The Five Career Stages and How To Succeed in Each

Updated July 31, 2023

While every career is different, many people experience a similar professional path. There are some common career stages in the journey of the average employee. Beginning with your initial interest in possible career paths to retirement, each stage provides new challenges to face and unique growth opportunities.

In this article, we discuss the five career stages by age and offer tips to help you succeed in each.

Why are career stages important?

Career stages are important to help differentiate your goals throughout your professional life. Some stages demand ambition and promote growth while others offer stability and encourage rest. Having a general framework for your career can help you evaluate your current status and plan for the future.

Career stages
Image description

The image shows three people of varying ages, there's a young adult, a midlife adult, and a retiree. There's a list that breaks down five career stages. The headline says "Career Stages"
Under the headline, the list includes the stage names and the typical ages for each stage. The list reads:
Exploration 21-25
Establishment 25-35
Mid-career 35-45
Late career 45-55
Decline 55-65

What are the five career stages?

The career stages, also referred to as career life cycle stages, are ways of categorizing where you are in your professional life. The five career stages are:

1. Exploration

Typical age range: 21-25

Exploration refers to the stage before gaining permanent employment. Those in this stage may be finishing an undergraduate or graduate degree. This stage shapes the direction of your professional ambitions. As the prospect of a long-term career approaches, you may begin to eliminate many options and focus on several professions that interest you.

Your background and personality influence your career choice. Your path may also be informed by:

  • Your upbringing

  • Communication from parents

  • Feedback from teachers

  • Education

As you begin your job search, your efforts will typically include:

  • Discovering interests: Define what your passion is, what motivates you and what jobs are suited to your personality.

  • Developing basic skills: Take courses for your intended career and pass any necessary state or national exams, such as the medical licensing exam.

  • Creating expectations: Consider what type of lifestyle you want in the future and what salary range will provide this lifestyle. Think about whether you want a family and what kind of work/life balance you would like to achieve.

Tips for success in the exploration stage:

  • Explore many different career paths through shadowing, internships, part-time work and volunteering.

  • Speak to teachers and counselors about the courses and training required for careers that interest you.

  • Use your college career center to make connections with employers.

2. Establishment

Typical age range: 25-35 years old

The establishment stage includes your initial job search, applying for a job and accepting your first long-term position. You are likely to accept an entry-level or mid-level position with comparably minor responsibilities.

Learning, career development and establishing your place characterize this stage. The realities of your job replace the expectations from the exploration stage. You may experience uncertainty and anxiety entering the workforce for the first time and encountering many new situations and people. However, this stage also brings excitement for a new phase in your life and anticipation of the future.

Your main objectives in the establishment stage are:

  • Learning your new job

  • Gaining acceptance from peers

  • Developing and improving your skills

During this time, you can experience your first professional successes and setbacks. Try to stay positive when faced with challenging feedback and diligent about skill development.

Tips for success in the establishment stage:

  • Develop and enhance skills through workshops and continuing education courses.

  • Find a mentor in your profession you can ask for advice and guidance.

  • Use your performance reviews to help direct your skill development into specific areas of improvement.

  • Pursue certifications or licenses in your industry.

Read more: When to Start Applying For a Job

3. Mid-career

Typical age range: 35-45 years old

This stage may be characterized by either career stability and progression or a transition into a new profession or field. Many employees in this stage reach their peak levels of productivity and maintain a skill set specific to their role. These years will demonstrate your commitment to your work and solidify your position. By remaining dedicated to your current job, you can receive greater responsibility and the resulting rewards and recognition.

You will likely expect progress at your job, such as a promotion or pay increase. If this does not occur, you may choose to reassess your role. In this stage, you may consider reevaluating your goals, interests and skills. Like many mid-career professionals, you may face the choice between achieving greater success in your current role or transitioning to a new position or an entirely new career.

Additionally, work-life balance is often a concern during this stage. You may face the challenges of succeeding in your professional life while devoting time to family and activities outside of work.

Tips for success in the mid-career stage:

  • Speak with your supervisor about opportunities for growth and forward movement.

  • Evaluate your job satisfaction.

  • Apply for internal positions that provide a greater challenge and greater responsibilities.

  • Speak with your peers and check job boards for open positions in other companies that may align better with your career aspirations.

Related: Nine Best Careers to Start at 40

4. Late-career

Typical age range: 45-55 years old

Presuming that you progressed through the mid-career stage successfully, the late-career stage can be an opportunity for a less demanding work environment. Rather than learning or obtaining new skills, the late-stage employee can teach others and begin identifying and training a successor.

You may have fewer opportunities for advancement, but you can enjoy tasks like mentoring younger employees. You will likely not have any job changes during this stage, relying on your reputation and good standing as security for your position.

You can begin to envision what your life will look like after retirement and may spend less time working and more time doing activities you enjoy outside of work.

Tips for success in the late-career stage:

  • Develop interests outside of work, such as gardening, biking, or photography.

  • Join a club or group, like an alumni association or civic group.

  • Prepare for retirement financially by speaking with the human resources department and a financial advisor to detail your retirement goals.

  • Consider offering your expertise through a mentorship program, speaking at a conference or writing a book.

Read more: How to Become a Mentor

5. Decline

Typical age range: 55-65 years old

After finishing a solid career and several decades in the workforce, many people are ready to retire.

After retirement, you may choose to enjoy the break from working by spending more time with family and friends and traveling. You can channel your skills and knowledge into reviving past hobbies, developing new interests or volunteering.

Depending on your financial situation, lifestyle and energy level, you may also consider finding other ways to make money, such as:

  • Working part-time

  • Consulting on a freelance basis

  • Finding another full-time job

Tips for success in the decline stage:

  • Stay engaged with activities such as lifelong learning opportunities, painting and reading.

  • Continue to socialize by meeting with friends and family regularly.

  • Share your knowledge through teaching at a community center or college.


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