Changing jobs in your 40s; or, steronz overshares about his mental health

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. It caused me to drop out of college my first go-round, and it got so bad about 3 years ago that I’m not sure how I kept my job. Around that time I found a new doctor and a medication that has helped, and I also went through a few counseling sessions. I’d say I’ve got a handle on many of my anxiety triggers, especially social anxiety which used to be a huge problem for me, but my job is still a daily challenge.

I’m a software developer, and I’ve essentially had the same job for the last 17 years. I’ve risen from a junior dev to a technical/team lead in that time, but it’s still a long time to be working on the same basic systems and dealing with the same basic issues. My mental health issues plus imposter syndrome plus the monotony have led me to take it “one day at a time.” I have to psych myself up just to log in and get through my morning meetings and get everyone tasked out for the day. Doing this every [work] day for over a decade has been… exhausting.

Of course, part of the shame spiral is feeling exhausted and struggling with a job that many would consider a dream. I’m reasonably well paid, I almost never work more than 40 hours a week, I’ve been remote for 12+ years which has allowed me to be close with my kids, and I’ve get an extreme amount of autonomy and flexibility. And yet, the thought of taking this “dream job” one day at a time for another 20 years is… it feels overwhelming, as pathetic as that sounds.

Equally daunting, though, is the thought of changing careers at this point in my life. I’ve thought about teaching, which I think I would enjoy and be good at, but even if I can figure out how to budget for that reduced salary (while I have 3 kids rapidly approaching college age), I’d be looking at several years of school. I’ve considered getting a less demanding job in IT, but I worry I’d be trading one job I’m not passionate about for another. If I did what I’d really want, I’d probably be a small-time mechanic or something, and I’m not sure I could cut our spending enough for that.

TL;DR – people who have voluntarily changed jobs in their 40s, why did you do it and what was your experience like? Do you regret it?

I don’t quite fit your age range (I’m 39), but apart from that I’ve gone through almost exactly where you are now.

I spent 16 years in essentially the same software dev job, rising to lead developer while struggling with anxiety, depression, and late diagnosed ADHD. I say “struggling with” because that makes it sound better than “sinking inexorably into a pit of.” The impostor syndrome, the shame over struggling so hard with what would be a dream job for so many, the emotional exhaustion of forcing myself through one day at a time, the despair at picturing another 20 years of one day at a time, the fear of trying something new after so long, the greater fear of trying something new, failing, and ending up just as unhappy but with much less income, and therefore even longer to drudge through until retirement… yeah, I think I get you.

A couple years ago, I realized I wasn’t going to survive another 20 years, quit, and tried for the career I really wanted: electrical work. I started with an entry-level job installing antennas and satellite dishes. Pretty fun job, but definitely not permanent - low pay, no benefits, no possibility of advancement, I was just hoping to use that for some halfway relevant experience while trying to get my foot in the door in something that could lead to an electrical apprenticeship. I struck out hard - turns out a greying desk jockey with iffy social skills is not exactly what people are looking for in the electrical trade. Then I got laid off from the installer job. Worst case scenario, right? I couldn’t make it into the career I wanted, I couldn’t even hang onto the starter job I took out of necessity, and even if I wanted to get back into software (I don’t), that year of satellite installation on my resume was going to be awfully hard to explain.

Turns out, that worst case scenario was still SO MUCH BETTER than staying would have been. I collected unemployment for a while, and ended up landing a job as a network tech at a university. It doesn’t pay as well as software, but I’m not struggling. It’s not challenging, fulfilling, or particularly interesting most of the time. I’m not passionate about it. But I haven’t regretted it for an instant. Because, you know what? I didn’t trade a job I wasn’t passionate about for another job I wasn’t passionate about. I traded a job I hated for a job I’m not passionate about. I can’t express what a huge upgrade that is in quality of life.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that the career change has fixed everything. The job wasn’t the cause of all my problems - nobody’s ever accused me of being a perfect model of mental health - but good golly did it ever exacerbate them. Forcing yourself to spend 40 hours a week doing something you hate is just toxic, it corrodes the soul. I don’t know what’s inside your heart, but from what you’re saying it sounds to me like you’re a lot closer to a job you hate than a job you’re just not passionate about.