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The Great Resignation is on – is now the time to change your career?

As the number of employees quitting their jobs hits record highs, we consult career development expert Helen Tupper – and author Lucy Kellaway, who swapped her journalism for a career in teaching in her late fifties – for their advice on making that big leap.

The Great Resignation is well under way. In the wake of the pandemic, in November 2021, the number of Britons quitting their jobs hit 4.5 million, breaking a record set two months previous in September. The numbers are unlike any seen since 2009. In America, over 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in the month of August 2021 alone – almost 3% of the entire country’s workforce. And it's continuing well into 2022: many more plan to quit this year.

Helen Tupper, co-founder and CEO of career development company Amazing If, and the co-author of career guides The Squiggly Career and new book You Coach You, isn’t particularly surprised. In The Squiggly Career, Tupper and co-author Sarah Ellis coined a term for the new, ‘squiggly’ career trajectory rapidly supplanting the more linear career trajectory enjoyed by Boomers.

Things were already precarious: for years, Gen-Xers and Millennials have contended with a job market undermined by the ‘gig economy’ (in which permanent roles were increasingly replaced by freelance budget) and the disappearance of entry-level roles, leading to increased competition for fewer, lower-paying jobs.

Then, the pandemic happened.

“The different the pandemic made is that the uncertainty, the restructures, the redundancies suddenly just got ramped up,” Tupper says. With many suddenly working from home, “a lot of the noise that went around people's jobs – going to the office, and being with colleagues, and going out after work – suddenly went away, and you were just left with the work that you do. And that's when people started sort of doing the ‘why’: ‘Why do I do this work? And what does this mean to me?’ When you’re in a room on your own, working in front of a computer all day, that creates quite a lot of clarity in terms of ‘Well, if I can do anything in a room on my own on a computer, is this what I want it to be?’”

The result of the Great Resignation, Tupper points out, is that there’s been a power shift away from corporations for the first time in a decade, back into the hands of employees.

“Organizations might be like, ‘Oh, we want you to all come back to the office,’ but actually everyone can say, ‘Well, thank you very much, I don't want to come back five days a week.’ The mass power went to the individual, for you to work in a way that works for you. And then you have a market where there are a lot of vacancies, which means we have a lot of control; we can choose what we want to do, how we want to do it. It’s an employee’s market.”

So, is now the perfect time to make a career switch? It’s a question whose answer goes a bit deeper than just the Great Resignation and Covid-19.

In 2017, long before the pandemic shifted the world, Lucy Kellaway made a colossal shift herself: after three decades as a columnist for the Financial Times, Kellaway decided to leave her post – not to mention her home, husband, and more – in her late fifties to embark on a career as a secondary school teacher. Her journey, documented in her 2021 book Re-Educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband and my hair, was catalysed by her father passing away in 2016.

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“I would hate to compare my dad's death to Covid, but they were similar in that you're put into a completely different way of being; bereavement does that for you, and the pandemic does that for you,” Kellaway contends. She echoes Helen Tupper’s sentiment about the pandemic: “Anything that comes as a shock does make you reconsider what you're doing.”

For Kellaway, now happily employed as a teacher for nearly five years and running an educational charity called Now Teach, the choice was a long time coming, motivated not by the job market but her own personal situation.

“I'm part of that sort of generation where, you know, it was still jobs for life. You become a journalist, and you expect, if you love it as I did, it's perfectly normal to do that until you retire. And no one was out there showing me any other way. When I went in to see the editor of the FT, saying that I was questioning leaving, he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, don't do anything – when you're bereaved, your judgement isn't straight.’ I would look at it the other way around, by saying it's only when you have that sort of shock that you reframe things, and that you need to act in the clarity of that moment.”

Kellaway suggests that your career shift should be motivated by two factors.

“First, I think it's really, really important that you have one selfish motivation, which is just for you. Maybe you think you’re not really learning anything, or you want to feel more stimulated, you want to learn new things, you want to feel more alive, more rejuvenated – those are all quite selfish, but they're very, very important. And the other one for me was wanting to do a job that was more useful, wanting to do a job where I never have those moments where I think, ‘What was the point of today?’ Even on days where I've given fairly crap lessons, I've still taught kids something they didn't know. So those two motivations – one for you and one for the job itself – if you have both of them, then it can't fail.”

Tupper, too, emphasizes that clarity on your own personal needs is essential to making the leap.

“I don't think now is a great time to change your career because of the pandemic and there being more opportunities; the time to change your career is when your answer to the question ‘What does good work look like for you?’ doesn’t look like the work that you're doing now. Try to ignore the pandemic noise and the Great Resignation and all those headlines, because they can be quite distracting, and they can lead to comparison culture – like, ‘Everyone's changing their careers, so why aren't I?’ It might not be right for you to do that; you might be better staying where you are and investing in your development in the role that you're in. You have to look inwards before you act outwards; there's no guarantee that you’re going to be happy and fulfilled if you’re just changing for the sake of change.”

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Image: Rebecca Hendin for Penguin

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