Career transition and liminality – are you betwixt and between?


By Helen Slingsby – Fri 1 Nov 2019 @ 9:58

Liminal /ˈlɪmɪn(ə)l/

A liminal period is frequently experienced during most forms of career transition whether wholesale career change, job change, returning to work after time out, redundancy and increasingly, early retirement.

It comes from the Latin word, limen, meaning threshold, and relates to a transitional or initial stage of a process, where the individual occupies a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

In the work context liminality is defined as… “a psychological zone in which the individual is truly in between identities, with one foot still firmly planted in the old world, and the other foot making tentative steps toward a new world. – Ebaugh 1988, Ibarra 2003.

Personal recalibration and great effort is taking place to move through to the other side but the process can be painful as it’s hard to let go of the past and embrace the present. In other words, one is betwixt and between.

Female clients of mine re-entering the workplace after maternity leave, find solace in this term as it helps them make sense of what’s changing in their lives now motherhood is part of their identity. Here the liminal period can be described as the first tentative steps back to full time work via taster days and returnship programmes, but also the period of reflection during maternity leave about how to return, if at all.

An IT client is similarly experiencing liminality. Having being made redundant despite personally doing a great job, he is currently straddling two camps; that of being at the top of his game for 30 years in the tech sector where he was in demand and where his identity is completely bound up, to the new camp where he does not have to work but is bewildered about what the future holds.

As career theorists state: “One of the reasons people experience liminality as a time of confusion, insecurity, or uncertainty is that they feel they have lost the narrative thread of their life” (Ibarra, 2003a).

However, through career coaching my client is beginning to let go of the past and look at his options, one of which could involve retraining as a maths teacher. His identity is still a little up in the air, but he is working to pick up the thread of his story so it makes sense to him and to others.