Transition time: will the coronavirus crisis spark a search for new meaning?

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us all to make changes in the way we think about the world. For some, the experience could fuel a major life transition

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Existential psychology is all about dealing with uncertainty. That as much as we might try to plan for things or protect ourselves, we never know what life will bring, and the critical issue is how we respond. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, that message is ringing true for a much wider audience.

Dr Caroline Horner

While many people have been through major social and personal traumas that have brought them face to face with significant life challenges, there has been nothing like this – a worldwide phenomenon that is touching everyone. But while some of us have been thrown into urgent survival mode, coping with sickness, the death of a loved one or unemployment, for others it’s been an almost welcome chance to pause for reflection.

“For some people the lockdown has been an enforced learning process; a way of getting to know yourself; what you miss and don’t miss,” says Dr Caroline Horner, an executive coach, consultant and educator who bases her practice on existential psychology, personal construct psychology and adult learning theory. “Some of us have found it really difficult, others have identified new strengths, but it’s given people an opportunity to notice what’s important to them and think about what they want to do with that new insight.”

A managed response

At a time when our basic assumptions of how to live life – from walking down the street to meeting a friend – are being challenged, we can respond in various ways, according to existential psychologist and psychotherapist Professor Ernesto Spinelli. “Not just negatively and regretfully, but also as an opportunity”, and that could inspire life choices such as changing jobs, moving locations and reassessing relationships. 

“For a lot of the people I’m seeing at the moment those are the personal and immediate questions they’re asking themselves that have come to the fore through this crisis,” he says. “I would just caution people to explore not just the positive aspects of any change but also to consider what they might lose from it and the impact on the people around them who matter to them.”

Emerging trends

During the coronavirus crisis, there have been plenty of reports of divorce lawyers at the ready for couples feeling the pressure of lockdown; online lectures about taking advantage of the current disruption to rethink one’s career; and a survey by estate agents Savills saying that four in 10 respondents now find the prospect of a countryside village location more appealing than they did pre-Covid-19.

Meanwhile companies from Rolls-Royce to Uber have announced job cuts, and business leaders are looking at more flexible ways of working, including the consultants Deloitte, which has had 20,000 of its people working remotely during the crisis. And the bundle of pressures around the rise of automation and artificial intelligence continues to loom large, with Daniel Susskind, author of A World Without Work, stressing that the best response is “flexibility, being willing to retrain and reskill”. That chimes with the ideas of Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School, whose book The 100-Year Life argues that in the face of increasing longevity the traditional three-stage life of education, work and retirement needs to be swapped for a multi-stage one in which people are better at managing transitions, reskilling and thinking about the future.

Taking note

“Many of these forces were going on before Covid-19, but I’m not sure how many people were paying attention unless there was a personal trigger,” says Horner. “I think the way we live our lives is that we are often running from one thing to another, never really noticing, so the coronavirus crisis has made us notice and added in an existential threat.”

Horner is well placed to advise people on how to respond. She grew up in an English family that emigrated to South Africa during the apartheid regime and faced numerous challenges that she says “inform who I am and what I think is possible about transformation”. She founded i-coach in 2002, providing a range of coaching services for business, and in 2016 started the iOpener programme “for individuals curious to rediscover meaning and their true purpose, or seeking support to manage a life or career transition”. The programme increases awareness and helps people build the life skills that enable transitions. 

“The fact is we need to reinvent ourselves throughout our lives, not just when coronavirus hits,” she says. “It’s about building the life skills to do that, helping people explore what they want to do in their life and how to go about achieving that in a meaningful way.”