Making a Career-Life Transition: What's At Stake?

Every adult moves through several important and predictable stages in their career-life journey, with the ending of one stage and the beginning of the next involving a period of adjustment. 

In his well-known book Transitions, William Bridges explains that transitions involve 1) an ending, followed by 2) a period of confusion and distress, leading to 3) a new beginning. He warns us that the transition process can take its' "toll on us physically as well as mentally and socially."  

Current adult stages are believed to be young adults (22-34), early middle age (35-44), late middle age (45-64), young-old (65-75), middle-old (76-85) and frail old (86+).  A career-life transition can take place at any one of these stages, including late stages since people are living to advanced ages and often working in paid roles into their 70's and 80's.

The factors listed below can impact the experience and outcome of a career-life transition. Use the questions to help support and inform your transition process. 

Timing/Readiness:  Does the change fit with your stage of life? Does the change involve embarking on a whole new life chapter, e.g. adolescence to adulthood, entering late middle age, or middle-old age? Are you ready for the change, or does it feel forced or premature? What do you need to do to prepare yourself for what lies ahead?  What might you need to let go of? What supports do you have in place to ease you through the transition?

Imposed or Self-Selected: Is the change your idea, or has someone or something influenced or forced the transition you face? This could include termination of employment, the sudden ending of a relationship through divorce, death or illness. You need to have resources in place whether you have chosen to engage in something new or it's been forced upon you.

Role Adjustment:  Roles include behavioural expectations created by ourselves and/or by others. When we leave one life stage and enter another, there are always role adjustments. In the new role, the expectations may be inflated, imposed or unrealistic. The loss of the previous role may create emotional distress. Working through that distress until the new role "fits" is critical. And perhaps most importantly the time required can vary a great deal, depending on the individual.

Establishing A New Identity:  This can take a fair bit of time, depending on the amount of "reinvention" that's required. So much of our identity is defined by how we earn a living. Trying out new roles on a small scale, e.g. taking a part-time job in the field, or volunteering can allow one to adjust to the new identity.  Changing work identity involves learning to think about oneself differently. In my own journey, after launching a private practice in career counselling, it took me nearly five years to refer to myself as a psychotherapist.  

Building New Relationships:  Leaving old friends/colleagues behind and joining a new group can be a difficult adjustment.  Entering college or university is one example. Changing occupational fields is another, or getting married and moving to a new community, city or country. Adjusting to retirement can be highly distressing for some people.  Any of these changes may involve the loss of some relationships and require the building and maintaining of new ones.The mental and social toll can be significant depending on your personality and the support systems you have in place. 

In my own career journey, one of the most difficult transitions I experienced was from my first career in the secretarial field to that of full-time wife and parent. The ending of the paid work role was not difficult, as the planned birth of our first child totally trumped my previous career choice!  All my life I had imagined the joy of becoming a parent and that part definitely did not disappoint me. What I could not have known was the reality of how much the homemaking role is under valued in our culture. Nor could I have ever imagined the negative impact on my psychological health of being in a role without value: strong feelings of being invisible and worthless as a "stay at home mom."  

I invite you to make a list of the number of career transitions you've had in your life thus far. Use some of the questions in this article as the basis for your self-assessment and reflection. 

Consider this tiny piece of wisdom - ask for and accept the support you need to help you move forward.  Career transitions are so much better when they're not navigated alone.

Take good care of yourself,


Career Strategist