Writers Write, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Career Changes

What I can’t remember is whether my first exhortation to join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) arrived in the mail before—or after—my 50th birthday in September 2016.

AARP cardWhat I do remember (because they are still neatly piled next to the printer, just a few inches to the left of my computer screen as I stare at it) is that I subsequently received three additional exhortations. It may have been one exhortation and three “membership kits.” I haven’t read them all that carefully.

When the first AARP mailing arrived, I immediately recalled the Drywall tune “The AARP Is After Me.”

Mostly, though, I was just confused.

It is true that I was in the process of finding a new gig in my multi-decade career as a “non-profit-preferring public health (mostly) data analyst slash program evaluator slash research project manager.” I had been laid off 15 months earlier from my sixth position (positions spanning a total of just under 19 years—“soft money” gigs are brutal), as I detail here.

But “retired?”

Not even close.

At the same time, the job search was moving about as quickly as poured molasses—in the winter. Almost nothing even remotely in my field inspired me (to the extent I could concisely define what my “field” was). Too often, when a job did inspire me, I was “educationally overqualified” for it. It is amazing how many interesting jobs in my “field” have educational requirements along the lines of “bachelor’s degree, master’s degree preferred.”

My thoughts wandered.

Ø  I recalled multiple conversations about earning a doctorate, mostly to the (admittedly anachronistic) effect of “that and $10 will get you one of those incredibly delicious fresh-squeezed half gallons of orange juice at Wegman’s.”

Ø  I recalled insisting for years, after resigning from my first doctoral program in June 1995, that I would only get a doctorate under four specific conditions: 1) I needed it to advance to a particular job I wanted, 2) my employer funded it, 3) I could complete the doctorate while continuing to work for this employer, and 4) any required data were already collected and cleaned. The point being that a doctorate would be a practical achievement that advanced my career in a tangible way[1].

Ø  I recalled reviewing job applications with my colleagues for a research assistant position at my most recent employer. The position was clearly master’s-level, but quite a few applicants had doctorates. We used to sit in my supervisor’s office and mock these applicants.

Ø  I recalled the ferry scene in the 1994 film Disclosure in which the Michael Douglas character is abjectly terrified of becoming one of the many “ghosts with resumes”: marginally older men who had lost lucrative positions yet still commuted into Seattle every morning in search of a new position, knowing the chips were stacked against them.

My fear, of course, was that I was becoming one of those ghosts with a resume, the ones we laughed at (whistling past the graveyard?) in my supervisor’s office. And I questioned whether completing a doctorate at 48 (as opposed to 28, or 38) had been a huge mistake.

It didn’t help that what was really nagging me in the deeper recesses of my mind was the idea that, after 19 years, six professional positions, a MA in biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology, I no longer WANTED a career in…whatever it was I did.

That was the most unnerving thought of all.

**********

This is where I was going to ask you to “just bear with me” while I presented entertaining data on mid-career changes at the age of 50, plus or minus.

Those data, however, do not appear to exist (excepting an unsourced claim that while 85% of persons aged 45 and older consider a career change, only 6% actually do so). This excerpt (from the section titled “Does BLS have information on the number of times people change careers in their lives?”) from the National Longitudinal Surveys page on the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website explains why: 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) never has attempted to estimate the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives. The reason we have not produced such estimates is that no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change. […] Most people probably would agree that a medical doctor who quits to become a comedian experienced a career change, but most “career changes” probably are not so dramatic. What about the case of a web site designer who was laid off from a job, worked for six months for a lawn-care service, and then found a new job as a web site designer? Might that example constitute two career changes? If not, why not? Is spending six months at the lawn-care service long enough to consider that a career? How long must one stay in a particular line of work before it can be called a career?

Until a consensus emerges among economists, sociologists, career-guidance professionals, and other labor market observers about the appropriate criteria that should be used for defining careers and career changes, BLS and other statistical organizations will not be able to produce estimates on the number of times people change careers in their lives.

There is also this cheerful 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office detailing how the “number of long-term unemployed people over 55 years of age has more than doubled since the recession and more than [one-] third of unemployed older workers have been out of work for more than a year.”

Ouch.

What DO exist, however, are multiple online sites providing guidance for someone in my age bracket contemplating a new career. Topping the list, not surprisingly, is the job-search leviathan Monster.com. Similar advice is proffered by…wait for it…the AARP, as well as this one-stop shop.

Given the quantity (if not quality) of advice for mid-career job seekers out there…

I am somewhat surprised that (again, unsourced) only 6% of career-change contemplators actually take that step.

Especially when you consider the sheer number of Food Network cooking competition contestants who fled careers as stockbrokers, public relations specialists and every other high-powered white collar job you can name to go to culinary school and pursue their dream of being a professional chef.

Hmm, maybe that is where I first got the idea…from all those hours watching Food Network with my wife…

**********

My heroically-supportive wife and I have been extremely fortunate that we have been able to thrive financially for two years while neither of us has earned a paycheck.

Still, our resources are finite, and as the two year anniversary of my layoff approached, our conversations about next steps began to become a bit more contentious. At one point, out of sheer exasperation, my wife flung this question at me:

“Why don’t you write a book?”

She quickly clarified that what she meant was “write a mystery, something that will sell,” but a very different idea had already started to take root in my mind.

Before I elaborate, however, let us step back six months in time.

My doctoral thesis, as I have discuss here and here, assessed the long-term health impacts of neighborhood walkability, or the lack thereof.

Last December, I was sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, and I noticed a series of pamphlets and brochures for WalkBoston. In the process of reviewing the academic epidemiologic literature on neighborhood walkability (and the built environment more generally), I had foolishly overlooked even the possibility of the existence of local organizations already acting on this literature.

AHA, I thought, this is perfect! I set up an informational interview with the director of the organization. It was a very cordial and informative conversation, despite my skill set not being a good fit for the organization. At the close of the interview, she gave me the names and contact information of four other people who might provide further guidance. I eventually met with three of them (I never did hear back from the fourth contact)

The first meeting was helpful, but mostly as a way to solicit further contacts. The second meeting I will return to in a moment.

The third meeting was the most revealing, in that I heard the painful truth, the truth I had suspected but not yet fully articulated to myself. The truth was this: for someone with my educational attainment, experience and…well, she did not say either “age” or “salary history,” but the implication was there…there may be only three or four jobs a YEAR (outside of academia, which I have ruled out for now) that would be an appropriate fit

She also described the process by which I could become essentially a “statistician-for-hire”—I believe the term is “vendor”—for state agencies, not all that different from the consulting, part time and self-employment gigs suggested on the “find a new career at 50!” websites discussed above.

Talk about tough love.

At the second meeting, meanwhile, I felt like I had found a new home. There was even a new position—one matching my eclectic skill set reasonably well—to be announced in a few days.

Naturally, I applied for that position as soon as it was posted. And I was very excited about it until…

…I began fully to contemplate the implications of returning to a full-time 9-5 Monday-Friday position, one that, even with a fairly routine commute on local public transit, would not get me home until 6:30 pm or later (given my tendency to leave the office later than 5 pm to avoid “crush hour.”

Due to my doctoral work and subsequent layoff, I had not worked a full 40 hour week for four years. For four years, then, I was often available (and eager) to pick up my daughters from school; schlep one or the other to ballet class, doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, soccer practice, basketball practice, rock-climbing, swimming lessons or the odd play date; run to the grocery store or CVS; and otherwise help out around the house (that dishwasher is MINE).  It also meant that I was able to spend time, especially after the layoff, on my own research projects, culminating in the launch of this blog last December

The thought of returning to a full-time job in a career with diminishing appeal—losing all of that precious family and personal time in the process—caused a switch to flip in my brain. Suffice it to say, the passion I had displayed in my second meeting was far less apparent during the actual job interview, and I was not offered the position.

This non-offer occurred three months ago. Since then, I have been mentally dissecting the barriers (both external and internal) to finding a new job for myself. I ultimately brainstormed dozens of reasons, which I carefully sorted into six broad categories (including “Existential”) and compiled in a Word document.

One key (and by now obvious) conclusion from this exercise was that I had burned out on my previous career, just as I had burned out 20 years earlier on academic political science (ironic given how much I have written on this post and elsewhere about contemporary and impending political events).

Wait, I thought, that’s right. I had already radically altered my career path once in my adult life.

So why not do it again?

And so I finally return to the idea of writing a book. Not to the book itself (I’ll get to that in later posts, I suspect), but to the very IDEA of writing a book.

The idea that served to shine a spotlight on the simple notion of being a writer.

Like, you know, full time, as a career.

As the immortal Johnny Slash would say, “That is a totally different head. Totally.”

And as I thought back on every innocuous work-related e-mail I turned into a multi-page memo, every mandated Quarterly Report I edited and polished until it gleamed, every short (and not so short) essay I penned commenting on a Facebook post, every film noir article I have outlined in my head, and every blog post I have crafted with the obsessiveness of a perfectionist, I realized something…

I ALREADY AM A WRITER.

Writers write, so it seems I am about to write a book, while maintaining this blog and continuing to crank out essays on Facebook and elsewhere.

As for our finite resources, we will figure out something. I have ideas there, too, but they are between my wife and me.

And maybe, just maybe, I have not completely closed the door on a return to my previous career. Those WalkBoston brochures also inspired me to submit three abstracts, one for each of my three doctoral studies, to the 2017 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting & Expo. Much to my surprise, two of them were accepted for oral presentation.

Yikes!

If you happen to attend APHA this November, please check out my talks.

But the bottom line is this.

I am 50 years old, and I am about to join that purported 6% by embarking on a new career: writer.

Wish me luck.

Until next time…

[1] When I ultimately did earn a degree in epidemiology (defended December 2014, commenced May 2015), the first two conditions had already gone out the window, while the latter two conditions more or less held. But the practicality had given way to a combination of a need to finish what I had started two decades earlier (albeit in a different field at a different university) and a genuine new-found love for epidemiology.

 

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