Second Acts

A bored insurance agent quits the firm to open a retail tea shop. A jazz musician finds more stimulating, and lucrative, challenges as a business consultant. A marketing executive trades deadlines and power suits for a country house where she writes about feng shui. A prosecutor fulfills a boyhood dream, abandoning the courtroom for a dog act in the circus.

The press is full of stories about people who have made radical career changes. Some, like the lawyer-turned-circus-performer, are presented as curiosities. But even the stranger stories resonate, because they reflect needs and desires felt perhaps by everyone who works: to be happier, more fulfilled, truer to one's self, of greater value to others.

In a world that is faster and richer than ever before, but that also seems more confusing and stressful, a world that feels at once full of possibilities and somehow impoverished, there is a peculiar force to the sentiment that begins "Life's too short . . . ." Given this country's current prosperity, it's not surprising that many people can complete the thought with a decisive ". . . to spend my life doing something I don't like."

We live in a "golden age of personal reinvention," according to a 1998 article by Peter Applebome in the New York Times. "Americans have always had second acts," Applebome wrote. "What is new is that so many Americans are now having third and fourth acts, they are having them later in life and several trends may be making them unavoidable."

One trend is the aging of the population; baby boomers are becoming "vital, restless seniors" who expect a more dynamic retirement than their predecessors, said Applebome. Another was the wave of layoffs and restructurings of the early 1990s, which erased the expectation of lifelong employment with a single employer. The stock market boom enabled some people to start fresh lives, he added. And "social expectations have changed," with today's workers "groping for more personal fulfillment."

A thriving career-counseling industry would seem to support Applebome's contention. Career consultants abound, as do newspaper advice columnists specializing in career issues. Universities and community colleges find that older students seeking new careers make up a sizeable proportion of the enrollment in programs devoted to training for specific occupations. The book industry churns out self-help tomes with titles like Your Heart's Desire and Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? A Guide for Your Second Life.

Actually, it is difficult to find hard data supporting the impression of a boom in career changes, according to Jay Meisenheimer, an official with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We do have data about people changing jobs and occupations, but it's not clear that these are always career changes," Meisenheimer said in a recent interview. "My wife went from being a mechanical engineer to teaching physics, and she considers that a career change. But I went from economist to manager; that's an occupational change but probably not really a career change.

"The problem with measuring career change," he continued, "is that to measure something you have to define it, and no one's come up with a satisfactory definition, or at least a consensus, of what constitutes a career and thus what constitutes career change."

This inability to pin down a trend by objective means is itself interesting, Meisenheimer pointed out. While a job title, company name, and industry are easy enough to describe and categorize, "personal reinvention" is in essence subjective. It can't be defined by external criteria because it is by nature internal: it involves self-definition.

As we interviewed Kenyon alumni who made major career changes, we found that we were talking with them not so much about resumes as about sense of self. These are people who in great seriousness contemplated the implications of Socrates's famous admonition, "The unexamined life is not worth living." And they followed through, going on to live the life that self-examination revealed.

Thus, while the stories of these alumni offer glimpses of fascinating experiences and impressive achievements, they are more importantly inner stories. They are stories of doubt, inspiration, faith, and courage. And, we think, happiness.

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