TRANSITIONS

Are you one of “the restless”? How to navigate one of life’s trickiest moments

Make and remake your work.
Make and remake your work.
Image: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin
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For many people, the beginning of a new year raises questions about career fulfillment. Mark Malcomson, head of City Lit, one of London’s most prestigious adult education institutions, has a name for these people: The restless.

Malcomson says City Lit sees a big increase in the numbers of people signing up for its courses in the days immediately after Christmas. These people are often highly qualified and many years into a career they might have been pursuing since their 20s, but are searching for something new. He’s quick to clarify that the term is in no way derogatory: The restless, as he conceives of them, are inquisitive, and ready to challenge themselves and the systems they’re in. “They’re restless for creative reasons,” he says. “They’re the meerkats who are always scanning the horizon.”

Career restlessness is likely to become more common. Lifespans globally are increasing—one in three babies born this year in the UK will live to be 100, according to the Office for National Statistics. As a consequence of longer life and rapidly changing workplaces, working lives are becoming more multi-stage. Retirement at 65 after a long career in a single firm, or even in a single industry, is increasingly unusual.

For some, that feels extremely stressful. For others, Malcomson said, the possibility of changing tack leads to a useful interrogation of whether people truly find their work fulfilling. Students at City Lit might study poetry one day a week alongside a finance job, or shift gradually from law to jewelry design via evening classes. Malcomson himself, now in his 50s, is a law graduate who went into finance, then finance training, before finally finding a job he loves in education.

Life transitions are moments of opportunity. But they can be hard. Our identities are often bound closely to our work. It supports the lives we’ve built and helps us save for a time when we can no longer work or don’t want to—whenever that arrives. Malcomson has some advice for those considering a transition and it boils down to this: Plan well, but don’t try to plan everything.

Before making a move into a different career, he says, it’s important to have a really honest conversation with yourself about where you are and what, practically, you need to maintain. If you have two kids in private school and huge mortgage repayments, losing your income will make things hard. But he also suggests that “re-gearing” one’s work life doesn’t have to be sudden or total; it can involve a gradual adjustment. Adult education, unlike undergraduate courses, is designed to be consumed in “bite-size chunks.”

Voyage into the unknown

From the outside, success often looks like a decisive moment which can only be the product of dogged focus. But there are practical ways to make a career change that don’t involve total severance with the past. Andrea Levy, now an award-winning novelist, studied creative writing part-time and gradually wrote her first novel while running a graphic design company.

“I’ve got a degree in textile design. I spent four years on it. I’ve never used it,” Levy says in an interview recorded by the college. “But my two hours a week at City Lit has made me into a bestselling, […] international author.”

“Who knew it would be that way round?” she asks.

Not knowing is at the root of Malcomson’s second piece of advice, which might sound counterintuitive for anyone who has been told that laser focus on one goal is the only way to achieve it. Once you have had “a very clear, very realistic look at your life” and worked out exactly where you are, he says, don’t try to visualize exactly where you want to get to.

Many of City Lit’s students are professionals drawn to a specific art or craft: Ceramics, photography, and acting are all particularly popular courses. But, Malcomson says, at least half those who start one discipline end up discovering a whole other passion and going in a different direction. Being open to discovery is one of the most exciting and fruitful parts of making the change.

And indeed, one discovery those in mid-career might make is that they want to think entirely differently about work. In a longer life, some thinkers are now arguing, we shouldn’t be packing so much work into the earlier part of our lives when other pressures—like caring for small children—are most intense. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychologist, has argued that we should take more career breaks earlier on, fundamentally re-thinking the widely-accepted career model.

Mid-career transitions are one piece of the picture. Another moment of “restlessness” can happen at the time when retirement used to begin. Increasingly, adults are reaching their 60s and 70s, realizing they might have several decades more to live, and seeking another challenge. Marc Freedman is an author and founder of Encore.org, which places retiring adults into non-profits as advisors. His advice is for older people to spend time with the young—the kind of intergenerational mixing that used to happen much more than it does today—rather than sequestering themselves away in retirement communities.

In November, Encore.org partnered with UK group Now Teach, a charity which retrains people who have already had one or more careers, as schoolteachers. Lucy Kellaway, a former financial journalist who co-founded Now Teach, wrote in the Financial Times in September that a fresh group of 80 new teaching recruits were about to start training, including ex-bankers and lawyers as well as “a landscape designer, a bookmaker, a veterinary epidemiologist and a man who made a fortune from the software company he founded and now wants to teach computer science to school kids.” (In some honest reporting (paywall) about how hard she found the transition, Kellaway called qualifying as a teacher the “most humiliating, thrilling and shattering year of my working life.”)

Increasingly, it seems, a career plan is something you make at multiple stages in your life, not at the beginning. For more help on transitions, Zen buddhism has some advice on making changes that are small and not goal-focused. Meanwhile, Quartz’s podcast about transitions, FWD: Thinking, is seeking questions from the restless.

Writer Annie Dillard summed up the reason it’s important to examine one’s work—which is where many of us spend the majority of our time—and make sure it’s satisfying: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” she wrote in her 1989 book The Writing Life.  Restlessness may be the mind’s reminder to make the days count.