Career Transition

Career Change is Not Just for the Brave

career change

Two statistics I came across this week got me thinking about the roadblocks that keep people in jobs they don’t love–or worse.

About 20% of people leave their jobs every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about the same percentage of people who say they are confident they can easily change careers, according to research from Shane Snow, author of Smartcuts.

I realize those numbers aren’t directly related. Then again, maybe they are. Bear with me.

In survey after survey, most Americans report they are unhappy in their jobs. So what is keeping them from moving on? Do they just like complaining or do people really feel there are no better options for them?

Circumstances, personal and economic, play a big role, of course. But there is something else going on that is hinted at in the other survey: Confidence. That trait might separate people willing to take career risks from the rest of the population.

Of course, some people who changed jobs had no choice. They might have been laid off or fired. But many of those who did change jobs wanted something better, and went for it.

Finding a new job can be harder in some locations or industries than others. And changing careers entirely can be even more challenging, particularly for mid-career and older workers. But when you look at it objectively, it is just as challenging for people who are afraid to change as it is for those who are confident they can change. In other words, some people use those challenges as excuses and some people don’t.

In the research reported in Smartcuts, people gave a variety of reasons why they can’t change careers.

Just over half of employed, college-educated American workers say they could pursue a different career, but it would be difficult. And nearly as many as say could switch careers believe they can’t do anything about the path they’re on, for one reason or another.

Those reasons? They tend to fall into things that can be characterized as either internal, and largely fear-based, and things attributed to external factors that may or may not be valid. People say they are too old to change, they have invested too much time, that it is too difficult. Most of those translate as a reluctance to step out of a comfort zone, however far from ideal it is. A known discomfort is less scary for most people than an unknown of any kind.

The external factors range from everything from family expectations, unwillingness to take a lower salary and live more simply, to assuming that they can’t succeed or won’t find a job. Other people are just defeatist—believing that work is always going to come with the same burdens and problems they currently have. It is the workplace equivalent of single women saying “there are no good men.”

None of this is to say that finding a new job or career comes easy. There may be setbacks, you may disappoint someone, you may temporarily earn less, and so on. But if you are unhappy at work, there is value in separating fact from fiction. How many of the things that you think are keeping you stuck really are, and how many are simply things that you don’t want to make the effort to change? Or are afraid to?

Here’s the thing: we spend much of our lives at work, and it is worth being happy during that time. Make an honest evaluation of the situation to determine what is keeping you where you are. If you really can’t change it, then you can keep complaining or you can find ways to be happier. But if what is holding you back is lack of effort or confidence, or fear, acknowledge what is really going on. Let it go. Stare it down. Get coaching if it helps. And then you can move on.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.