Should You Quit Your Job?

Knowing when — and how — to quit your job is an essential business skill. Don’t wait till you’re miserable to read this.

By Mary Lou Quinlan

Is It Time to Quit Your Job?

Ever face the office on Monday morning with the thought, if only I could walk out of here and never come back? We’ve all fantasized about quitting at some point, and midlife often gives us the confidence and means to move on, start a business or pursue a passion. But after 40, with bigger salaries and bigger responsibilities, quitting isn’t easy — or cheap.

Over the years, I’ve certainly played the waiting game, thinking a difficult client would perhaps disappear or that my paycheck would be a salve for day-to-day wounds. Once I hit 45, I learned how to take a gut check: When I began to grow stale, I’d ask myself how I would feel if I were doing this job the same way, with the same people, in six months’ time. If I answered, "Fine!" I stayed. If my stomach got queasy, it was time to bail.

And that’s when the really creative part would begin — plotting an escape route that made financial sense and gave me back the feeling that I was steering my own career.

Nancy Widmann, 64, a veteran broadcast executive in New York, recommends devising an exit strategy at the start of a job, when you’re still excited, rather than trying to pull it off later, when you’re already miserable. "Have an exit fund of savings,’‘ Widmann says. "Clean up your credit. Create a personal board of career advisers to be on call if you need them. And be sure you’ve got a lawyer and financial person who know where you stand." This gives you the resources you’ll need if things go bad — it’s like packing a parachute but not pulling the rip cord.

Many of us resist this idea. "Women who’ve worked their way up the ladder have that grateful thing going, thinking, look what has been given to me, rather than, look what I have given," Widmann says. "We’ve worked hard. The idea that we should be grateful is absurd.’‘

When we have a deep emotional connection to a job, we tend to neglect networking. And over time, that devotion can lull us into feeling indispensable when we ought to be vigilant. Widmann learned this the hard way. She was president of the CBS Radio division in New York when she lost her job after a merger. "I’d assumed I would work there until I was 65," she says. Hoping to save others from being sucker punched, Widmann has just published a survival guide called I Didn’t See It Coming: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Avoid Being Blindsided in Business.

But Will I Find Another Job?

Sometimes we stay in a job too long because we’re daunted by the prospect of looking for a new one at midlife. "This is not a job market for Pollyannas," says Melanie Holmes, vice president for corporate affairs for Manpower, an employment services company. She cites one study in which 77 percent of people over 50 said they had observed or experienced age bias in the workplace. But Holmes insists we ought to feel bullish about our prospects. "Mature workers have a huge advantage because they respect the basics of showing up on time, dressing appropriately, and focusing on the tasks at hand — strengths that immature workers may lack," she says. "We have a lot of experience backing us up."

Even some women with highly marketable skills stay in jobs that make them unhappy because of bag lady syndrome — the fear that if they undergo a major change, they’ll wind up penniless and alone. That anxiety had a long-standing effect on Diana Brodman Summers, 58, of Lisle, Illinois. She grew up in a household where money was always a concern and vowed to put security first. Despite a lifelong dream of being a lawyer, she worked for years in computers, a field she considered more secure.

Summers rose in the ranks from programmer to director of a big data processing department. Then, at 44, studying at night, she got her law degree. She began thinking about hanging out her own shingle — but couldn’t bring herself to make the jump.

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