Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rough Transitions

Doug Glanville has a very well written piece in yesterday's NY Times, which focused on the causes of Steve McNair's decline after Pro Football, but mainly on his own difficult time after leaving Major League Baseball. Unpreparedness marks life beyond and distance from others, most importantly family, a fixture of life as a professional athlete, exacerbates the problem.

Reading that piece I wondered how much of this is specific to athletes and what if any of it generalizes to every working stiff who is forced to end a career and start another, due to disability, declining employment in that field of endeavor, or other miscellaneous factors. I'm guessing that much of it is similar. Many people like and take pride in their work. They may under invest in developing general human capital, because of their job-related predilections.

I had a different reason to find the piece compelling. I believe that after about 15 years in a vocation it is actually a good thing to find a different field of endeavor. You reach a plateau where you don't learn that much after a while about how to do that profession well. When the learning slows down sufficiently or ceases altogether it's time to do something else. This is particularly true in the knowledge society and it may be that this is where it really is different for athletes, because their performances are not fundamentally knowledge work.

Starting this fall (less than two weeks from now) I'll be in my thirtieth academic year at Illinois, not quite equally divided by being an economics professor (the first half) and being a learning technologist (the second half). I can see another fifteen year stint happening fairly soon, doing something else. On that front Glanville's piece is a good warning that there may not be such a soft landing when making the switch, so perhaps hold onto what I'm currently doing a while longer. On the other hand, maybe those transition bumps and bruises are necessary, regardless of when the transition occurs. Let's see how SURS does given its historical underfunding and the current budget crisis. If I am to make a career switch, financially I need to have my pension from the current job intact.

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