‘People are craving something more’: is it time to embrace your career plan B?

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For 21 years, Ian Garrett worked in the oil industry. He started his career at BP, then made his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming the chief well engineer for Tullow Oil. He worked long days; his job required a lot of travel, and took him from the North Sea to places such as Angola, Ghana and Algeria. But, at the age of 43, he has just finalised his application to become a schoolteacher. “Assuming that’s successful, I’ll start the PGCE in secondary school maths teaching next September, graduate from that by the following summer, and I’ll be teaching full-time in September 2022.”

Garrett was made redundant from the oil company at the start of the first lockdown. He planned to use his redundancy package to take the summer off, and start looking for work later in the year. But when he and his wife ended up home schooling their two children, aged six and eight, he became one of the few parents to enjoy the experience. “I loved it, actually,” he says. “I found it really rewarding.”

The time away from his old job gave Garrett space and time to reflect. The high-powered positions he had held towards the end of his career had demanded long hours. “I was going into work as the children were getting up, seeing them for a minute in the morning, then getting home when they were ready to go to bed. I really wanted to spend time with them.” The pandemic changed his priorities. “When you’re in a role like I was, it’s very difficult to see that there is anything for you outside the job you’re doing. Taking a step back totally reinforced that this is the right move for me and for the family, and we’ll just have to make the cash work as best we can.”

The way we’ve defined success has been linear and narrow, and it doesn’t give us the kind of reward we crave any more

In 2020, it might seem surprising to hear stories of old careers being left behind while new professional ambitions are pursued. These are anxious times, particularly for low-paid workers and the young. The Covid-hit British economy experienced the deepest recession in history this year, and official forecasts now predict the biggest economic decline in 300 years. The number of people on insecure, zero-hours contracts increased by 156,000 in the three months to July, to 1.05 million. Industries such as entertainment, hospitality and aviation are shedding tens of thousands of jobs, and millions of workers are still on furlough. Positions that might previously have attracted 10 or 20 applications are now receiving hundreds. Professional network The Dots, which focuses on the creative industries and advertises positions at magazines, museums, fashion brands and social media companies, has seen a 143% increase in applications for every role it posts.

And yet, against this grim landscape, there are people who, like Garrett, have used the tumult of 2020 as an opportunity to shake up their lives, to pursue a dream they’ve always held, or used redundancy packages to retrain into another industry entirely, despite taking a financial hit. Over the last few months, I kept hearing about people who had decided to embark upon a new career, going from stay-at-home mother to teaching assistant via a college course at night; from writer to personal trainer; from hairdressing to working with vulnerable teenagers. Is this the year people have chosen – or been forced – to embrace their plan B?

“We know from longstanding survey evidence that at any time, around one in three people are actively thinking about changing jobs, if not careers,” says John Philpott, a labour market economist who blogs as The Jobs Economist. He is not at all surprised that people are reconsidering their options; in more ordinary and stable times, people tend not to act on impulse, he explains, “because there is no obvious push factor”. Such a factor might be something like bereavement, divorce or redundancy; an unexpected event that overrides caution. For many, this year has been one giant push factor.

Self-employment tends to rise in the aftermath of recession. After the last one in 2008, one of the big phenomena was people pursuing their hobbies or interests in a professional capacity, Philpott says, “partly because of the type of work, but perhaps to get a bit more autonomy, and not have a boss. The difficulty at the moment, of course, is that the self-employed are probably in at least as bad a position as people in work, in terms of insecurity of income.”

View image in fullscreenFelicia Kozak: ‘Spiritual work was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have time. I was working as a hairdresser, seeing friends, dating.’ Photograph: Eva Tuerbl/The Guardian

In March, before the UK’s first lockdown, Felicia Kozak was working as a hairdresser in London. Now 38, she had been doing what she calls her “spiritual work” for six or seven years on the side, giving astrology and tarot card readings to a number of clients, many of whom told her she should be doing it as more than a side gig. “It was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have time. I was working as a hairdresser, seeing friends, dating.”

She caught Covid-19 early in the pandemic. “The fatigue and the brain fog and the depression was really bad,” she recalls. “During this whole process, as I was healing, I just opened up my computer and my Instagram, and said that I was pulling cards for anybody. Time zones didn’t matter. I had all this time to wake up at 4am and read to someone in Australia or wherever it was, and so people started reaching out.”

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She had £2,000 in her savings account. “I thought, OK, right. I’m just going to pull tarot and see what comes in.” As her client base grew, Kozak was able to stop cutting hair. When I first spoke to her, she was about to leave London; in October, she was living in Berlin, and plans to move to Mexico for the winter, where she can do readings remotely. “I just realised all I needed was daylight, fresh food, my computer, my tarot decks and a few good people.”

Dr Pippa Grange is a psychologist and author of the book Fear Less: How To Win At Life Without Losing Yourself, which examines our understanding of “success”. She was the psychologist for the England men’s football squad during their 2018 World Cup run, and is widely credited with fostering their positive mental approach during the tournament. She, too, is unsurprised to hear that, despite a worrying economic forecast, people are setting up new businesses and aiming to fulfil long-held ambitions. “We get on a track, and we just keep walking in the same direction until something makes us stop… a crisis is good at that,” she says, echoing Philpott’s notion of a “push factor”.

When talking to people who have taken the decision to overhaul their lives in 2020, one thread emerges again and again: they are seeking something that goes beyond a traditional notion of success. A recent American study suggested that nine out of 10 employees would be prepared to earn less for more meaningful work. “I so deeply believe that it’s time we re-evaluate success,” Grange says. “The way we’ve defined it is pretty linear and pretty narrow, and I don’t think it gives us the kind of reward we really crave any more.”

View image in fullscreenStyling: Melanie Wilkinson. Hair and makeup: Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca, using Nars and Innersense Organic Haircare. Set design: Elena Horn. Set build: Morrell & Bert. Photograph: David Vintiner/The Guardian

As everyone is careful to point out, the next year is likely to be painful, particularly for the young. “Unemployment will continue to rise and incomes will be squeezed, with no early end in sight,” Philpott says. “The level of redundancies will remain fairly high, notwithstanding the extension of the furlough scheme, while new vacancies will recover only slowly because of uncertainty about the length and severity of anti-Covid restrictions.” Even with a vaccine, he says, “a strong recovery from the economic malaise might be some way off”.

But it is possible to pick out slivers of hope. “Through the 80s, the expectation was that you made a choice at 18 or 21, and it was a career that then might sustain you for multiple decades,” Grange says. “And now that’s just not the same. Those jobs don’t even exist, and they’ll continue to change with technological developments. Young people have a different expectation of what work is, and what a career is, and I find them much more agile in that way.”

In his 2020 spending review, chancellor Rishi Sunak promised a £2.9bn Restart scheme, designed to help people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months, and older workers in particular, to get back to work through training schemes and intensive support. In early November, the government announced that it would be investing £4bn as part of its green revolution to create 250,000 new “green” jobs, focusing on the Midlands, the north-east and north Wales, all areas that have suffered following industrial decline. Elsewhere, though, the government has spent much of this year wielding the notion of “reskilling” or “retraining” like a club. The now-notorious Fatima ad, which suggests a ballerina might retrain in “cyber”, was so poorly received that No 10 distanced itself from it, with culture secretary Oliver Dowden acknowledging that it was “crass”.

Will this year lead to a total rethink when it comes to work and careers? Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, says that while the labour market will look “radically different” over a long period of time, it won’t feel sudden to workers. “I think year to year, month to month, any changes often feel more incremental.” As an example, he highlights the way in which personal computing has revolutionised work. “Not many people would have gone on a course and got their level three in personal computing in order to learn how to switch from having a typist to using a computer. We adapt.”

Sarah Ellis, co-founder of career development company Amazing If and co-host of the Squiggly Careers podcast, has a more radical view. She says the idea of a job for life no longer exists: “On average, most of us are going to have five different types of career during our working life.”

Looking back to my old life, I’d trudge to the office, dreading it. I was good at what I did, but I just wasn’t happy

Alongside Helen Tupper, Ellis set up Amazing If around the idea of a “squiggly” career, as opposed to the traditional, linear view of a career ladder. She estimates that she is on her third career already, having worked in leadership roles at Barclays and Sainsbury’s before starting her own business. “I’ve had more jobs and I’ve worked in more organisations than my dad, who has been working for twice as long as I have. And I genuinely think that I’m the rule, not the exception,” she says.

Ellis cautions against the idea of a “dream job”, suggesting that it is more about a search for meaning in work, or more fulfilment. “The pursuit of a ‘perfect’ job gets in the way of making progress in the here and now.” She mentions what she calls “plastering platitudes” on Instagram, the motivational quotes about doing what you love, “usually accompanied by a cheesy quote, or picture of someone walking on a beach. OK, but I’m stuck in my second bedroom at the moment, with limited wifi, and you’re telling me to go to find my dream job? I don’t think it helps.”

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Instead, she believes people should follow the advice philosopher Roman Krznaric gave on her podcast, which was to “act first, think later”. “It’s learning by doing, essentially,” she explains. “Whether it’s by volunteering, hobbies, passion projects, getting involved in things in your local community. Just get started.”

Even so, she is realistic about finding a balance. “Let’s not ignore the fact that there is more uncertainty, and ambiguity, and things out of our control in our careers than ever before. So many industries are in flux.”

View image in fullscreenRajni Ghir left IT to try life coaching: ‘I thought, if I’m going to do this, I need to go for it and see where it takes me.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Until March, Rajni Ghir, 32, was an IT consultant and project manager at a big technology company. After seven years in the industry, she started to feel depressed and anxious. “I was always the bubbly, happy person to everyone, so it was like, what the hell is going on?” She took a period of sick leave, then returned to her corporate job, having had some counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. But a month later, she handed in her notice. She had decided to become a full-time life coach. “What was keeping me going was this idea that if I don’t try this now, I’m never, potentially, going to have the chance to do it again,” she says. She had studied life coaching, and wanted to do a job that had more of a “ripple effect” when it came to helping people.

She had savings, which she knew would sustain her for a time. But while serving her notice, she was offered a part-time job in consultancy, which would have afforded even more stability. She seriously considered it. “But I respectfully declined the offer. I thought, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it all out, 100%, just go for it and see where it takes me.”

She set up Shape Coaching in April. I ask if she was worried about starting a new business in such trying times. “Of course! But what I really tried to do was just use it as a motivation to act.” She offered free coaching sessions at first, in order to build up her client base. “I am so much more fulfilled. I was looking back to my old life and remembering walking to the office, trudging along with my laptop in my backpack, dreading it. I was good at what I was doing, I was getting good feedback – but I just wasn’t happy.”

Self-employed people are reporting that they’re enjoying their life more. So that’s positive. But they have lower incomes

Ellis believes that when it comes to talking about money, transparency is important. She and Tupper went full-time on Amazing If when they knew they could pay themselves for a minimum of 12 months, having worked part-time while establishing the business. “People say, ‘What was the tipping point for you two, in terms of going from your big corporate careers to running your own business?’ The first was, could we pay ourselves? Because we don’t have the luxury of not being able to pay ourselves every month. We’ve got mortgages, we’ve got childcare costs. You know when entrepreneurs say, ‘Oh, I didn’t pay myself for the first three years.’ How? Let’s talk about that.” Most career-shifters I spoke to have some kind of financial safety net that enabled them to take the time to retrain or rethink; those who didn’t took on part-time or temporary jobs in order to support themselves.

Moving into self-employment, in particular, carries big risks. “Self-employed people are reporting that they’re happier than they were, and they’re enjoying their life more,” Wilson says. “They have higher wellbeing scores and more satisfaction on all sorts of levels. So that’s definitely positive. But they have lower incomes, and it’s far, far less secure to be self-employed than to be employed.” This year has placed this in sharp focus: in October, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband accused the government of “leaving self-employed people in the lurch”.

Perhaps that is why, despite a growing search for meaning or satisfaction, people are pondering big changes while still being cautious. With many workers still on furlough, and the long-term economic impact of Covid-19 still uncertain, figures show there have been fewer people switching career paths, and fewer moving from employment to self-employment in 2020 than the previous year.

But Wilson says, “This is actually a pretty good time to be thinking about retraining because there’s more support for that. And there’s a lot of change happening in the labour market.” While industries such as hospitality, construction and manufacturing have shed jobs in 2020, he says that employment in finance, accounting, IT and public services has increased. It makes sense that people would move into jobs such as teaching, for instance. “It’s the same with health professions. You’ve got clear demand. There is a training qualification path that you need to follow in order to get a job in that sector, secure work, and work that you’ve got a better chance of being able to balance with the rest of your life than some other jobs.”

View image in fullscreenTour manager Freddie McArdle started making cider in lockdown. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

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In normal times, Freddie McArdle works as a tour manager, travelling the world with musicians, managing their schedules, ensuring that everything from transport to the venue is running smoothly. He has worked with Mumford & Sons and Lianne La Havas, and at the start of this year he expected to spend most of 2020 on a world tour with the singer Bruno Major. But by March, shows were falling away, travel was increasingly restricted, and the live music industry ground to a halt. “Here we are, still at home,” he says. “It’s really strange.”

McArdle had been working in live music since he was 18. Now 32, he wasn’t technically at home when we spoke, but in a field in West Sussex, taking a break from pressing apples, which he plans to turn into 4,000 bottles of fine cider. Wine-making had always been an interest, something he read about while he was away, using his downtime to study the science and methods involved. With limited vineyards in the UK, he turned to apples, and began experimenting on the fruit from the trees at the bottom of his gran’s garden. Since the end of March, he has been working on transforming his hobby into a business, Two Orchards. Instead of touring the world, he has been sourcing apples, overseeing the harvest, and making a business plan. To support himself in the meantime, he has been working for a delivery company. “Lots of music industry crew are working as drivers,” he says.

He plans to go back to his old job when touring returns. “I really, really love it, and it’s how I earn my money,” he says, but he is starting to see the appeal of being at home more and on the road less. “I can definitely start to see a crossover. Hopefully, the cider will become a viable business, and it will take over at some point.” Among his friends, McArdle has noticed people starting to ask big questions of themselves. “There’s definitely a reassessment of life. It’s given people space to think and have a go at new things.” His girlfriend, he says, has just opened a cafe in an old railway carriage.

Two Orchards cider will be made using the champagne method, and eventually McArdle plans to sell it to restaurants. The nature of the process means it will be a couple of years before the cider from this harvest is ready to go. “So it is quite an investment. But this seems like the perfect moment to do it, because we have this time,” he says. “You start, and you build it up, don’t you?”

How to pursue your plan B

1 Act first, think later
If you’re thinking about making a career change, or this year has prompted you to think about pursuing a passion, the best thing you can do is to start by experimenting. You will learn more by doing than thinking. Prioritise practising over waiting for the perfect opportunity.

2 Ask for help
It can feel hard, as we don’t want to be a burden, or feel we should find all the answers for ourselves. However, it’s worth remembering that most people enjoy helping others, so don’t apologise for getting the help you need. People can only support you if they know how they can help.

3 Stay optimistic
Changing jobs is hard, and you might start to feel stuck, or compare yourself, unhelpfully, to others. If you need to improve your optimism, try writing one “Very Small Success” you’ve had at the end of every day. Reflecting on and recording our small successes builds our resilience by reminding us that we are making positive progress.

4 Prioritise possibilities over plans
Be open-minded about exploring multiple possibilities, rather than fixating on a single plan or the perfect job. View opportunities through the lens of learning. Ask yourself what will open up more opportunities in the future rather than closing them down.

5 Run to, not from, a job
We’re often motivated to make a career change because we’re unhappy with our current reality. This can create a sense of urgency to escape rather than focusing on running towards fulfilment. Before making any choices, make sure you’re clear on what your job must-haves and must-nots are. This gives you a useful insight into what motivates you and a reminder of what is most important to you as you explore new opportunities.

6 Success is a squiggly, not straight, line
The advantage of the increasingly squiggly career paths we take today is that we can define success for ourselves. This can feel simultaneously energising and overwhelming, as we put pressure on ourselves to make sure all the hours we dedicate to work are time well spent. Amanda Mackenzie, CEO of Business In The Community, gave me some brilliant advice for keeping perspective, which is particularly useful in times of transition and change: “Imagine you’re 90 on a park bench, what matters?” Keep an eye on the big picture, and pursue your goals, one small step at a time.

The Squiggly Career, by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis, is published by Penguin at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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