Is it too late to change your life? A question for the sleepless small hours, perhaps; for the middle-aged and heavily mortgaged, burnt out or trapped in jobs that were never their dream. So many fantasise about escape, but worry that the chance for all that is long gone; that they’re too weighed down by responsibilities now to throw everything up in the air and start again.
So you could almost hear the sighs of envy when the Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway declared she was jacking in her by all accounts delightful job to retrain as a maths teacher in an inner-city comp – and to focus on the organisation she has set up, Now Teach, urging experienced bankers, lawyers and accountants to round off their careers in the classroom too.
At 58, Kellaway’s four children are grown up, she’s financially secure and, as she put it, it seemed like a good time to take a risk. (It may or may not also be relevant that she recently got divorced, for what’s one more upheaval when your life is changing drastically anyway?) Only time will tell how many others she can lure from the City but I’d bet my life plenty of jaded 50-somethings who have lost interest in their jobs will be following her progress keenly.
Ironically some of them will almost certainly be teachers, who would retrain as well-paid and revered FT columnists in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the fact that somehow this always seems to be a one-way street. Giving it all up to teach is becoming a stock answer for people who aren’t sure what else to do with their lives and the breezy implication that teaching is basically an easy fallback option – something anyone could pick up if they chose, rather than an intensely demanding career in which a lifetime’s experience of doing it might come in pretty handy – must be infuriating.
But in fairness to Kellaway, a teacher’s daughter who has seen one of her own daughters in turn train as a teacher, I don’t think she meant it so crassly. When asked about her motives she repeated something her sister, the Observer journalist Kate Kellaway, had said about craving the ‘luxury of being useful’. It seems she wants to be needed, in a way that writers of amusing columns on corporate culture ultimately aren’t, and frankly who doesn’t want that?
Just ask the newly retired, moping around the house with nothing much to do; or formerly stay-at-home mothers whose children are flying the nest; or indeed anyone out of work and desperately looking for it. If you’re not needed by somebody for something, even if only to cut up their fish fingers or find their lost PE kit, then it’s hard to know quite where you fit or why you matter.
And that’s why every time I hear someone preaching the idea of basic income – money paid by the state to all citizens, regardless of whether they work or not – as a solution to new technology destroying jobs I want to scream, because it’s such a fundamental misunderstanding of the hole work fills in people’s lives or what is lost from a community when any big industry pulls out. Paying people to stay at home may keep them out of poverty but the message it sends is the polar opposite of being needed; sorry, but we can’t think of anything for you to do, so go away and find your own entertainment.
When you’re not working it’s not just the money you miss, it’s the feeling that someone might actually notice if you didn’t get out of bed one morning. Why is Tony Blair suddenly trying to carve out a space for himself in post-Brexit vote public life, when he clearly doesn’t need the money and must know how furiously some will respond? He too apparently craves the luxury of being useful in a crisis, whether or not that’s actually now within his grasp.
The army of born-again teachers Kellaway hopes to lead may also, of course, find being useful harder than it looks. If you’re a lawyer used to people hanging on your every word in court, then facing a roomful of surly 13-year-olds who’d rather listen to anyone but you will not be easy. No doubt some late converts to the classroom, heads filled with romantic fantasies of starring in their own personal Dead Poets Society, will find out soon enough why almost half of newly qualified teachers drop out and why ‘giving something back’ at the end of a long corporate career isn’t necessarily as fun as it sounds.
But all power to Kellaway’s elbow nonetheless, both for trying to make herself personally useful and for starting a long-overdue conversation about the nature of work in later life.
In a world where retirement will be increasingly delayed and working life eked out for half a century it makes absolutely no sense to treat anyone over 50 as if they’re coasting downhill to retirement, when the truth is they may have almost two decades of working life left in them. Why shouldn’t people be able to reinvent themselves at this age, to rethink a career choice they might have made 30 years ago and long outgrown or to learn something new?
That holds particularly true perhaps for parents who have for decades put family first and pushed their careers onto the back-burner, only to get a second wind when the kids leave home. And irritating as they may be to those already ground down by experience, starry-eyed older career changers could if nothing else bring fresh energy and perspectives to all sorts of workplaces. To suggest otherwise is dangerously close to sneering that old dogs can’t learn new tricks.
But what makes the process of rethinking later working life urgent is that the window of opportunity opening up now may only be a short one.
Kellaway is lucky that she can afford to take a pay cut now but luckier still to be part of the so-called golden generation, those born when education was free, property relatively cheap and pensions relatively generous – and who therefore have a fighting chance of reaching their 50s with the big debts paid off and the freedom to make different choices.
Being useful in this particular sense is a luxury that may be denied to future generations. Make the most of it while it lasts.