Illustration by Dan Evans
Thirty-six, if you believe the results of a recent survey, is the age you give up on your career. You spend your 20s trying to vaguely sort your shit out enough to get a job, and before you know it you're in your 30s and it's too late to even think about whether it's what you wanted to do. Life's pendulum swings on. Spreadsheets by day and box sets by night. Grey's Anatomy. Circling things in the Lakeland catalogue. That kind of thing.
Research conducted by accounting firm AAT found that people begin to feel "trapped" in their career by the time they reach their mid-30s. Thirty-one percent of the people they asked said they considered changing career at least twice a month, but their main barrier to doing something better was because re-training was way too expensive.
We spoke to six people in their mid-30s about how work fits into their lives now.
Habib, 34, bouncer
My job isn't what I ever really dreamed of. I thought I'd end up doing something more interesting or glamorous than this. I used to work as a manger at a bookies and I preferred it, but working on the door is better for me and my wife. We're separated now, but we have two little girls and if I work nights and she works days, then there's always someone around to look after the kids.
I didn't study very hard at school and never thought I'd have the kind of job where I need to wear a starched shirt. Working the door at night can be quite tough—you never really get used to sleeping during the day. But I don't complain about it to my friends. The guys I work with are safe, and we often have a laugh. I see lots of bad behavior in the clubs I work in so I always have good stories, which is good enough for me for now.
Abigail, 34, freelance journalist with a young baby
I was at my most ambitious in my late 20s and then around 30 I decided it was all bollocks, which is when I went freelance. For me and a lot of my friends, our 30s are about family and putting down roots. At the moment I just want work to be easy and well-paid, which, when you've been doing pretty much the same thing for nearly 15 years, it should be, or you're probably not very good at it.
I think once you earn over a certain amount, it's very hard to change career. I guess the exception is for people who go out on their own and do something entrepreneurial. It's the age where you go, "Ooh, I want to launch an amazing website/music label/ cupcake shop," but very few people can really do that. I suppose if you had a very well-paid partner who could support you, then you could. Like a banker funding his wife's interior designer whims... but think that's rare and old-fashioned.
James, 36, works in marketing
My dad worked for the same company for 40 years. His key message to both me and my brother as we were growing up was, "Don't do what I did, be creative." So I did drama at university, and then thought I should work in TV, so did that for a year or two, and then left that to start a comedy sketch troupe. We tried relatively hard to make it into a career. Some of my friends are now winning BAFTAs and writing for Radio 4. Most aren't. I did temp office jobs to support it, but then felt like I might like to actually earn some money for a bit and not struggle for rent, so took a permanent marketing job, and thought I'd write stuff in my spare time.
Then I got married, and took another marketing job, better paid, harder to step away from. So I'm still writing, but the pretense of "writing is my career" is dissipating. The ambition, I think, is still there, at 36. But there's more things fighting for brain space. A marriage to keep alive, kids, a mortgage... And then the reality of creative work doesn't match up with the ambition I had when I was in my 20s. The most creative stand-ups at best get to be on tacky panel shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats. I think ambition can be tempered as you see the limits of what your peers achieve. The ambition to change jobs doesn't necessarily leave you, but maybe the ability to do so does.
Jay, 31, upholsterer
I've been earning fuck all money my whole life. I'm relatively happy in my career choice but I would like something that's better paid. Starting something new takes ages and is usually expensive as hell, though. it took me like 25 years to decide what I wanted to do with my life so I should probably just stick with it and force people to pay me more. I did film studies at university because that was when everyone was told to go to university.
I worked in a cinema for a while afterwards because I wasn't qualified to do anything. To get the job I have now, I moved back home with my parents for a year to afford to re-train, which gets more painful the older you get. Also doing what you love isn't fun when you spend months stressing about how you're going to pay for your car insurance and your friends' birthday presents months in advance. I'd like to be an electrician in the future—you earn proper money and get to look inside other peoples' houses!
Daisy, 38, graphic designer
I don't feel stuck at all—that would be so depressing. One of the main reasons is that I'm not driven by consumption. My monthly expenses are low, and it's more important for me to save money than to spend on quick fixes to cheer me up. Those savings open up more options than any new clothes or gadgets ever could.
However, I'm also just not frightened to make big decisions. I went traveling at 33 for a year, went back to London with nothing, and I can see what I have built up with hard work. I could do it again. Not having children makes this easier as my actions only affect me and my husband. A lot of emphasis is put on "living your life when you're young," but with age comes wisdom and experience—they are valuable tools in making successful changes in your life and shouldn't be overlooked.
Tom, 33, author
I don't think I'll stop having ambition. I've never really had access to the sort of linear career progression of in-job promotions and incremental pay-raises that many others I know have, and to get on I've needed to take a few risks. Things usually either work out for the best, or you learn something. As for external factors, inevitably I'd worry if I had someone else to look after, but thankfully I've always benefited from taking risks, so I think I'll be taking that lesson forward into my 40s.
I don't think it's surprising that people take their career risks before having children. By the time you get to your 50s, and can finally send them off to university or they move out because they have a job, you can start being selfish again.
Margarita, 34, works for a human rights organization
I used to work in the UK, but now I live in Argentina. There's more pressure to accumulate material things in Britain. Being a bit of a lefty, I'd say late-stage capitalism does encourage that. I don't have a "traditional" life in that sense. I've had open relationships since I was a teenager with people from different genders and I was never tempted by marriage. I've had relationships where I've been responsible adult for another person's kids, but to be honest, I've never really wanted kids myself. I also don't like the idea of being tied down by a mortgage. I guess this changes the decisions I've made in my career. My job is from 8 AM till 2 PM, which gives me lots of time to pursue my other hobbies. My job is in human rights in government, which is very satisfying, but I also am an artist and am interested in electronics. I am doing pretty much what I wanted to do when I was a teenager. It's taken me a long time to get the balance right.
Some names have been changed.