Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Road Less Traveled: How to Manage the Recycling Career Stage

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Road Less Traveled: How to Manage the Recycling Career Stage

Article excerpt

This article examines how organizations can better respond to the needs of individuals who are reexamining and changing their chosen career paths. The term, "career recycling", reflects a new, growing segment of the workforce describing individuals who are reexamining and changing their career paths. Through exploratory interviews, we found that recylers were dissatisfied with their careers and willing to accept the risks associated with changing career direction. Recycling is generally triggered by organizational change, personal plateauing and/or personal crisis. Firms may need to reassess, redesign, and reevaluate key human resource activities, such as employee counseling, job sharing, and compensation benefits in the light of this new phenomenon.

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   Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
   I took the one less traveled by,
   And that has made all the difference.

   Robert Frost

The U.S. workplace has dramatically changed over the last two decades. Due to recent downturns in the economy, downsizing has become institutionalized despite research on its negative outcomes (McKinley, Zhao & Rust, 2000). More than 305,000 U. S. workers were laid off in the first quarter of 2001, a 20% increase from the first quarter of 2000. Between 1990 and 1996, 17 million workers lost their jobs (Rock, 1997). Today over five and one-half million Americans remain unemployed (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001b). After September 11, 2001, the unemployment rate rose steadily to heights not seen in over twenty years. During the last 10 years, downsizing has become more prevalent and unlike in the past, more white-collar, college educated professionals are being displaced. Less than half of the firms undergoing layoffs anticipated reemploying these workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001a).

In contrast to past periods of downsizing, recent layoffs have resulted in a greater proportion of midcareer, older workers, and college graduates among the jobless (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1995; Polivka and Nardone, 1989; Tilly, 1991). With 40% of the workforce projected to be age 45 or older by 2008 (Dohm, 2000), the baby boom generation is being forced to face the challenges and opportunities of midlife in a highly competitive, rapidly changing economic climate. What are the career implications for these workers who are being forced to leave their firms at midlife? How does the increase in corporate downsizing affect individual's progression through common career stage models?

While some employees are likely to experience downsizing as a minor setback in their careers, characterized by lower raises and slower advancement potential, other individuals in these circumstances are likely to make major changes in their careers as a result of the transition. Some workers will readjust their career aspirations and follow the traditional "road most traveled." They are likely to maintain their occupational position, progress sequentially through the normal linear career stages, and retire from the work force (Sullivan, Martin & Carden, 1998). In contrast, other workers will experience a midlife career change. This career change may be triggered by a lay-off, a career plateau or the realization of lack of occupational fit. These individuals may seek new answers, change the pattern of their lives and careers, and venture down the nontraditional "road less traveled."

In traveling this road, these individuals engage in what Super (Super, 1979, 1980; Super, Thompson, & Lindeman, 1988) called recycling. In the past, these recyclers, who veered from the sequential career stage model, were labeled nonadaptive (Morrison, 1977); changing career direction in midlife was viewed as detrimental to climbing the corporate ladder. Because these midlife career changers were not the norm, little research examined this phenomenon until recently (1).

In contrast to the view that recycling is nonadaptive or detrimental to one's career, we suggest that recycling can be a time of career evaluation and renewal. …

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