I met an undergraduate recently who was working alongside her studies. Not in a traditional student job, pulling pints or stacking shelves, but advising a marketing agency on youth trends. “Is that what you want to do when you graduate,” I asked naively. “God no,” came the reply. “That’s not my passion.”
I nodded sympathetically. This was no place for a lecture on the difficulties of pursuing passion at work, which can put undue pressure on jobs to be not just a means to a pay cheque but a calling. Or worse, lead to exploitation by employers – or, as Sarah Jaffe put it in her book Work Won’t Love You Back, “the labour of love . . . is a con”. The student’s fresh-faced enthusiasm, however, thawed my frozen heart – if you can’t be optimistic with your whole future ahead of you, when can you?
But another reason to hold back was that I had recently read about UBS’s chief risk officer, who is to leave the Swiss bank to become a photographer, in the process swapping a highly paid job presumably for a more creative – dare I say it, passion-fuelled – one.
In the past few years, these dramatic stories have become commonplace. The Great Resignation was a term that emerged from the pandemic to describe workers whose skills were in high demand, switching jobs for higher salaries and sign-on bonuses. But it also included those who re-evaluated their lives and changed careers, leading some to see it as a “pandemic midlife crisis”. As one opinion piece put it: “By disrupting our lives and placing us in a deeply unfamiliar world, while also confronting our own mortality, Covid-19 created a universal turning point . . . a standard characteristic of the identity crisis typically associated with middle age.”
A dramatic career change is intoxicating for those toiling at their laptops, plugged into endless Zoom meetings. Though perhaps the former health secretary Matt Hancock’s undignified appearance on reality TV show I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, where he was filmed eating a camel’s penis – and more – is a warning of taking things too far.
Stories of big changes conceal the effort that goes into laying the groundwork. One friend who left banking for art, started by painting in the evenings and weekends, building up commissions. And he was helped to find his destination by working as an architect in his twenties before falling into banking. Most people are not in this camp, says Lucy Standing, a business psychologist and founder of Brave Starts, a non-profit for people wanting to find their next professional step. More common are those dissatisfied with their present role but clueless about an alternative.
Employers need to make it easier for midlife workers to test out new careers. Apart from a few schemes for career conversion, such as teaching, social work and policing, it can be hard to see how to make a switch. So many employers focus their campaigns on persuading new graduates to join them when they could also include those further along in their careers.
In Standing’s experience, those that do make drastic career changes in midlife are the minority, usually with “good financial support”, through a higher-earning partner or savings, which I guess is the case for the UBS banker-turned-photographer. Nonetheless, the idea that a dramatic career change is the cure for dissatisfaction can be a source of uneasiness or paralysis. Tweaks might be a solution, perhaps by going part-time and pursuing a creative project as a side hustle or even as a hobby – something enjoyed purely for pleasure.
In the film Living, Bill Nighy stars as Mr Williams, a man sleepwalking through life, commuting to and from his bureaucratic job at London county council. One day is the same as the next: “Not happy, not unhappy,” he says. (Spoiler alert.) A terminal cancer diagnosis wakes him from his zombie slumber and he goes Awol from his job, spending his savings and getting drunk in burlesque bars on the hunt for fun and frivolity. This is not, he discovers, how he wants to spend his remaining months and instead returns energised to his job, finding joy through turning an east London bomb site into a small children’s playground.