On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options

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This headline from the Yahoo! News page is an enticing one to many: “How to Afford to Quit Your Job.” Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News & World Report, introduces us to a former NPR program host, Tess Vigeland, who one day realized that it was time to say goodbye:

When Tess Vigeland, the former host of public radio’s “Marketplace,” came home from work and cried in her backyard for three hours, she knew it was time to leave her job. “I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I deserved better,” says Vigeland, who turned in her notice the following week.

Vigeland now has a book, Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want (2015), in which she is encouraging other folks to follow her path. In her interview for Palmer’s article, Vigeland recommended, among other things, assessing one’s financial situation, including alternate income sources, savings, freelance work, and “a partner’s salary”:

“I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations with my husband and we figured his salary could pay the mortgage with me not working at all,” she says. In addition, she planned to take on freelance work so her income would not go to zero. “I also knew I had a large retirement account that I could tap into if I had to, and home equity,” she adds.

Midlife “quit lit” and “encore” careers

Okay, here’s one of the issues I have with so much of the midlife “quit lit,” i.e., the quit-your-job-and-live-your-dream-type books and articles based at least in part on an author’s personal experience. I’ve looked at a lot of these writings, and almost invariably the Dream Chasers have financial resources from a supportive spouse, partner, or family and/or have a good chunk of savings that can be tapped to ease a likely income drop, at least temporarily.

More than a few have strong networking connections as well, including some in pretty high places.

I don’t begrudge people who have those options — I’ve encouraged some friends to consider that very avenue — but in reality many folks, because of limited incomes and savings, kids and other dependents, single status, etc., find the hopes inflated by this type of book/article title quickly deflated when they realize that the author had a cushion of financial support and cash.

I find similar dynamics when it comes to “encore” careers, a term used to describe experienced professionals who decide to step off of a demanding, if highly paid, treadmill to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website and book devoted to encore careers.

Yes, encore careers can be great for those who have the financial resources to sustain them. However, most people in their 40s and 50s, especially, happen to be in their potentially strongest earning years. The pursuit of Something Very Different in the heart of midlife typically should not be done on a whim.

I’m not saying Don’t do it. Rather, I’m urging that the strong emotions driving such considerations be complemented by dispassionate assessment and planning.

More realistic options: Avocations, hobbies, and Millennial-style startups

Some loyal readers may feel like they’re hearing a mixed message from me. After all, for those in toxic work environments, I’ve suggested that an exit strategy may be the most viable option when health and psyche are deteriorating. And I’ve also recommended sites like Encore.org for those seeking to make significant career transitions. Furthermore, there are people who, against more “rational” assessments, took that risky leap without a parachute and landed on their feet. Some have enjoyed remarkable success in their transitions.

That said, there may be less risky alternatives to exploring and making major career/work changes. A few considerations:

First, do you have an avocation that has income-producing potential? An avocation is typically a labor of love, so you know the passion is there. A next question to ask is whether you can grow it into a steady income stream.

Second, how about taking something you really want to do and starting it as a part-time micro-business? Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup has a Millennial generation audience in mind, but it contains inspiration, insight, and information for anyone considering a lower-risk road to entrepreneurship.

Third, do you need additional training or schooling? Formal degree and certification programs tend to be expensive, but low cost or free adult and independent learning opportunities abound. You might, for example, go to a local SCORE workshop on starting a business, or take an online course or two through educational content providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX.

Fourth, might it help to work with a really good career or life coach to help you plot your way through all this? A wise voice who asks the right questions and helps you to make and stick to plans and identify priorities can be very helpful. 

Finally, if your potential plans include going out as a freelancer, you might want to take a look at Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible for some of the business details you’ll need to address.

The term go for it has a lot of emotional power, especially if you’re in a less-than-wonderful work situation and considering alternatives that sound freeing and exciting. Pursuing your passions is good, life-affirming stuff. But it’s often helpful if you do so with research, planning, and assessment to help prime a path to success.

The warning signs of toxic workplaces

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers that if you search the term “toxic workplace,” you’ll get more hits than you can read in a lifetime of net surfing. Okay, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. In any case, I find interesting the similarities and differences between pieces purporting to identify the warning signs of a toxic workplace. I thought I’d share a few representative samples with you here, with an invitation to click the titles to read the fuller explanations.

Psychology Today Cutting-Edge Leadership: “The 5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment” (2015)

Organizational psychology professor Ronald Riggio (Claremont McKenna College) identifies and explains these signs:

  • “You have to keep your head down”
  • “The bullies run the show”
  • “It takes an Act of God to get anything done”
  • “No matter what you do, you can’t get ahead”
  • “It’s all sweat, and no heart”

Fast Company: “Five Signs That Your Workplace May Be Toxic” (2015)

Psychologist Paul White identifies and discusses these five factors:

  • “Unhealthy communication patterns”
  • “Policies and procedures are non-existent or poorly implemented”
  • “The organization is led by one (or more) toxic leaders”
  • “Negative communication patterns”
  • “Your personal life is affected negatively on many fronts”

PsychCentral: “7 Signs Your Workplace is Toxic” (2014)

Therapist Melody Wilding discusses these seven factors:

  • “You’re told to feel ‘lucky you have a job'”
  • “Poor communication”
  • “Everyone has a bad attitude”
  • “There’s always office drama”
  • “Dysfunction reigns”
  • “You have a tyrannical boss”
  • “You feel in your gut something is off”

Inc.com: “These 7 Signs Will Tell You If Your Workplace is Toxic” (2015)

Journalist and consultant John Boitnott identifies these signs of a toxic workplace:

  • “The Monday Blues”
  • “Unhealthy habits”
  • “Rush hour stress”
  • “Missed medical appointments”
  • “Disrespectful treatment”
  • “Others are unhappy”
  • “Everything is an emergency”

Why legal scholarship?

Some readers outside of academic circles may understandably wonder about the usefulness of engaging in scholarly research and writing, especially when much of what professors produce seems abstract, theoretical, and laden with jargon and citations. I can’t speak for all academic disciplines or all scholars, but I can address the inquiry from my standpoint and experience as a law professor.

For me, engaging in legal scholarship has opened the door to the development of law reform proposals such as drafting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and challenging the practice of unpaid internships. In both of these instances, the work started with a foundational writing in the form of a comprehensive law review article:

Here’s a snippet of what I say about that scholarly process in my forthcoming article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice):

For law professors, lawyers, and law students, the most likely publication venue for this foundational writing will be a scholarly law journal. The traditional law review article, even with its stodgy and sometimes excessive conventions of style and citation, requires us to document our sources and to spell out, in painstaking detail, the bases of a conclusion or recommendation. In this sense, it also serves as the primary database of sources informing our work, containing through footnotes our main bibliography, which in turn show how these materials relate to the overall analysis and argument. As a whole, it serves as the core document for subsequent efforts to bring a topic before a more public audience. If the writer has succeeded in the tasks of research and analysis, then the recommended action steps may justifiably be considered “evidence-based.”

That foundational research piece becomes the basis for advancing law reform initiatives, such as “drafting model legislation or administrative rules,” “developing litigation strategies,” “supporting impact or class-action litigation through brief writing and other tasks,” and “designing bureaucratic or structural reforms.” It may also involve public education work such as blogging and social media outreach, providing interviews to print and electronic media, and partnering with supportive organizations.

In other words, doing legal scholarship creates opportunities to influence the law and how people think about it.

I wish I could say that legal academe has embraced scholarship for the potential usefulness of its content, but like in so many other academic disciplines, questions of individual and institutional prestige and rankings tend to predominate discussions of what “counts.” In too many circles, scholarship has become mainly a commodity, signifying who stands where in the pecking order and deployed as currency to obtain appointments at more prestigious institutions.

In a 2010 law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review), I critiqued that debilitating culture of scholarship and suggested that there are healthier ways for us to regard and use scholarly work. I framed my viewpoint in the context of therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that implicitly favors laws and procedures that promote psychologically healthy outcomes.

In essence, I challenged a prestige-driven culture of legal scholarship that inevitably produces “a handful of ‘stars’ and a vast assemblage of ‘worker bees,'” with the twist being that a lot of people eventually lopped into the latter category have bought into that value system. The far better approach, I suggested, is to value scholarship for its content, meaning its ability to inform, enlighten, provoke, and persuade, and letting the rest take care of itself.

***

Annotated Bibliography

For those interested in reading more about the intersection of scholarship and social action, I have included a short annotated bibliography of some 40 relevant, mostly non-legal books in my article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.”

What is at-will employment?

The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. It also means that an employee may leave a job for any reason or no reason at all, again, subject to existing legal protections.

Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency. Within the U.S., such protections typically extend only to unionized workers (less than 12 percent of the workforce) and to select categories of employees, such as tenured professors.

At times, at-will employment can inure to the employee’s benefit, especially if someone has unique talents that can be shopped around in the midst of a robust job market. However, more often the employer holds the cards in at-will employment situations, especially when jobs are in short supply.

This is why employers in the U.S., in particular, have been extremely opposed to relinquishing their at-will right to hire and fire. It’s one of the main reasons why they resist labor unions that introduce collective bargaining to the employment relationship.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about at-will employment in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review):

The low union density in America means that most workers are not covered by collective bargaining agreements and presumptively are at-will employees. In terms of voice in the workplace, the typical at-will employee enjoys, at best, the ability to make requests of, or submit non-binding suggestions to, an employer. Only the most fortunate individuals, notably those with special skills or in high-demand professional, athletic, or artistic vocations, possess the leverage to engage in individual negotiations over job security, compensation, and working conditions.

Consequently, in most non-union workplaces, the power to set internal employment policies, as well as compensation and benefits, remains largely in the hands of management, but is subject to compliance with regulatory standards. At larger companies, high-level executives establish broad parameters for employment relations, human resources offices administer personnel policies, and mid-level managers supervise and evaluate the work of sub- ordinates. They are supported by in-house lawyers who provide advice, counsel, and litigation support.

Of course, at-will employees are not without labor protections and safeguards. In particular, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the emergence of a large body of statutory, administrative, and common-law protections granting various employment rights to individuals. The most notable of these are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other employment discrimination laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and various wrongful discharge claims grounded in contract and tort law doctrine. The ongoing development of this body of law has resulted in greater safeguards against physical and dignitary harms, created several exceptions to the rule of at-will employment, and forged a modest safety net of wage and benefit protections.

For most American workers, this somewhat unwieldy legal smorgasbord serves as their primary source of legal protections on the job. Although the creation of individual employment protections was spurred in part by civil rights advocacy backed by the solidarity of social movements, workers often must effectuate these rights in solitary fashion, pursuing stressful, lengthy, and expensive legal proceedings, typically without the benefit of large group or union support. Modern employment litigation all too often encompasses the David versus Goliath scenario of an aggrieved worker and a small plaintiffs’ law firm vying against a large company armed with an overstaffed team of attorneys.

***

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013) — “‘Master and servant’ is a legal term ported over from English common law, centuries ago. It is what it sounds like, a term deeply rooted in hierarchical, subservient personal and occupational relationships.”

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011) — “In the U.S., the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying make for a brutal combo punch that often leaves mistreated workers legally powerless.”

“On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power” (2011) — “For legal geeks like me, one of the starting places for understanding the modern state of workers’ rights is a classic 1967 Columbia Law Review article by University of Kansas law professor Lawrence Blades, ‘Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power.’ . . . Although he may not have fully anticipated the growth of the service sector and the non-profit sector and the significance of employment discrimination law, his success is in how he foresaw the expansion of private economic power and shaped the thinking of employment law scholars and other legal stakeholders.”

The casino economy and psychological health at work

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The financial markets are in turmoil right now, making this a jittery time for investors large and small. Thankfully, the current stock market “correction,” as the financial analysts call it, is probably not the start of new recession. However, it definitely impacts people’s confidence in the state of the economy.

Stock market outlooks also affect the everyday experience of work. Just last week, I posted an article asking whether the Great Recession has stoked a continuing climate of fear in the workplace. While finances and economics may seem to be all about hard numbers, in reality markets are very psychological in nature. In times of major market uncertainties, those anxieties often trickle down to the everyday experience of work.

What will happen if the stock market is in for a rough ride? Among other things, employers in all sectors (private, public, non-profit) may be more nervous about hiring. It also means that pressures to produce more with fewer resources could intensify. Workers fearing unemployment may continue to endure bad work environments, rather than leave without another job in hand. Workplace bullying and incivility may well occur more frequently as tensions on the job rise.

This is modern life in the casino economy. The wins and losses of those playing at the big money tables affect those playing the nickel slot machines. And for folks in the latter group, the stakes are very high, even if their control over them is limited.

President Carter’s first great lesson in personal resilience

President Jimmy Carter has received a dire cancer diagnosis, one that he is facing with a sense of peace, grace, and courage that I find remarkable. The New York Times reports how he greeted news that cancer had spread to his brain:

“But I was surprisingly at ease,” Mr. Carter added. “I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve had thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence.”

As President Carter’s health and treatment now play out before us, perhaps we should keep in mind why, at age 90, he has remained so visibly in the public eye. Since leaving the White House in 1981, he has built an extraordinary body of peacekeeping and humanitarian work, mostly through the non-profit Carter Center that he and his wife Rosalynn established.

Elected President

Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was elected President in 1976. His path to the White House was an unconventional one. A one-term Governor of Georgia, he ran an outsider, reform-minded campaign that resonated with voters in the wake of the Watergate scandal that had led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Carter’s term in office, however, was a rocky one, characterized by a difficult economy on the domestic side and growing tensions in the Middle East, the latter culminating in the Iranian hostage crisis that consumed the last year of his presidency. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination and beat Carter in a November election that also swept away dozens of leading liberal Democrats from the House and Senate. It was a watershed election that marked the revival of American conservatism.

Post-Presidency

For Carter, the 1980 vote was a humiliating public repudiation, a rare loss for an incumbent President. He instantly became a pariah within the Democratic Party and would be largely ignored during many succeeding party conventions.

But Carter, 56 years old when he left office, would not abandon his commitment to public affairs. A deeply religious and self-reflective man, he spent the immediate aftermath of his electoral loss contemplating his future. In 1982, he and Rosalynn would create the Carter Center, locating it in Atlanta and affiliating with Emory University. Here is how the current Carter Center brochure describes its work:

Founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, The Carter Center advances peace and health worldwide. A nongovernmental organization, the Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 70 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; improving mental health care; and teaching farmers to increase crop production.

Though slightly dated, historian Douglas Brinkley’s The Unfinished Presidency (1998) best tells the tale of how Jimmy Carter rebounded from his devastating 1980 defeat. It is a story of recovery (personal and professional), resilience in the face of rejection and adversity, and ultimate renewal.

President Carter’s battle with cancer may well have more lessons to teach us. But we can also draw considerable insight and inspiration from how he recovered and renewed his life after that terrible defeat in 1980.

***

Personal resilience is a theme running throughout this article, and I know that many readers find this blog because of their own trials at work and career setbacks. The American Psychological Association has put together a resource page, The Road to Resilience, that some will find helpful. 

Working Notes: Engaging in intellectual activism

I’m delighted to share a draft of a forthcoming law review article on intellectual activism and news of a wonderful new board affiliation with a favorite group.

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

I’ve posted to my Social Science Research Network page a draft of a law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” which will appear in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, published at the University of Southern California law school. You may access a freely downloadable pdf version here.

Here is the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I would like to explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession.

This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the hopeful benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students. It is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in three unique, multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work in an intellectual activist mode, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists.

The article also includes an annotated bibliography of books broadly related to intellectual activism. Those seeking guidance and inspiration on how to blend scholarship and social action will find some valuable stuff in this book list.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

I have gratefully accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation.

I have written frequently about HumanDHS and my participation its annual workshops, including a piece last week highlighting writings by some of its core members that dig deep into the meaning of dignity and humiliation in our society. 

Frankly, some requests to join non-profit boards feel like a burden. Others, however, naturally mesh with one’s ongoing work and activities. My joining the HumanDHS board fits squarely in the latter category.

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