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


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.

5 responses

  1. Thank you for this post. There is definitely a split between those who have the means to freely explore options and those who must first secure the financial means to survive. I often hear those in the first group speak about budgets and finances and cutting corners to “make it happen” and protecting their safety net; but the difference with the folks in the second group is that there are no corners to cut and little to no safety net.

    One of the most hidden groups in society right now may be baby boomers who have worked a full career but due to various circumstances (many beyond his or her control) are not at a financially place that reflects the long hours, sacrifices and oftentimes education listed on the resume. Society understands the concept of elderly poor who held low-wage, or no jobs, and/or made poor life choices.

    Less is said about those who did everything “right” (based on what we learned as youth…work hard, respect authority, do your part, be responsible, take calculated risks, and make careful choices), and now find themselves scrambling to stay afloat long enough to qualify for Social Security (which will be the full income rather than the recommended 40% of income). Rather than the long-awaited and much-deserved “well done” at the end of the road (with or without the proverbial gold watch), these workers are faced with the question “what happened”. To suggest these folks simply need to be brave, think outside the box, and follow their dreams only confirms that this audience remains primarily unseen. Thank you for shining the light on yet another struggling group.

  2. There’s no “advice” for those of us who have been forced out of our careers and then blacklisted. My choice — stay in a job that was killing me through under-payment and over-work, or leave. Even that didn’t protect me from my bully. She continued to badmouth for 9 years after I left her employ. Thankfully, she died at her desk, and now I finally have work again, although nothing like before. The really painful part of this was losing my identity as a hardworking, respectful, employee that you could count on for loyalty and getting the job done. Once you have a powerful person saying to other potential employers that you are a retro-bate, then it doesn’t matter how much financial acumen or support you thought you had. It all quickly dries up.

  3. Very, very good advice. Until I make the jump to full time employment, I am enjoying my advocacy on bullying as well as environmental issues. But, that doesn’t mean I am not making time to discuss workplace bullying at three separate venues over the next two months. Eventually, it will all work out.

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