Saturday 23 June 2018

Meet the twenty-somethings who quit their steady jobs to follow their dreams

New research has found thousands of Irish people aged 25-33 are under pressure to succeed at work. Tanya Sweeney reports

Shaun Carter and Jill L'Estrange
Shaun Carter and Jill L'Estrange

Tanya Sweeney

At 30, Ruth Herbert appeared to have it all. Happily married, a homeowner and planning to start a family, she was also flourishing in her line of work, managing clinical trials in the pharmaceutical industry. And yet, something was amiss.

"I wasn't feeling engaged or satisfied," she admits. "I had a real anxiety for the last couple of years of that job. I tried doing creative writing courses, massage and aromatherapy classes. I tried loads of different things."

Adding insult to injury, it seemed as though everyone around her of a similar age was faring much better. "There's a huge pressure to succeed and I think Facebook and Instagram have a lot to do with it," she notes. "It's easy to feel like you're not achieving anything."

She was, by her own admission, in the throes of a quarter-life crisis.

"After school, you just fall into a job. Getting to 30, I got to know myself better. It was around that time when my husband said, 'look, just quit your job'."

It was the height of recession-era Dublin, but Ruth, now 36, reduced her hours and transitioned into a new career as a nutritional therapist and yoga teacher.

Jill L'Estrange in work. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Jill L'Estrange in work. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

"People thought I was crazy," she admits. "And it is scary to quit, especially with a house and mortgage. But I'm so glad I did it. I don't even call this work."

Yet Ruth isn't the only young person who, after a crisis of confidence, has swapped financial security for a much more creatively fulfilling work life.

Jill L'Estrange (27) had flourished in architecture school and was working in one of the country's biggest estate agents when, at 25, she decided to change lanes and become an artist and owner of L'Estrange Designs, a hospitality interior designer firm responsible for creating the interior of the Camden Exchange bar/restaurant.

"It was really important to me to build my own success and my own projects," recalls Jill. "I wanted to have some sense of ownership over my designs. I've always been a hard worker and ambitious, but something lit a fire in my belly. I guess I felt like I wasn't getting on in life quickly enough, so I decided to take a jump."

Yet the path to her current career didn't run smoothly from the outset. "Once I took stock of what I was doing, I was burdened with a few self-doubts and concerns," she admits. "At that age, you're out of college a while and that's the point where you think 'now, this is my whole life, and I need to figure things out'. I didn't want to take the wrong step forward.

"Of course there's a fear of failure, but what really struck me around that time was a need to love what I was doing."

Dubliner Shaun Carter (25) has managed to land a similarly fulfiling dream job after a detour in management software. A former scholarship golfer, he enjoyed his tech job and found many mentors there, but the siren-song of golf kept calling. Now he works at Wasserman, a company that represents professional golfers.

"I've heard about the quarter-life crisis a bit," he says. "I think a lot of it has to do with how we come up through school in Ireland - we have a great education system and it can result in people going into jobs that make a lot of money straight away. All sorts of research has been done on people who do what they love for work, and they're much happier. I didn't want to compromise on that. My path is a little less defined now than many of my peers, but if I keep working hard, I should have every financial comfort in life that I want."

A generation ago, the term 'quarter-life crisis' was coined to describe a period of life between the mid-20s and early 30s where people feel anxiety about their lives, ostensibly brought on by the stress of becoming an adult. After a year or two on the career ladder, frets about status, identity, money and relationships bubble to the surface.

Yet these days, the quarter-life crisis is, according to new research by LinkedIn, felt even more keenly. Over 78pc of Irish people aged between 25-33 surveyed admitted they feel under pressure to succeed in their finances, career and relationships before they hit the age of 30. Over 55pc of respondents said they feel unsure what to do next in their career or personal life, over 52pc felt frustrated about their career options and almost 43pc stated they feel stuck in a rut.

The research also found that on average, Irish professionals experienced a quarter-life crisis at the age of 26 years and six months old. LinkedIn's survey found the main issues that create anxiety among young Irish professionals include finding a career they feel passionate about (54pc), getting on to the property ladder (48pc) and not being able to afford the lifestyle they desired (45pc). The research also revealed that young Irish professionals suffer from 'status anxiety', with almost 40pc of respondents comparing themselves to their more successful friends.

A number of new variables have made the career ladder even more slippery for today's young professionals. The current housing crisis has exacerbated concerns about becoming a homeowner. Intern culture, zero-hour contracts and the transitory nature of the job market have also created anxiety.

The current crop of 25 to 33-year-olds left school during the recession, when dependable and financially lucrative jobs were held in high regard. "What people really wanted back then was stability," notes career psychologist Sinead Brady. "Because a lot of those school-leavers went off and travelled a decade ago, I think a lot of people are still learning how to be an adult in their late 20s.

"Social media plays a huge part in what I call this obsessive comparison disorder, when you're often comparing your own worst bits with people's best bits.

"There's a silent societal expectation that by 20, or by 30, or by 40 you should do certain things with your life," adds Brady. "But that linear view of a career and life is associated with a more traditional world where you get a job, and then you retire.

"These days, young people will have around six different careers in their lifetime. We haven't yet been taught the skills to manage this agility in the workplace."

As to why more and more people are seeking personally fulfilling roles, she says: "This comes back to the idea that the boundaries between work and life are blurred. People in their 40s and 50s went to work and after 5pm, it was almost impossible to get hold of them. Now people are switched on all the time and people are looking for jobs that have meaning.

"We're working for longer, so we need to have meaning in our work life. And we need to start having a conversation in the workplace where we need to create that meaning in jobs for people."

According to Brady, a career switch isn't a sign of failure or a crisis - rather, it's a sign your career is alive.

"It's about giving yourself permission to do something you're interested in," says Brady. "Once you do that, you'll figure the rest out. Those old qualifications and skills will never be a burden. You can't believe your old career or training was a waste of time. Rather, it's a foundation stone to build the next part of your career on. And wanting change is not a sign of failure. It's part and parcel of having a career in the 21st century."

Seeing the demand for career advice, LinkedIn has launched a Career Advice feature, where members will be able to get unbiased advice on their career path, switching to a new industry or best practices professionally.

"We know from this LinkedIn research that so few people will actually put their hand up and say, 'I need help'," says Brady. "But if you're a person who feels this way, you need to be able to ask for a leg up when you can. The reason you feel that anxiety and upset around your career is because it's important to you."

How to tackle the problem head on

1. Stop comparing yourself to others

"A sure-fire way to bolster the feelings of disappointment and underachievement is to compare your own career trajectory to your peers," says Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn in Ireland. "Remember that everyone is at a different stage of their journey - whatever your definition of success is and whatever makes you happy is enough."

2. Take a step back and identify the root cause

"It's easy to be weighed down with all of the pressures of work and family expectations, often making you too close to the situation," says McCooey. "Take a step back and write down what is making you most nervous, be it saving, not being happy in your current industry or even your personal relationships."

3. Be kind to yourself

"Going through the quarter-life crisis can be a difficult process and is exacerbated by becoming your own worst critic," advises McCooey. "Remind yourself that it's a positive experience that will hopefully enable you to make a change and progress, both with your career and with your life, eventually making you happier in the long run."

4. Research

"Once you have discussed your situation with the relevant people, it's important to go away and research your options and, most importantly, your passions," says McCooey. "Whether it's starting a new career altogether, going travelling or progressing with your current role - it's necessary to be aware of your possibilities."

Irish Independent

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