In 2016 Michael Carlin was a successful lawyer in Ann Arbor, Michigan bringing immigration cases as high as the Supreme Court. Now, just six years later, he has left his law office behind. He has retrained to become one of a small number of people capable of maintaining and operating equipment valued at over a million dollars. Carlin is a piano tuner.
He moved to Boston to attend the North Bennet Street School to study piano technology just a few years ago. A pianist for many years, it was always just a hobby. Yet after years of legal practice, Carlin felt he was nearing the end of his rope.
“I was basically at the burnout stage,” he said. “And I felt like I fought the good fight for a while.”
In response to this self-assessment, he took a step many would be frightened to take. In midlife, he stepped away from his career and decided to start over.
Turning to the Trades
Michael Carlin’s story is just one of many about desk workers turning to the trades. Boston’s WBUR recently shared a report that enrollment in trade and technical schools has been up 25% since before the pandemic. The North Bennet has seen teachers become carpenters and accountants retrain as locksmiths. Vocational students like those at North Bennet Street School often describe dissatisfaction with office work, noting that they’ve come to find the physical and material trades more and more appealing.
These career paths offer opportunities that are more scarce in office work. Unlike the often siloed structures of corporate or bureaucratic labor, trade projects are typically brought from start to finish by a relatively small team. This kind of labor offers the increasingly rare chance to experience the pride of a job well done and mastery of a skill. While a corporate accountant may never meet the people for whom they balance expenses, a carpenter is able to be part of giving someone a new home.
Direction from Resignation
What do these stories tell us about the culture and feelings surrounding work at this moment in the United States?
We have recently written about changing conditions of the labor market and an increase in employees’ negotiating power for better pay and better benefits. In an exercise of this power, many workers last year voluntarily left the workforce, either to take a break from work altogether or to leave an unsatisfying job in search of better options. Employees left work in such droves that the moment was given the name “The Great Resignation.”
Why were employees leaving?
A huge contributor to workplace dissatisfaction has been a disconnection between expectations and reality, especially for younger workers. Many young Americans there is a belief that a college education combined with personal passion will deliver them a fulfilling and comfortable career. In exchange for full-time work, they expect to be able to afford a nice place to live, leisure activities, and savings for eventual homeownership and retirement. Yet, for the majority of workers of all ages, these goals now look unattainable.
In 2020, the median income of US workers aged 15 and over was just$41,535. In the past two years, household costs have dramatically increased due to a record-breaking inflation rate of nearly 9%. Rent and food alone are eating into individual incomes so workers begin to lose hope that they can earn enough to pursue leisure outside of work and plan for the future.
Trying to make ends meet, many are working longer hours. Second jobs and voluntary overtime are becoming standard. This is true even for many college-educated workers. Although wages have increased in the past two years, they are still far behind the rates of inflation and productivity compared to forty years ago. Fighting this losing battle, people become burned out, exhausted, and disillusioned with unfulfilled promises. Jobs that should be good enough aren’t taking care of people’s basic needs. As such, a re-evaluation is taking place, calling into question the role of work in life and where meaning is derived.
Searching for Substance
Some argue that this shift in the labor market is the product of laziness and sloth among young workers in particular. However, many disillusioned workers express a clear desire for more from work, not less work. Those who have taken time away from work have used their time to spend more intentional time with friends and family and consider what they really want to do with the life they have.
During these reflective periods, two common conclusions are:
- Ideal employment should offer more autonomy
- Clearer societal good should come from the product of a day’s work.
While fair pay will always be a priority in work, these concerns cannot be addressed by pay increases. The importance of deriving a sense of meaning from one’s labor is coming back into the foreground.
A Chance for Change
As the effects of The Great Resignation ripple outwards, we already see that this economic moment is allowing people to reconsider their place in the economy and the role of work in their lives.
The Great Redirection, a pivot away from old work, is tied to no single industry. Instead, it can be understood as a secondary phase of the initial Resignation. Workers are experiencing more freedom to consider their options and experiment with the time they had been giving over to desk work for so many years. In the process, many are clarifying their values – what really matters to them in life.
Finding Value at Work
As you’ve been reading this piece, have you found yourself considering what you are getting from work? Is work a place where you are able to express your personal values?
With all the changes in the world during the past two years, this may be a moment when you are considering making a big change yourself. That can be both exciting and scary. The Lifespan Research Foundation is working to offer helpful resources and support as you consider how you want to meet a life transition.
A potential career change requires a great deal of self-reflection, evaluation, and balancing. Our Roadmaps for Life Transitions course could be just the tool you need to help guide your decisions.