Photo by Illustration: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia for Bloomberg Businessweek
Greg Wilson spent much of autumn 2021 peering out from behind his laptop as his wife and their three small children headed off to the zoo or a playground near their St. Louis home, returning hours later, bubbly and smiling. “I kept getting jealous,” says the 43-year-old. “They were having fun every day, and I wanted to join them.” But as program manager at a large financial brokerage, a line of work he’d entered in his twenties, Wilson felt he couldn’t take time off. So last November, he quit to start writing a lifestyle blog.
Wilson’s restlessness appeared right on schedule, says Allison Gabriel, professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She’s one in a growing chorus of psychology and labor experts who suggest that workers redefine “career” as a dozen or so years in a field, followed by reevaluation and rerouting. “We’re seeing people decide 10 or more years into their careers that they want to try something completely new,” she says.
This should come as little surprise. Adjusting to new identities such as spouse, parent, caretaker, or empty nester, she says, can spur a reassessment of needs and goals. At the same time, basic human psychology fuels the shift with tendencies such as an overemphasis on downsides and decreasing satisfaction with arrangements that were once thrilling. Lately, those considerations have gone into overdrive as the pandemic has provided workers ample time to ponder their values, interests, and contentment.
Gabriel counsels ignoring the impulse to overthrow everything with an adios, because “that’s how you go from your Great Resignation to your Great Regret.” Research shows that your environment—everything from friends to geopolitical events—can deeply affect feelings about careers, so it’s important to understand what’s motivating your dissatisfaction. She suggests “job crafting,” or adjusting your current role to better suit your goals. A mid-level office job, for instance, can be reinvented as a stepping stone to a position in project management by taking on leadership tasks whenever possible. “You can often change the types of people you’re interacting with, or seek out new relationships,” she says. Altogether, these changes can revamp how you perceive the gig.
If you’re still restless, Paul French, managing director at recruiting firm Intrinsic Executive Search near London, urges workers to consider a major pivot as frequently as every decade. “The benefits outweigh the downsides,” he says. He recommends moving into a dynamic industry, which can boost your salary while turbocharging your professional networks. “To thrive, you must expand your contact list, and a career change is one of the best ways to do that.”
French advises taking the time to add skills, whether online, at the library, or in graduate school, a strategy that’s endorsed by people who’ve successfully pivoted. Will Hailer, managing partner at EStVentures.com in Washington, D.C., left a decade-plus career in politics to enter venture capital, for which he prepared by reading, seeking out mentors, and taking an unflinching look at his own abilities. “Identify what weaknesses you bring to the table, and work diligently to close the gap,” he says.
One reason many people embrace a shift is that higher-ranking roles often prove less fulfilling, partly because managerial tasks can distance employees from the hands-on activities that initially drew them into the field. “The more senior I got, the more time I spent on politics and navigating why things didn’t get done,” says Wilson, the former brokerage manager. “And that’s not what I want.”
It can all make you feel as if you’re languishing, even though your malaise may be a sign of mastery, says Nitya Chawla, assistant professor at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. “Mid-career, you’re neither learning as much nor getting promoted as often, and your skills and responsibilities can stagnate,” she says. Chawla says it’s best to not wait out these feelings, especially if work feels like a chore and a financial responsibility. She suggests gravitating toward organizations that are aligned with your deep-rooted values, because most people fare better when they find purpose in their roles and their organizations. “It’s important to switch your job,” she says. “Ultimately, organizations want that, too, because disengaged employees are less productive and less healthy, both physically and psychologically.”
Wilson ended up taking the advice of an entrepreneurial friend, who urged him to pick a career path that would require both engagement and ample learning. Wilson tossed his plans to reboot past ventures and instead purchased ChaChingQueen.com, a lifestyle blog about frugal living. So far, it’s going well, and he advises others to make the leap. There is, after all, a safety net: “If whatever you do fails,” Wilson says, “you can just go back to your old career.”