So You Think Your Job Is Meaningless. What Now?

Photographed by Leia Morrison
This time last year, Isabella Joyner was spending whatever time she could outside the 40 hours demanded by her office job going on hikes. The 28-year-old was living in Carlisle at the time, a short drive from the Lake District, and struggled with sitting in the same chair, staring at a screen, for eight hours each day. 
“Although it was an easy job, and it was good and paid well, it just wasn't really fulfilling in terms of experiences,” she says of her role in admin, advertising and customer service for a kitchen design showroom. “So I was constantly going off to go on big walks or hikes, and just trying to explore around Cumbria.” 
Like many people working in office-based roles, Isabella had “a lot of time to think” during the pandemic. “I felt this huge pressure about my mid 20s to settle down and buy a house and have a relationship and do all of this stuff that everyone expects you to do,” she explains. “I was watching everybody do it on my social media. And I guess I fell into the trap of it and thought, yep, that's what I should do too.
After a long discussion with her partner James, Isabella realised they both felt the same. While the couple were “grateful” for the stability they’d forged, both realised they “felt a little bit less than thrilled with the life we'd created”.  
And so they began making plans to move to the Caribbean to work on a charter boat for tourists, as they had done together previously before leaving the industry to work towards buying a house in 2018. Last month [October 2021], the couple moved to the British Virgin Islands, Isabella to work as a chef and her partner as a captain.   
For Isabella, the choice represents “a lifestyle over a career”. “You want to work 18-hour days, just so that you have an hour off during the day to go and snorkel or chill out, and you get to see amazing wildlife or the most incredible sunrise,” she says. “Being a crew member is a very strange lifestyle. You live in a tiny little cabin which most people would scream at, unless you live in London.”

Quite often we find ourselves defined by what we do, not who we are in the workplace and our relationship with work.

Kate Daubney, a careers coach and director of the Careers Group at the University of London
Isabella’s far from the only person to drastically reevaluate her life after being stuck inside for a large part of 18 months. Economists have dubbed a recent wave of workers handing in their notice ‘The Great Resignation’. During the summer, the number of employees quitting their jobs in the US broke an all-time record. In the UK, job vacancies hit a 20-year high between July and September this year and a small study by HR software company Personio suggested 38% of the workforce in the UK and Ireland were considering leaving their post in the next 6-12 months.
Whether you spent lockdown stuck on Zoom calls at your coffee table while entertaining school-aged children, or working as a supermarket cashier as queues snaked around the carpark, the pandemic had a way of dialling up our job roles, accentuating the parts we already found most challenging. Even the phrase ‘key worker’ forced us to think about work in a way we might not have done previously. For many in roles deemed essential, being categorised this way meant travelling into work at the peak of the virus or even caring directly for people who were ill. For some people whose jobs were judged ‘non-essential’, on the other hand, this discussion may have encouraged them to reflect on what it is that their work contributes. 
This was undeniably a vital shift. It forced us to acknowledge the frontline work — of supermarket staff, bus drivers, rubbish collectors, nurses, cleaners, delivery drivers and so many more — which is vital to society but often overlooked and undervalued. At the same time, it caused others to question what contribution they were actually making to society. 
Perhaps it all begs a bigger question. It cannot only be from our paid work that we derive meaning and value. As Isabella’s decision to completely change her life shows, the work you do doesn’t have to define who you are. It can actually facilitate other things — a change of location, for instance. 
While the vast majority of the population has not been in immediate danger of becoming seriously ill from coronavirus, the ever-present discussion of hospitalisations, deaths and clinical vulnerability have communicated an inescapable message that our time and opportunities are finite. 
One factor which has encouraged us to reevaluate what we want from work during the pandemic is the realisation that our working lives could actually change, says Kate Daubney, a careers coach and director of the Careers Group at the University of London. “I think we all took for granted our relationship with work, because it wasn't anything that was really up for discussion,” she explains. “Our relationship with work then went through an enforced change, but I think for many of us, that was the first time that we had thought about it.”
One trend Daubney has identified is the increasing popularity of “portfolio careers”. This is a career made up of multiple income streams, often from several different jobs which don’t necessarily have to involve doing the same type of work. “Because life has been quite messy and, because boundaries are being quite blurred, people are much more engaged with the idea of a portfolio of experiences,” she tells me, adding that being on furlough also opened some of us up to new hobbies or new kinds of work.

The thought of going into another job for a very long period of time can be very scary. But you’re not really committing the next 45 years of your working life, you're committing to your next step.

Daubney has also observed that many workers seem less inclined to make rigid long-term career plans since the pandemic began. “This is my gut speaking, really, but I think people are probably thinking in a slightly shorter term way because everything is still quite uncertain,” she says. “Here we are 18 months on, we don't know if there's a plan B, and we don't know what's happening at Christmas.” Daubney says people appear to be “trying things out more” or, alternatively, “meeting an urgent need around money while thinking about something else”.
For Louise Harbord, the pandemic was the time when her long-term career plans stopped making sense. The 25-year-old started a job at a small suicide prevention charity just as the pandemic began, a “dream job” she had been working towards since graduating from university. Louise’s role primarily involved delivering educational sessions about suicide prevention rather than offering crisis support, but when NHS resources were pushed to the limit during lockdown, the small organisation found itself trying to plug the gaps. 
“People would come on for an educational Zoom to learn a bit more about suicide,” the Londoner recalls. “Then, at the end of it, they would say: ‘Actually, I'm feeling suicidal today’. And then we'd have to essentially go through intervention with them there and then.”
“Everybody in the field had to abandon their boundaries at various points because the need was so great,” she adds. In June this year, however, Louise experienced a mental health crisis herself, and she realised that her dream job was no longer sustainable. 
The realisation came when she lost her phone one day. “The first day without it, I realised I'd been self-soothing with Instagram content, just being able to regulate my emotions by looking at something else,” she recalls. “It led me to realise, oh, that was my crutch. Now it's gone, I completely cannot keep doing this.”
Louise was burned out to the point of being “non-functional” and went on stress leave. She later left her job, and the charity industry, to take on a more technical role in science media, a job she really enjoys and demands less from her emotionally. Louise says she now feels able to be there for people in her own life, and to take an interest in activist causes outside of her 9-5. 
But it still hasn’t been easy leaving behind a career which had previously shaped her identity. “In a social scenario, if anybody asks, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ and you say, ‘I work in suicide prevention’, suddenly, people are very interested,” she tells me. “So switching into something that's more corporate, just like, ‘I'm part of this process that happens’, that was a difference.” 
“Quite often we find ourselves defined by what we do, not who we are in the workplace and our relationship with work,” explains Kate Daubney. “I sometimes encourage people to answer backwards: ‘It's not what I do but it's how I work that I really want to talk about, or it's how I see work, or how I value work, or what work is to me, that matters.”
“We put people in boxes, because it's convenient to do so and, actually, getting out of that box is quite scary,” she continues. “When we think about ourselves as the role: ‘I'm an administrator’ as opposed to ‘I'm a great problem solver’, it's difficult not to look at yourself as an administrator in other contexts. Whereas, if you think of yourself as a problem solver, it's much easier to see yourself as a problem solver in all sorts of different contexts.”
While she says conversations about careers with people we meet at parties or on dates can be filled with unhelpful judgments, Daubney points out that we can sometimes learn from what we’re choosing to share with strangers about our work. “If I don't want to honestly talk about what I do, what's the bit I'm flagging up and what's a bit I'd rather hide? Because that may be an indicator of where you might go next.”   
For some, COVID itself has inspired a change in direction. In March 2020, 22-year-old Maria Philpott was working as a VIP hostess at a nightclub, and had ambitions to work with an NGO, following her degree in International Development and Relations. After being furloughed, however, she started a job in fundraising for St John’s Ambulance, a role which is funding a part-time master’s in International Development and Global Health. 
Maria, who lives in Brighton, said the inequalities highlighted by the pandemic have made her more drawn to a career in global health policy. “We ignored a lot of the global south and there was a big gap before them getting any help with what was happening,” she says. “Once [a threat] is over the borders from the global south into the west, that's when the west will react to it. But unless it's affecting their national security, they won't.” 
We live in an era where, too often, people are defined by what they do. But we are all so much more than our occupations. Few people have one job or even one career throughout their working lives. With the underfunding of vital services, decimated unions and the frequent expectation that, with flexibility, comes the demand that we work through the hours we would previously have been commuting, it seems likely that this will change little in the short-term. Changing careers, particularly in a time of great uncertainty, can be an intimidating prospect but it doesn’t have to be an irreversible move.  
“People have enormous fear about making the wrong decision,” says Daubney. “If you're taking on a big change, you’re thinking I've got to get this right, it's got to work, how am I going to justify it to everybody?
“The thought of going into another job for a very long period of time can be very scary,” she continues. “But you’re not really committing to that, you're thinking about what your next step is. We talk to a lot of recent graduates about this. You're not committing to the next 45 years of your working life, you're committing to your next step.”

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