In today’s economy, job loss has become everyday business, ranging from individuals losing their entire firms due to bankruptcy, to losing their jobs because of layoffs, technological disruptions, mergers, and other types of reorganizations. Hundreds of thousands of organizations, ranging in size from small businesses to large firms, file for bankruptcy every year. According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, between 2015 and 2017, three million workers were displaced from jobs they had held for at least three years. To thrive in their careers, professionals need to learn how to bounce back from these devastating losses.
Our research on the career trajectories and mourning patterns of former Lehman Brothers employees indicates that those responding to job loss tend to follow one of two paths as they re-enter the job market. Which direction they take hinges primarily on what they want to salvage from their experiences at their old firm, and has important implications for the breadth of their opportunities going forward.
Recreators and Repurposers
We call these two groups “Recreators” and “Repurposers.” Recreators tend to find similar positions, in comparable types of organizations and industries. For Lehman bankers, this meant securing jobs at other financial institutions, often as bankers. Repurposers, by contrast, typically leave organizational careers to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, in finance or other fields. For Lehman bankers, this involved launching various types of new businesses, including for example travel, education, and e-commerce ventures.
What accounted for these strikingly different career choices? Contrary to much existing research, it was not differential access to resources such as knowledge, networks, or financial capital. Instead, the differentiator was what bankers chose to “hold on to” from their organization after its bankruptcy that mattered. Indeed, rather than focusing on what they lost, both Recreators and Repurposers concentrated on what could they “salvage” from their experiences in their former company.
Recreators had formed tight, almost familial, bonds with their coworkers, and thus sought to recreate this “magic” in similar organizations, doing similar things, with similar — and sometimes the very same — people with whom they had worked at Lehman. To quote one of the participants in our study, “…to be honest, being able to keep working with my colleagues was the most compelling reason [to stay in banking] — to do the same thing with the same people.”
Repurposers, by contrast, held on to the entrepreneurial culture of the organization and the skills that they had learned. Their work relationships were professional and cordial, but they did not prioritize maintaining them after the bankruptcy. These individuals sought opportunities to use those skills in new and different ways. In explaining his decision to become an entrepreneur, another former Lehman banker commented, “…my skills are probably in excess when I’m in a bank, but I can use them profitably when I work with a startup. So when I apply the same set of skills to a startup I can accelerate a lot more its growth.”
These paths are not unique to Lehman Brothers’ employees. For example, unpublished work by Yale researchers Winnie Jiang and Amy Wrzesniewski suggests that in an occupation where jobs are becoming increasingly scarce, journalists followed either a “preservation” (akin to recreating) or a “reinvention” (akin to repurposing) path as they moved forward with their careers.
We also interviewed executives in other industries who had recently been laid off and successfully bounced back. Similar patterns emerged from these conversations. For instance, “Joe,” now the head of investor relations at a biotechnology firm, followed a Recreator path. He described the people he worked with as the most important factor in his career choices, wanting to recreate the family-like culture he had experienced in his previous firm. By contrast, “Stan” became a Repurposer: once a senior financial auditor, he now runs his own consulting practice. In explaining why, he implied the importance of the skills he had learned as an auditor and how he could rely on them to make new opportunities for himself.
Building Broader Horizons
So which pathway — recreating or repurposing — is better? One consideration, of course, is the number of positions available that might match one’s previous job. In particular, in light of layoffs and bankruptcies, there may be a flood of individuals with similar skill sets vying for a limited amount of positions. Thus, Repurposers may ultimately have the broadest set of opportunities when moving from one job to the next. That said, our research suggests that either path may ultimately be successful; the key is taking the time to consider what you can salvage from your previous job and how to use it to get your next one.
The executives we interviewed echoed the themes in our research, and provided strikingly similar advice on how to successfully bounce back from job loss: take stock, hold on, and let go.
- Take stock of how you feel, what you value, and what you have gained from your past work experience. According to Joe and Stan, respectively, “It takes time to process job loss, you cannot understand a lot of things in that moment.” “Take time to figure out what matters to you… create the space for grieving, but do not let that paralyze you. You have to realize that there are a lot of things that you do not lose when you no longer have a job.”
- Hold on to what you value and let go of all other parts of your experience. To this end, Joe noted, “You can find some of what you had before elsewhere. Although it will not be exactly the same, it will eventually become a new normal. You can still hold on to some of the things that are important to you, but you also have to realize that that organization is moving forward without you, you are no longer there.” Similarly, Stan, explained, “Do not wallow in your sorrows, think forward. There are always new opportunities ahead.”
In sum, work loss can be generative when appropriately mourned. As our research indicates, how one bounces back relates closely to how one processes loss. It is in the very processing of loss that movement occurs: from focusing on what is lost, to what is gained and can be re-used in a new job.