The Most Important Career Choices You'll Make In Your 20s, 30s And 40s

Hannah Burton/Bustle

Think back — if you can — to when you were in college and you had two finals in one week, along with a meeting for the Young Democrats and a mixer that you (just can’t!) miss. Or in high school, when you got into two great colleges and you had to make what felt like a life-altering decisions about where to attend? Long before your career ever "officially" begins and your first business cards are printed, you make a plethora of choices that feel like they impact your financial future. While most of what you did at your university of choice was important, the real, tough and tangible decisions for your career trajectory come once you’re out of school, diploma in hand (and loan installments rolling).

“Making smart career choices is important because it will propel your career," career expert at, Vicki Salemi tells Bustle. "Making moves, even a lateral move that better positions you for upward advancement, are incredibly wise." But just like your location and your lifestyle changes with each year, new decades pose new choices that you need to make.

“Your priorities are unique to you," Salemi says. "But your choices can change as you get older so it’s important to pursue opportunities and employers that fit into your life and goals.” Here are the most pivotal decisions you’ll make in your career in your 20s, 30s and 40s:

In Your 20s: Is This What I Want To Do?

Even if you went to school for computer science, if you feel like physical therapy is captivating the majority of your attention and passion, you should have full permission to experiment with your career. Marc Cenedella, the founder and CEO of Ladders tells Bustle that our 20s are for exploring and discovering what makes us feel motivated and fulfilled. “Take risks, learn about yourself. Try different paths out if you're not sure. Your 20s are about experimenting and finding out what you like and what you're good at,” he says.

In Your 20s: Is This Where I Want To Live?

So you’ve always been an East Coaster but the West Coast is more your vibe. Or, you’re just fine where you live, but you’d really love to work abroad — at least for a short period of time. Salemi says now is the time to take that risk, make the move and go for it. “With fewer responsibilities like a mortgage, spouse and possibly kids, you’re more portable. Look for jobs in another area of the country or even overseas. Go where the opportunities are — you have less holding you back so there’s no time like the present,” she says.

In Your 20s: Is *That* How Much I’m Worth?

Especially if you’ve been out of college for a while, and you’re still trying to land your first gig (or bounce back after a layoff), getting a job offer comes with a flood of relief. But while you’re probably anxious to take it at first glance, Salemi says to bite your tongue. The earlier you start negotiating your salary, the more money you’ll ultimately make in the long run, she says. “When you make this choice early on and negotiate a higher salary, every salary increase after that will be based on that higher salary, not the initial lower one,” she says. “Take ownership of your finances — learn how to manage your money and retirement fund, although it feels like a world away — the more comfortable you get talking about money and owning it, the better off you’ll be in the long run.”

In Your 30s: Am I Happy?

By the time you hit that fourth decade of living, you’ve had at least a handful of career experiences and employers. You’ve probably discovered what type of management style you prefer, the way you work the best individually and what you need to do to motivate yourself to be productive. But as you’re climbing up the ladder, Cenedella says to take a hot second and take a look around. Are you happy? “Take stock if you're not happy with your path. If you change industries or functions, you may be starting out lower, or even at the beginning, so you'll need to weigh that. But don't think it's too late if you've discovered your passion and interests lie elsewhere,” he notes.

In Your 30s: Do I Feel Good About Where I Am?

Where did you think you’d be at 30 years old? Chances are pretty solid that you’re in a totally different place, for better and for worse, depending on which side of the bed you wake up on each morning. The thing about setting milestones is that when you do, Salemi says you need to make them without considering anyone else. Regardless if you want to scale back on your hours to take care of your family or you’re trying to work overtime diligently to make partner, Salemi says that comparison will only take away your joy and confidence, so don’t worry about what your best friend or college frenemy is up to.

“Whatever your circumstances, you will likely feel liberated knowing you’re doing what’s best for you! And what other people think of you is none of their business anyway,” she says.

In Your 30s: What Can I Change?

So you just became a new mom and working from home on Fridays would be a game-changer. Or, someone on another team got a promotion and you feel like you’ve earned your keep and definitely deserve one, too. Salemi says that after a decade of working, you may have not taken a pause to reexamine what you truly, really, want and need out of your employer. And — gulp — get out of there if you’re not being treated fairly and justly.

“You deserve an employer that treats you with respect and values you, not belittles you," she says. "It’s important to stick up for yourself. If your employer treats you badly, you must find another one that treats you well — they’re out there."

In Your 40s: Am I Still Learning?

By now, you have 20 years of work under your belt — which could mean you may be getting stuck in your ways, without evolving with modern trends and tactics. That’s why Cendella recommends to challenge not only your assistant, but yourself, too. “You may have an established career and you're good at what you do," he says. "Don't stop learning new things about your industry, and keep up to date with social and digital media."

A good place to start for continuing your education is a local tech startup that offers continued learning, or a community college that lets you pick-and-choose courses, without going full-time. Better yet? Book some time with your intern who can show you the ropes, free of charge.

In Your 40s: Am I Paying It Forward?

Once you reach a level of success in your career, it’s important to motivate younger generations to follow in your tailwind. In addition to helping nurture a budding career, Salemi says you’ll probably learn a thing or two, too. “It’s a funny thing about mentoring, often times the mentor earns just as much as the mentee! It’s important to give back to other women,” she says. “Keep that in mind as you help women navigate their career and perhaps provide you with bravado to catapult yours.”

In Your 40s: How Can I Reach The Next Level?

If you haven’t joined a board by the time you’re in your 40s, Salemi and Cendella both say it’s time. Not only is it an interesting pivot in your career, but it provides invaluable leadership experience that you can use as leverage when you go for a promotion or raise. The more networking you master, the more bravado you earn. “If you haven't already, look for opportunities to speak on a panel and become more visible,” Cendella says.

The bottom line of your career though? Do what feels right to you, what fuels you with fire and what gives back to the world. But don't work so much that you miss the goodness that every decade can offer.