Some have taken advantage of redundancy to set off in a new direction; others have decided to jump before they were pushed. Every careers specialist has a portfolio of stories about engineers who have become hypnotherapists, teachers-turned-computer programmers and bankers who have become priests.
Some of these knew where they wanted to go all along, perhaps developing a hobby into a job. But many more have a strong feeling that they do not want to continue in their present or former line, without having more than the haziest notion what they might do instead.
John Crystal was one such. An American spy during the war, he only knew that he wanted to do something different after it. He analysed the qualities spying gave him, such as observation and rapid thinking, and sold himself sufficiently well to the chairman of Sears Roebuck that he was allowed to set up a European distribution network.
Realising most of his colleagues were bored with their jobs, he shifted direction again to become a careers guru. He ran seminars, spreading the belief that individuals should be in charge of their own lives, making sure they do what they are good at and what they enjoy. Though this was a simple enough idea, it cut across the established practice of joining an organisation from school, perhaps under parental pressure, and staying there all your working life.
Most famously, Crystal's ideas were used as the basis for the book What Colour is Your Parachute? which encouraged people to identify their own strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, likes and dislikes.
Crystal is dead but a software package, Career by Design, can steer you in the direction you want to go. Geoff Walsh, who has just produced a British version of the package, says the ideas are more relevant than ever. 'In the past, it was almost desirable for a person to think in terms of cradle-to-grave employment,' he said. 'Now big businesses are getting smaller and corporate loyalty is ceasing to exist.'
The programme is designed for anyone who uses a computer at work. It eases you through some of the big questions of life: the first three sections are entitled Who am I?, What do I want? and How do I get there? You are asked to list your skills, likes and dislikes. The computer cannot directly respond to your replies but it does get shirty if you do not write enough. It will also prompt you with suggestions. If you cannot think of more than a handful of dislikes, for example, it produces an impressively bilious list, from ambitious and angry to weird and zealot.
The idea is to make you think about yourself and what you want to do. Although it has sections suggesting how CVs and job application letters should be constructed, it will not say: 'You're ruthless, sadistic and paranoid - you should become a dentist.' It will, however, make you realise you have those qualities so you should start looking for jobs where they are useful.
KPMG's careers consultancy division has just installed a copy. Judith Mills, a consultant there, said she intends it to be an alternative to KPMG's 'work book', to be used by the growing number of people who feel happier with a computer than a piece of paper.
KPMG works with people whose companies are prepared to pay for its advice. Bromley Council, by contrast, has a copy in its main library as part of its new Careerpoint service, which is aimed at people without such support. According to Diana Moulding, information services manager, it was responding to 'incredible demand' from the public.
'There is very little careers advice for people more than two years out of school,' she said. 'We were getting 40 inquiries a day, with the numbers multiplying during the recession.'
She said 10 people have used the system since it was installed last month, including a policeman and two computer operators who are still employed but want to change career. They like the system and believe it 'certainly makes you think about your life', but point out that it is hard work: you have to be committed to get through it.
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