Career Anxiety: Dreadful, Common And Totally Necessary

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By Susan Ricker

When you're entering the workforce for the first time, it's natural to be nervous about your career and uncertain of how things will turn out. But what about later in life, when you're ready for a change or career switch? You may have years of experience under your belt, but that may not do much to quell your anxiety about what the future holds.

However unsettling it may be, uncertainty is necessary for a career switch. This is especially true for an encore career, or a career change made later in life that combines personal meaning with social purpose. "Encore careers are commonly sparked by something on the work front -- a layoff, the approach of retirement, an itch to reinvent," says Marci Alboher, author of "The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life." She adds, "Just as often, an encore is shaped by what's happening outside of work -- an empty nest, the loss of a parent, the end of a marriage, a new romance, an illness or a move from the suburbs to the city."


If you feel like you're alone with your uncertainty about a career switch later in life, think again. "Research shows that roughly 9 million people are already in encore careers, and another 31 million are keen to move in the same direction," Alboher says. "Although they come from different places, large numbers of people in their encore years are looking for the same thing: making a living while making a difference."

More: Bad Reasons To Change Careers

Key to getting 'unstuck'
Your discomfort may stem from wanting a change but not having a clear path to take to make change happen. This doesn't mean that you have to stay stuck, though. "You are part of a huge club," Alboher says. "In the domain of work, nearly all of us, whether we work for ourselves or for organizations, now feel a nearly constant sense of transition and uncertainty. If you're going to remain in the workplace, it's a given that you'll be tweaking your career again and again as you and the circumstances around you continue to evolve. And as part of the first generation with both the time and ability to craft a meaningful encore, you have plenty of compatriots."

Just as you would for any other uncertain part of your life, it's essential to reach out to others for advice. At the very least, sharing your career frustrations will force you to put into words what you don't like, which can be a good starting point for figuring out what you would like in a career.

Begin the period of exploration
Once you've admitted that you're looking for something different, the uncertainty in your life will give way to the changes you open yourself up to. "No two encore careers are the same, but nearly every one begins with a period of exploration," Alboher says. "Your exploration is a time to get used to a new version of yourself, one that is still evolving, one that doesn't know what's next. It's about going public with your desire to make a change. It's about opening your eyes and ears to new possibilities. It's about asking questions, asking for help."

More: Biggest Barriers To Successfully Change Careers

Alboher recommends a number of different ways to open up your life to change:
  • Take your time, and give yourself space to reflect on the past and what you want in the future.
  • Meet with a career coach or join a group for people trying to make a career move.
  • Let people in your network know that you're looking for a new position and offer specifics.
  • Ultimately, trust your instincts.
Whether you choose the time to make a career switch or it chooses you, you'll likely have mixed feelings about the change. "All career transitions include a mix of things you can control and things you can't," Alboher says. "You may not have much say in the timing or the outcome. But you can initiate the process of self-discovery. You can work to be open to change. And you can control the decisions you make when options present themselves."

Uncertainty may be the last thing you want when making a career switch. But it can actually be what helps you discover a career you may never have considered before and the catalyst that gets you started.

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Career Anxiety: Dreadful, Common And Totally Necessary

May 2007, what an innocent time. President George W. Bush appeared on American Idol. The first person ever was Rickrolled. The Plain White T's were blowing up the charts. "It's a great time to be graduating from college," proclaimed the president of job site CollegeGrad.com told the Buffalo News.

And indeed it was. The recession didn't officially begin until December 2007, so the class that nabbed their diplomas earlier that year enjoyed a sunny first stroll in the real world. "We're seeing students getting multiple offers, and the salaries are continuing to rise," Gillian Steele, the managing director of DePaul University's Career Center, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

But these men and women, who are now nearing 30, have also spent their entire working lives during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Unlucky ones, as the youngest at their companies, were laid-off when things turned sour. And the more fortunate ones still had far less freedom to change jobs, career paths, or ask for a raise -- for six whole years and counting.

The Great Recession was only a whisper in the wind in May, 2008. A couple months before, Bear Stearns was acquired by JPMorgan for $2 a share, but the extent of the damage wasn't yet clear. One of the career advisers at Rice University told The Houston Chronicle that while she usually fielded frantic calls from parents when graduation drew near, this time "these frazzled guardians are calling with a new concern: the economy."

Most agreed that recruitment was down, but few were preaching doomsday. As Troy Behrens, executive director of Southern Methodist University's Hegi Family Career Development Center told Colorado Springs Gazette, "companies are not cutting back on their new hires because they tend to be less expensive."

As the second class to graduate into this mess, there was no more parsing of words. "Each class piles up against the ones before it," one 24-year-old wailed to Reuters. "I know people who are looking for jobs, and have been since they graduated. There's this sense of 'No hope.'"

But for finance majors, who'd had a taste of pain before everyone else, a "blessing in disguise" meme emerged. "A finance major who was minoring in music was suddenly looking into opening a jazz club," a senior at the Wharton School of Business told The New York Times. "All of a sudden, I saw that a lot of Wharton people were interesting."

Applications to grad school, Americorps, and Teach for America ticked up.

Articles announced a rosier job market for 2010 grads, but that wasn't entirely true. Yes, more companies were planning on hiring new grads than the grim days of 2009, but unemployment for recent grads actually rose, and after several years of a depressed economy, wages were seriously down. As loan debt burdens jumped at the same time, a new meme landed on the scene: Is college even worth it?

Of course, college -- if you're including technical colleges, and two-year degrees -- is always worth it. Should every single person in American get a four-year liberal arts degree? No. Nobody ever said that. But thanks for reminding the class of 2010 right when they graduate, guys.

Yup, we were still in a recession. At first it was just casual curiosity, but now the weight of science threw itself behind the question: IS COLLEGE WORTH IT?

Once again, the answer was yes, yes, definitely yes. Eighty-eight percent of college grads interviewed by Pew Research Center said that college was a good investment for them, and they were earning on average $20,000 more as a result. When Stephen Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame was posed the question, he belly-laughed ("Of all the topics economists have studied, I would say one we are most certain about are the returns to education.").

But that didn't allay the misery of a class graduating with record levels of debt, a still dizzying new grad jobless rate, and starting salaries that crept lower each year. By this point, kids didn't even pretend they weren't going to spend the next year shacking up with their parents.

The job market greeting the Class of 2012 was definitely friendlier. New grad joblessness was way down, but still significantly above what it was in 2008, and wages had only plummeted further. And of course, the new graduates weren't just competing against their classmates, but also a four-year backlog of college grads who'd been tending bar and biding their time.

The "College Grads Face Horrific Job Market, Eat Mac n' Cheese In Bed" stories had become so tiresome at this point, media outlets had to get more creative. "34 Depressing Facts About The Job Market For College Grads" anyone?
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