40 Year Old Changing Careers

Hello. I’ll be as concise as possible. I understand that there are variables that answers to the following questions depend on, however, I am looking for a general “Do it”, “Don’t Do It/I wouldn’t” answer, or as close as anyone on this forum can get to it with their wisdom and experience.

A short back story. I was in the Navy, had a stimulating career that I loved. I loved it, and thrived, but I had to get out. I wanted to keep that feeling and momentum going so I had a plan when I got out, but it ended up being the wrong path. I started a bachelors that was all wrong for me and took a break. During that professional lull, I discovered Graphic Design. I started by designing a cover for a book I’m writing and it took off from there. I’m a Creative, always have been. Its of course subjective but I feel I have a talent for it, in particular with branding. At the very least I can say I have a knack for the multiple software platforms used in the craft. Long story sort of short, I feel it’s my niche and want to do it.

However… I’m 40. I have two semesters of general education left at the max (when I last left school), but would have to go back. I could be 42 to 45 years old by the time I’m done. Design itself, in any category really invigorates me. I’ve consistently been told I’m smart, can do anything I put my mind to. I’m definitely motivated and care about any task I’m assigned to perform (in that I do it right, and of it’s importance to my superiors). So the willingness is there. My question is:

Am I too old? Will deciding to go down this career path be a bad idea for someone my age? This is my worry, in which I’m asking someone to address for me: I invest all this time, grow older while in school, and find out I’m not marketable or I can’t even make enough at ANY Graphic Design related job to pay for rent and groceries if that’s all I can get. At that point I WILL be of considerable age for many professions if I needed to change. Is that worry wrong? Should I go for it?

I am asking this on a forum of designers because I feel a University answer will always be: “Follow your dreams…to our tuition office!” I feel I need to make a decision soon if I’m going to do it, and not wait any longer. Any help or guidance would be appreciated. Thank you.

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I am assuming you are in the U.S. and will reply as such.

There is a glut of designers right now, there has been for some time, and it appears there will continue to be. The accessibility of design tools — Adobe CC can be had for a monthly subscription, there are cheap alternatives to CC, drag and drop website builders for self-hosted sites, drag and drop websites for platform-hosted sites (Wix, Squarespace, etc.) — means that more people are going the DIY way. In so many instances cases, “good enough” is good enough. Add all of that together and you have more and more people competing for less and less work.

All of that said, there will always be a demand for high quality graphic designers, and I don’t think the profession is totally dead…yet. So is it too late for you to get into it? I guess not. But know that you are going to have to do absolutely killer work — just having a knack for the software isn’t nearly enough. Know that you are going to be competing for internships against young and hungry folks in their early 20s. Then you are going to be competing for a shrinking number of job openings against those same folks in their early 20s, and these jobs probably aren’t going to be paying what you were making after a 20-year (guessing) Naval career.

I would suggest that you talk to a couple of designers in your area. Offer to buy them a coffee or beer in exchange for a little bit of their time. Find out what the job market is like where you live. Find out what a day in the life is like (hint: it’s not all being creative). Show them your work and see if there is a seed there that is worth watering.

Bottom line is this. if one of my own kids came to me and asked about getting into graphic design, unless I really saw something there and knew the kid had the innate ability to really be an outstanding graphic designer, I would encourage them to find another career path. You can always pursue creative outlets as a hobby while pursuing a more lucrative, less saturated career field.


We’re never too old for something because if we’re too old for our passion/dream, we’re just too old for life in general.

I truly believe that if we want something and we feel it from all our heart, we have no right to betray it. It’s not a thought, it’s not anybody’s opinion, it’s OUR LIFE. Nobody and nothing can decide whether we’re too old for something or not. Only we can do that and don’t allow ourselves to try and to step in our dream.
I’m not 40, I’m just 23 (turning 24 future February), however, I like to analyse my life and lives of other people and I say with all confidence that our desires are always worth trying and moving forward to them. What we want for ourselves, the God wants for us. And it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not. It’s about your life, your energy and your soul. Give yourself the chance to try.

And of course, t’s not about age! It’s about vision, passion and self-development.
Experience? You’ll earn it.
You have everything you need. You have yourself!

I’m not a graphic designer (I’m a development manager) and I’m not telling you some professional steps you should make now (there so many great people here for that), but I couldn’t miss the chance to support you. Sometimes we need someone to tell us we can, and only after that we start to believe in ourselves and see us like other people see.

I believe in you without even knowing you in real life. Don’t doubt yourself.
Your passion is worth trying and working for it.
Absolutely :dizzy:

Do you know what’s involved in “branding” beyond the usual “I do logos”? Everyone and their uncle wants to do branding and a very large number consider crowd sourcing sites to be that ideal (they are not.)

Are you going to be able to interface with the increasingly prevalent web design requirements of today’s branding professional?

Are you looking to work in an agency and are you willing to relocate to do it?

If there is one field I know to be age-ist, it is graphic design. An older designer in the field has to have experience to show for their gray hairs in order to be considered over the perceived though ill-placed belief that younger people have fresher ideas. They often don’t, but sometimes it’s very hard to convince people that ‘experience’ is better than ‘fresh.’

You won’t have the experience/contact/resources a seasoned designer would have accumulated through the years.

While you have an advantage in being a veteran (Thank You for your service!) I’m not sure it can overcome that strange age-ist bias when it comes to hiring. You can’t hide a 20 year military career behind a new college diploma.

Design is not about the software. Anyone can make pretty pictures in software. It’s more about the thought and theory behind the design, the consideration of the target market, the required research and the implementation of assets using the correct software that will fly through the production work flow of whoever is producing them, whether it is the printer down the street, the silk screener up the block, or some web hosting site online. It’s all stuff that can be learned, but “creativity” is only about 1/10 of the job. The rest can be just dull sludging to get the job done.

Consider your options. Research the job market. Research the cost of living. Bear in mind that salary estimating web sites only show a median. It doesn’t take many upper level salaries to skew the data over a whole bunch of marginal salaries.

Not gonna say “no, don’t do it” but put the work into all the up-front research.

The other question I’d have to ask is, and I’m not sure why my brain is remembering some obscure thing about this…but will your college reimbursement plan consider a graphic design degree as worth paying for? Are there limits on what the Government considers for careers on that program?

I agree with PrintDriver.

If there’s one huge obstacle in your plan, it’s ageism. It’s rampant in graphic design, marketing, and advertising. There’s this weirdly inaccurate myth that younger people are somehow more creative. There’s also a glut of new designers entering the field and driving down wages, making hiring designers in their 20s more economical.

Starting in your 40s will mean overcoming both these obstacles. It usually takes about ten years of experience in the field before the wages begin catching up. This usually means outlasting all the other beginning designers who decided they couldn’t wait it out and moved on to another job in a related field.

I’ve got a guy downstairs as I write this fixing our furnace. He diagnosed a faulty control board and is replacing it. The part itself retails for $250, but he’s charging me a total of $1100 for a couple of hours of work. If good wages are your goal, there are far more lucrative fields than graphic design.

Don’t do it.

Pick a vocation based on its ability to support your lifestyle. Don’t pick it based on it’s ability to bring happiness, fulfillment or spiritual enlightenment. Get that from your avocations, your hobbies.

I’m 57, and I’ve been working in this industry since I was a teenager. IMO, it’s an industry in decline. It has a very low bar for entry. That has suppressed wages, and it will only get worse.

Industry in decline.
Highly competitive.

If you’re good with that, go for it.

I am slightly less cynical – surprisingly, given that I’m a Brit. Cynicism and sarcasm go with the territory.

I agree, the industry is being severely undermined by armies of kids who can’t be bothered getting an education, but think they know it anyway. They think branding is about pretty logos and have learned all they don’t know from YouTube.

However, I feel that, as with many things, it is cyclical. When it all shakes out, it will be different, but i think there will always be a need for top-drawer, qualified and experienced designers.

Just don’t try and compete with the army of bottom-feeders on competition sites. Get honest critiques of your work (here is a good place for that), and don’t take criticism personally.

It’s been a great career for me. In the early days, it’s always a fight to get to where you want to be, but fight hard enough and you can get there (assuming enough talent and knowledge)

Of course, there are plenty of industries where you can make more money, if money is the driving force. Depends what you want. That said, it can pay well, but that is being dragged down by the bottom-feeders who will do logos for $50, but as I say, don’t compete at that level.

I have noticed, slowly, a slight return to good clients getting sick of poor design, so are wiling to pay for it, realising that cheap always comes with a high price.

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However, your age suggests a hint of big-picture thinking, and, perhaps, worldliness. Use that to your advantage.

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Yes, an accomplished leader and drama-free problem solver. All that crap.

I am a 30-something year old and my story is similar to yours, for me it was a realization that I do have talent and I am passionate about it and that I’ll have a deep sense of regret about my life I didn’t make a serious effort to do something with it.

Have taken a conservative approach of retaining an unrelated day-job to cover overheads, while I grow the design business on the side. Maybe you could do something similar?

Today, the opportunities and need for graphic designers might be ten times greater than they were when I started after college in the early '80s. However, the number of graphic designers competing for those jobs might have grown by more than 30 times.

In other words, the work is out there, but the competition is very steep. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they go into this field. I also wouldn’t recommend anyone setting their sites on becoming a professional athlete or a movie star. The odds aren’t good.

However, it’s still doable for those with enough dedication, perseverance, talent, and eagerness to put in the hard work. Succeeding will take those qualities (plus some luck). For everyone else, I’d recommend something where the path to success is smoother and the pay is higher.

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Follow your passion. You clearly have a passion for graphic design, and in many ways, that’s enough. It will drive you to be the best designer you can be. Can you make a living at it? That’s an entirely different question.

An alternate take on passion:

Mike Rowe is a lone voice in the wilderness. He gets a lot of hate too for his take on student loans etc.

I would encourage anyone who likes to use design software and can use it well, to work toward the print industry instead of design. People will say print is dead, but it’s not. The problem is, all of us who work pre-press and take designer garbage and make it printable are aging out. There is no one to replace us. No one willing to be trained. That’s no joke. The internet gang printers are going to win this war simply by waiting it out. Attrition will do it’s work eventually.

We also can’t find skilled welders or carpenters, drivers or machine operators. The pay doesn’t suck. There’s just no one out there who isn’t already employed. Oh sure, we do the “let’s trade workers” dance every once in a while but not a lot of new people out there coming up.

Glad I’m approaching retirement.

Thank you to all who replied. This has been an issue for a long time, and an unanswered question. It doesn’t sound like a sound path, if at least, a path for the weary. I don’t wish to struggle into my fifties, so I’ll most likely design on the side and see how it develops. Thank you all again.

I think you are making the correct decision.

When I was very young I had a hobby I enjoyed, it was electronics. So I got a job in electronics and it killed the hobby, for 45 years I did very little electronics at home (and then only out of necessity). But now that I’m retired I have got my hobby back and I enjoy it a whole lot more.

If you enjoy graphic design then why not have it as a hobby whilst you do something else more profitable to earn a living.

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