What did you want to be when you were a child? A police officer? A doctor? A dancer? A superhero? And how did that plan work out? Are you reading this at the end of a thoroughly satisfying day apprehending criminals or removing rogue appendices? Or did you abandon your dream of donning tights every morning before heading out to protect the good people of Gotham for an occupation that largely involves filtering a thousand group emails to find the one action point that’s actually relevant to you?

You’re almost certainly in the latter group. According to a survey by UK job site Fish4Jobs, as many as a third of UK employees spend around half their working hours resenting their occupations. When you add those hours up into days, that’s an ugly amount of discontent. The people of Wolverhampton are more fed up than most, with 60 per cent of respondents from the city claiming to be unhappy at work. Perhaps predictably, the most miserable workers are customer service executives with hospital employees coming in a close second. Perhaps “doctor” isn’t such a dream job after all.

But if you don’t like what you do for a living, what can you actually do about it? As a small child, the sky’s the limit when it comes to choosing a career, but in the UK, our education system means the options start to narrow at 14, when we choose subjects for GCSEs. By the time we’re 21, the choices have narrowed again – “You got these qualifications so you can do this, not that.” By the time you’re 40, it can seem as though the future is set in stone.

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The longer you stay in one profession, the more change becomes difficult and even risky. Yet according to a University of Manchester study, having a job you hate may be worse for your mental health than not working at all. Over the course of 2009 and 2010, the study monitored more than 1,000 participants between the ages of 35 and 75 who were out of work at the time the study began. Follow-up research over the next few years showed that those participants who took on jobs they disliked had higher levels of chronic stress than those who remained unemployed. Other studies have shown that being unhappy in work can contribute to weight gain, a compromised immune system and discontent at home. All good reasons to do what you love if you possibly can. 

But everyone understands that the reasons for staying in a job you hate can be equally, if not more, compelling. You need the money. You’ve reached a certain level of seniority that would be hard to achieve in a new career. There are no other jobs out there. Particularly if you’re the wrong side of 40. While midlife is an obvious point at which to re-evaluate your career, is it realistic to hope to be able to change direction. Or is it just too late?

In his new book Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives, Carl Honore challenges the prejudices that keep us locked in careers that make us unhappy.

He told me: “More and more people are changing course later in life.” And it doesn’t have to be difficult. “As we mature, we’re more at ease with ourselves. Creativity doesn’t dry up. We possibly become more creative. We understand that life has rough and smooth. We have fewer but deeper relationships which we can use as an emotional backstop.”

The will is there. The creativity is still there. But how do you get past “computer says no”? Honore suggests that wherever you can, you strike out on your own. Startups aren’t just for twenty-somethings. He says: “Older people are smashing it in the startup world. A study of all new businesses launched in the United States between 2007 and 2014 came to the following conclusion: ‘We find no evidence to suggest that founders in their twenties are especially likely to succeed. Rather, all evidence points to founders being especially successful when starting businesses in middle age or beyond.’ Bottom line: there is no such thing as the ‘wrong’ side of 40.”

If you can’t or don’t want to set up a business from scratch, you could look into working as a contractor. It’s easier to get short-term contracts than a permanent position, particularly if you are willing to reduce your rates to get your foot in the door. Getting your foot in the door is the thing. “You need to show rather than tell,” says Honore.

Internships aren’t the exclusive domain of the young either. More and more companies are setting up special internships for returnees. Barclays is one company actively recruiting over-fifties and the older recruits aren’t the only ones benefiting from the initiative.

“Older workers can bring a lot to the party,” Honore insists. “Productivity rises with age in jobs that rely on social skills – as more and more do nowadays. When companies set up suggestion boxes, older staff usually generate more and better ideas, with the best proposals tending to come from the over- 55s.”

Elizabeth Williamson is well-placed to advise anyone considering a midlife career change, having recently made one herself. After 28 years as a City headhunter, Williamson retrained as a coach. “I’d been considering a change of direction for a couple of years but the catalyst that finally made it happen was meeting up with an old schoolfriend. When she asked me how I was feeling about life, I felt so emotional. I suddenly realised the truth of that Tony Robbins quote: ‘Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.’ I knew I had to do something different.” 

Like Honore, Williamson accepts that despite legislation to protect the rights of older workers, it’s not always easy to get past the gatekeepers. Especially if the gatekeepers are invisible. “Applying for jobs online and getting endless knockbacks can leave you despondent,” she says. For that reason, Williamson suggests that the old chestnut “it’s who you know” is more important than ever. “You need to use your network,” she says. “And try to see people face to face where you can. Talk to people about your plans. Even if they don’t seem obviously connected to the world you’re hoping to work in, you never know.”

And if you really don’t know anyone who can put in a good word on your behalf, then social media has made it easier than ever to find valuable connections. Williamson suggests tweeting someone you admire or sending a message via their website. Maybe they won’t respond but maybe they will. The majority of successful people are only too happy to extend a helping hand. Likewise, there are many groups of entrepreneurs sharing their experiences online. Even a neighbourhood chatboard might hold the key to your next move.  

“You’ve got to put yourself out there,” Williamson says. “It’s not easy but it’s worth it. Doing something different really energises you.” 

Hitting midlife in the wrong job may seem like a situation one has to grin and bear, but since someone hitting 40 this year will have to work until the age of 68 before they can claim a state pension, isn’t it worth making sure those 28 years to come are happy ones? As George Eliot supposedly said, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Maybe it’s time to dig out that superhero outfit and send Batman a quick tweet.

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