Moving America Forward

How Creativity is Helping Americans Manage Unexpected Career Changes

July 27, 2020
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How Creativity is Helping Americans Manage Unexpected Career Changes

Stories from across the nation of people using the crisis to explore new ways of working.

It seemed like the world changed overnight. One moment, people were going about their business; the next, they were going into quarantine, and trying to figure out how to keep working without leaving their homes. Many found themselves entirely rethinking the way we work — and getting creative in the face of change.

There are now virtual versions of previously very in-person professions: In Brooklyn, hairstylist JaBarie Anderson is pivoting from giving people haircuts to coaching people as they give themselves haircuts. Through Zoom, he’s worked with clients all over the world, he told NPR; many other barbers have followed suit.

Other unlikely professions are also making forays into virtuality: Florida plumber Patrick Garner spoke with Slate about his days talking clients through fixing their own toilets. His company prepares sterilized boxes of parts and tools for homeowners to use, then explains how to use them over video chat. For office workers, the shift to working from home has been more seamless — but the changes have prompted many to take stock of their professional goals. In Seattle, Kristin Anthony was able to continue herwork developing academic testing material from home. But being home all day made her start to think about whether she actually liked her job.

“The deeper questions the pandemic awakened in her subconscious made her re-think her career path,” reporter Vanessa Misciagna explained. Anthony realized she wanted to explore software development instead.

Whether the pivot is small or large, quarantine has prompted many Americans to rethink their professional plans, passions and goals. And as many industries feel less stable in reaction to the crisis, more people than ever are looking to re-career.

Even before COVID-19 hit, changing careers was becoming increasingly commonplace, according to AARP. In a national survey conducted before the outbreak, AARP researchers found that 78% of workers were likely to change careers at least once during their lifetime. According to AARP’s Ramsey Alwin and Lona Choi-Allum “Gone are the days of our parents and grandparents, when everyone expected to live a three-stage life: Invest in education, work hard, and then retire. Instead, people of all ages are navigating a nonlinear, multistage life experience.”

Re-careering can mean more than just changing jobs. According to Alwin and Choi-Allum, careers are “lifelong occupations” that “allow an individual to grow professionally and advance within the hierarchy of a company or industry.”

And longer lifespans give workers more time to pursue those higher life goals of growth and advancement. “Greater longevity is changing the way we learn, earn, connect, and live,” Alwin and Choi-Allum wrote. “With longer, healthier lives, many want and need to work longer, and given the changing nature of work, career trajectories are changing as well.”

People change careers for many reasons, AARP found:

    • Ambition: people changed careers to maximize their earnings and status, and to find greater flexibility in their lifestyle.
    • Misfortune: Divorce, illness, layoffs, and workplace conflict often precipitated recareering.
    • Passion: as people age and grow as individuals, they often discover new interests they want to pursue — and those interests become more urgent as people age and “someday” becomes “now or never.”

The second two factors may often build off each other, and covid could intensify this effect: “When something catastrophic like [COVID-19] happens, it’s human nature to take stock of the how fleeting and precious life can be, particularly when you have reached a certain age,” wrote Kerry Hannon, author of What’s Next? Updated: Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond.

As the pandemic wears on, those who have already had the experience of breaking into a new industry at midlife or later might now have an advantage in adaptability in a post-covid world: the exigencies of the crisis may reward those who are nimble and quick learners.

“Making a career change in the midst of a global pandemic might seem wild at first,” wrote Fast Company’s Susan Peppercorn. “But many people right now are considering taking a job in a different industry, whether it’s because they’ve been laid off from a job in a struggling industry or because the crisis caused them to reevaluate some major life choices.”

Even those who have re-careered before will face challenges, of course. As unemployment soars, many people will look for new jobs for months despite high qualifications. Others will change careers in ways they’re unhappy about, because they have no other options in their field. For example, a digital recruiter might find themselves taking a job at an Amazon warehouse out of desperation, despite the lower pay, harsh working conditions, and possibly deadly health repercussions.

And it’s also possible that covid might make changing careers easier: because so many businesses are retraining employees en masse, hiring a worker with less experience becomes less costly. And it further normalizes midlife career changes. As many are standing at the precipice of reinvention to adapt to a post-COVID economy, creativity in re-careering will also help us collectively recover.

For pre-pandemic re-careerers, “there was a common spine to the success stories,” Hannon wrote. “No one made a rash move. They made sure they had their financial lives in order. They did their homework and research. They asked why me, why now, why this product or service or job? What can I bring to it that will make a difference and bring meaning to my life? But the seed for the change began in a crisis.”

If workers maintain a growth mindset in the midst of this crisis, they may be able to remain relevant and resilient through changes both wanted and unwanted.

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