Any reflection on the past 18 months reveals the uncertainty in the job market. The year 2020 saw record unemployment claim filings as the economic disruption generated by COVID resulted in organizations eliminating jobs in efforts to manage expenses. Now in 2021, we see a rebirth of the “war for talent” as many companies are seeking to ramp up hiring in light of an improving economic picture. Move the lens back to the past 20 years and a similar cycle is repeated—recessions in 2001 and 2008 with substantial job loss, followed by periods of growth and re-employment. A realistic assessment is that job loss is a very real threat for individuals across all types of jobs, spanning multiple industries.
Losing a job can be a devastating event, causing an individual to feel confused, anxious, and uncertain about what to do next. It is common for people to cling to what is familiar and comfortable, so looking for the same type of job feels both safe and an action that will allow them to stay on track in their career journey. But events that disrupt our normal routines have the potential to catalyze real significant change, primarily by providing the opportunity to experiment with new activities or approaches.
Interestingly, we all experience a series of life transitions such as childhood, teenage years, adulthood, middle age, and late career. These phases often provoke a mix of —excitement, anxiousness, anticipation, nervousness—and can be an unsettling or uncomfortable period. But it is this unsettled feeling—a concept known as liminality—in which important internal work is being done that enables us to progress through the change, into the new life phase. Liminality is the uncertain, emotionally confusing period of being between something and feeling untethered, and this is an apt concept for career management. Individuals may struggle to let go of the familiarity and structure of their current life, even if dissatisfied with it, because the new life is ambiguous and not yet fully formed. These emotions can be paralyzing and hold people back from making decisions and choices that will propel them forward to a more satisfying future.
By introducing the concept of liminality, career transition coaching can help individuals understand that their emotions are a normal and expected part of the transition journey. Research by Herminia Ibarra (2021), among others, suggests that we are more likely to make lasting change when we actively engage in a three-part cycle of transition, one that gets us to focus on separation, liminality, and reintegration. Separation—from habits, routines, and structure which occurs as the result of job loss—helps us become more malleable which, in turn, allows us to be more open to new or different experiences. A job loss also triggers a time of being “in between”—out of our old job but not yet in a new role. But this in-between period also presents a wonderful learning opportunity. During what may be viewed as an “unproductive” period, we are doing important internal work by asking important existential questions, remembering what makes us happy, and consolidating our sense of self.
How does one move forward? By embracing this period of uncertainty and using it to create a new “working identity.” Career transition is an active process of experimenting with new professional activities, interacting in new networks of people, and making sense of what is happening in light of emerging possibilities. Ironically, it is the very uncertainty created by job loss that—if effectively leveraged—provides an individual with the opportunity to distance themselves from their former professional identity and experiment with new, different identities; these experiments ultimately enable you to develop a new sense of purpose and career goals.
What can you do, specifically, to help navigate the transition process?
A job search can be a long and arduous process. But you can embrace the uncertainty and use it to propel meaningful change in your career journey, and these strategies can help you navigate the inevitable highs and lows along the way.
Vice President, Senior Executive Services