, you have absolutely no idea what that is.
Do you want to be a baker? That’s what Martha Stewart did, ditching her previous career as a stockbroker and before that, a model, to start her food business in her 30s. Do you want to have your own business? Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, quit her job as a door-to-door saleswoman when she turned 30 and threw herself into her business idea. Do you want to be a filmmaker? Ava DuVernay had worked in public relations her whole life before picking up a camera at the age of 32. Now, she’s the first African American woman to helm a movie with a budget in excess of $100 million (£78 million).
I’ve had friends in their 30s switch careers from publishing to the law, or from academia to occupational therapy. Rachel, 32, started her working life as a psychologist before switching to visual merchandising and then retraining as a photographer. These days she juggles her creative work with nannying.
“I love my job!” Rachel tells Stylist.co.uk. She spent years “unfathomably miserable” in previous careers and she urges “everyone considering an alternate career path to make the move before you hit rock bottom at your current job. You will reap the rewards sooner.”
Rachel advises a combination of taking leaps of faith and “seriously considering what you’re getting into.” Take some night classes or online courses to retrain in your next industry “and make sure you have a little financial cushion saved up to fall back on in case of any hiccups,” she adds.
After trying four different careers, Rachel is convinced that she’s found her dream job of photography and is working towards transitioning into it fulltime. Her hope is that women will share their personal career stories more openly, encouraging others to make changes in their own lives. “Historically, but I think this is changing, women have been very cagey about the information they share about getting ahead or even starting in particular roles,” Rachel muses. “I think if there was more information and guidance freely provided from peers or mentors about starting or advancing your career, more people would be likely to make the changes.”
What unites Rachel and Martha, Sara and Ava is the drive for more. Not happy to settle for good enough, they took the initiative in their 30s to make changes in their lives and see them through. They’re happier people because of it, too.
The stigma around changing careers is dissipating. (According to LinkedIn’s research, more than half of respondents believed that prospective employers don’t care about applicants who have swapped jobs frequently.) Most of us know that we have five careers in us and are happy to change until we find the one that sticks.
Have you found yours yet? It’s okay if you haven’t. Now might be the best time to try something new.
For one day only on Monday 13 August, Laura Whitmore has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Speak Up platform – a digital initiative which aims to shine a light on the day’s most important headlines, challenge the status quo, spark debate, encourage conversation and, above all else, champion women’s voices..
For similarly inspiring content, check out Laura Whitmore’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live.