The Covid Career Shift

Many people I talk with lately are considering a career shift. I’ve never in my life heard so many people (especially working moms) say in hushed whispers, “I think I might just not go back.”

Go Back. Whatever the accent, region, or relationship that defines the context of the conversation in which these moments occur, that phrase arises, like a specter, The Ghost of Work-life Past. Before the pandemic. Before each of our private worlds were shaken up and turned inside out. Before we shared that shake-up with each person globally, in some form or another.

Go back. Go back. Go back. Why does that phrase perform the sense of dread we seem to feel about returning to the “normal” that we’ve all craved?

I’ve wondered this a lot, as I’ve heard the phrase whispered with shudders. Nearly everyone I speak with about returning to the “daily grind,” as it were, expresses some version of this. We have wanted normalcy with every fiber of our global beings for 18+ months now. Why is this prospect of our jobs as we knew it such a haunting image, then?

In my work on the public reactions to infectious disease outbreaks, one theme also recurs historically. Authors in newspapers and novels from the 19th century routinely used disease in their writing to express the following wisdom: Physical disease outbreak often reveals what was ethically, morally, or spiritually diseased about a society to begin with.

When our status quo breaks down, that is, we see fissures that we didn’t know were there. Think about how readily supply chains broke down early in 2020, or the small margins American university systems realized they had in terms of tuition and board fee losses.

Of course, I’m not intending to say that work in general is somehow ethically diseased. But I do think that in a broader way, the shake-up of our normal day-to-day lives allows for a pause, and a reconsideration of our values.

As I say in my book, Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19, published with Simon and Schusterthe disruption in children’s schooling also allowed Americans to consider related social problems. At the pandemic’s beginning, one of the most pressing concerns about shutting down American public schools was that many students receive daily nutrition through free and reduced lunches at schools. With schools closed, how were all these children going to get fed? While the immediate issue of nutrition did get addressed, the whole issue invited society to ask questions such as: why is public school America’s solution to food insecurity? Does that solution make the most sense, or is there another, more appropriate social or governmental department to handle such issues?

This is just one of many examples I could posit. You’ll find many more in Quarantine Life. However, my point here is that the same dynamic is occurring in our consideration of the value our work plays in our lives. It has brought the age-old question — are we working to live or living to work — to a palpable, present place in our minds, and as things slowly shift back towards the old-normal, we are forced to decide and address this question.

As my therapist says, in some ways it’s easier to be pushed off a cliff than to walk off its edge. In the Before-Times, very few of us would have simply stopped returning to work one day, walking away from income and benefits. But now that our daily routines have been shaken up, and our work lives have changed drastically anyway, we’ve been pushed of the cliff. As we fall, the surprising gift of our plummet into chaos has been that we now have a choice: what is our priority? Is it money? Time? Flexibility? Benefits? Security? Respect? Pride?

Very few of us are privileged enough to be able to choose a lifestyle that allows for all of these in equal measure. And frankly, probably very few of us will choose to walk away from our past careers forever. But I see many of those around me buckling under the pressure of a return to a normal that in some inarticulable way, feels “off” now.

So, I invite you to consider the anxiety of this fall as an empowering in-between space. Between the edge of the cliff and the ground is your space for change, and for determining your own destiny. The precise mix of values that come to the fore for you will be uniquely yours. The answer of time vs. money, flexibility vs. hierarchical, et cetera will be different for everyone. But this moment of pressure is actually your moment of empowerment. You’re already falling, and the new-normal is hurtling at all of us at an alarming rate. But since you’re here: you get to decide how you land.

So, take ownership of that landing. Poke around more than you typically do on LinkedIn. Contact a career counselor or if you’re on a budget, read blogs or books about professional reinvention or development.

Find any means necessary to envision how tied you are to certain benefits, and whether that fixation is serving you any longer. The Open Healthcare Marketplace may not be as scary as you have assumed it would be. Could you move to a country with national healthcare and work abroad? What would you be if you envisioned your life and career without limiting fears or automatic beliefs (“I’ll never be able to afford insurance,” “I’m not marketable enough for X field or to charge X fee rates”)? How could you work to revolutionize your field, so that you can stay in it, but improve lifestyles for you and your colleagues? How have you been holding yourself back with fear, worry, and by clinging to the safety of a normal that we no longer live in?

As I’ve seen in my historical study of disease over and over and over, there is so much to look forward to getting back to after a disease outbreak (family, friends, buffet restaurants). However, there are equally many things that we have been gifted a moment to change, transform, and re-engineer in ways we would have never thought possible had we not been pushed off this cliff.

Will you let gravity hurtle you where it pleases, or will you concoct a parachute and choose how you land, within a scope of freedoms that are limited, to be sure, but which may be broader than you’d imagined whilst standing, terrified, at the precipice?

In my next article in this series, we’re going to discuss another aspect of COVID Career Shift musings — could this just be a part of our collecting Pandemic Grieving, akin to Elizabeth Kübler Ross’s stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?) And how do you know which it is? Should you trust your gut, or invoke mindfulness to recognize that this may be a mood which will pass? Stay tuned!