Leaving burnout behind: the pain and pleasure of starting a new career in my 50s
For decades Lucy Kellaway was, as a famous FT columnist, an assured source of weekly wit and wisdom for many of us at Marcellus. And then four years ago she quit the FT to become a Maths teacher. She has now written a book on her transition titled ‘Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband and My Hair’ and this excerpt from her new book has put a smile on the faces of many of us in Marcellus who quit jobs in much larger companies to do something we love.
Ms Kellaway begins by explaining why she switched from journalism to teaching: “I had my first midlife crisis in 2006. It started at 7am on a cold January morning when my mother got out of bed, made herself a cup of tea, had an aneurysm and died.
I was a 46-year-old married newspaper columnist with four children, who appeared to be living a more than satisfactory life. But as the sudden axe of grief fell, I looked at my career, which was going better than I’d ever thought possible, and thought: I don’t want this any more.
Mum had been a brilliant teacher at Camden School for Girls (where I also went in the 1970s), and even though the idea of teaching had always seemed horrible to me (too much work, too little money, no glamour, no recognition, really nothing to recommend it at all) I started to research postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) courses.”
Given that she has a degree in Economics (and is now an Economics) teacher, Ms Kellaway lays out why from a financial perspective changing careers late in life is less difficult than many imagine it to be: “…there was little financial sacrifice in quitting. Even though my new salary as a trainee would be barely a fifth of my old one, I owned my house and had savings as I had never spent anything like the money I earned. I also had a pension that would start in five years’ time.
It would have been much braver (and much madder) for me to quit at 47 when my children were all at school and required a certain amount of policing, feeding, homework assistance and financial support. Back then, I was still in thrall to the status of what I did (though at the time I would have denied that). The Financial Times was part of my identity – it was the impressive part. I feared that without it people wouldn’t want to know me any more. I wouldn’t be asked to things. There would be no more invitations to the champagne opening evening of the Chelsea flower show. Ten years on, the appeal of status had worn very thin…”
Then she explains why she enjoys teaching and thousands of mid-career professionals have applied for teaching jobs (with the hope that Ms Kellaway’s charity aims to help them get one): “I have forgotten the pain of my training year in much the way I’ve forgotten the pain of childbirth. But even though it was brutal, I never once wished to be back in my familiar old life. Instead, I was in the middle of something that was thrilling and excruciating in equal measure. I was in an altered state, waking at 3am wired and with the faces of my students filling my head. I was obsessed with what I was doing – the last time I had felt so single-minded about anything was when I was in the first flings of love….
I was teaching an economics class about inflation the other day and a student put up her hand and asked: “Miss, does the existence of inflation prove that capitalism doesn’t work?” I gave an inadequate, off-the-cuff answer about how some inflation helps capitalist producers, but then had to move to the next stage of the curriculum. Back in the staffroom I admiringly repeated this to my colleagues, adding: “I bloody love this job. The students make me think about economics more deeply than my university professors ever did.”….
I don’t wish I had switched careers earlier. But what I do wish is that someone had told me long ago that my working life would probably last at least 50 years, and I would need to have multiple careers. I wish the government and employers were thinking about this, too, and helping us along. I wish that everyone was taught at the outset that it was normal for their income to rise and fall precipitously over their working lives, and to plan for that. I wish that my story was so commonplace that there would be no point in my writing it.
Instead, it took a decade and two parental deaths to make me confront something that was staring me in the face. It is the same thing that is staring all of us in the face. We need to think about how many decades we really want to be retired for. When pensions were introduced in 1908, three-quarters of the workforce were dead before they received one. Now, the average person who draws a pension at 66 can expect 20 long years of retirement, longer if you are a woman, healthy and live in a more affluent part of the country. The actuaries tell me that I will live until I’m 93…
My generation was brought up to think that we would do one thing and when we had made enough money or got tired of it, we would stop working altogether. Some of my professional contemporaries have started building portfolio existences and do a bit of this and a bit of that, but the more obvious route – an entirely new career – is still a rarity. This is not because people don’t want to start again, but because no one is showing them how.”
It is this final point made by Ms Kellaway that prompted some of us in Marcellus (who were working in broking, banking and management consulting) to take a pay cut and switch to doing something that was not just more appealing but also something that we could do in the second innings of our careers. In fact, several of us have parents who are in their 70s and who are in the third innings of their career. The career construct laid down by Ms Kellaway is likely to become the norm in the decades ahead.