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Changing Careers

A reader recently asked me for tips on how, and when, to switch careers. It's a question I've been asked a few times recently.

I've done a lot of research on this topic and would like to share with you some of the things I've learned.

In the past century, a vast number of jobs have been created that did not exist before: website designer, DNA specialist, publicist, astronaut.

What that means, quite obviously, is that people have an increasingly wide array of options to exercise their inner potential. You're not stuck carrying on the family farm (though if that's your goal, more power to you).

Then why does it seem nearly one in three people are unhappy in their jobs? Why is it that even when you finally reach or are near the pinnacle of your profession - when you're making the nice bucks and buying the nice things - you still feel unfulfilled?

One reason is demographics. We are living longer, which means we have longer working lives. In China for example, during a period that was often driven with catastrophe, life expectancy has jumped phenomenally - from 35 years in 1949 to 72 in the early 21st century.

If you were to hurl yourself back more than 200 years, when average life expectancy was less than 40 years, you'd encounter cherubic-faced people accomplishing great professional feats. Charles Darwin was just 22 when he sailed the HMS Beagle on his voyage of evolutionary discovery. William Shakespeare is believed to have been in his mid-20s when he penned Henry VI, Part I, his first play. The list goes on.

Nowadays, with people in developed countries living well into their 70s on average, we can expect to work 40, maybe 50 years. In that light, you can imagine why after 20 years of toiling as an accountant and facing 20 more, someone might want to peek behind the curtain and see what else is out there.

The other reason, is something that I haven't quite been able to find the proper name for - other than to describe it as 'our established life course'.

Robert Kahn, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who has studied the role of work in people's lives, told me, “Currently, the pattern of our life course is what some sociologists call 'age graded'. We get all this education between 18 and 22, then we work, get married, start a family, and it increasingly becomes this intense sprint until suddenly at 65, it's nothing but leisure and retirement.”

“It's crazy,” Kahn says. “If we could start from scratch, we could think of our lives in terms of a mix of education, work and leisure, all of which are altered as we age. It wouldn't be this all-or-nothing notion we live now.”

That pull for a second career is a sign that this 'age-graded' life course just doesn't work for some people. That's why some people suddenly realize that what they wanted to do at 18 is vastly different from what they want to do at 40. Usually, this realization comes with unpleasant symptoms: boredom or frustration on the job, general unhappiness with life, despite good earnings, dreams of running away to a tropical island to build coconut boats.

This condition is not a result of bad early choices, merely a reminder that our choices early on, can become life sentences.

The problem, of course, is there aren't enough resources out there to help you work out how to get out of your early choice and into a new one. But there is still hope: governments and universities are starting to get wind of the fact that there are plenty of people willing to take the plunge into a new career and are helping them along.

In my next column, I'll take you through some of the resources to help make that transition easier and the things you need to consider when making that mid-life career switch.

Questions? Comments? Drop us a line atbizoflife@cnbc.com.