Don't give Rio Ferdinand a hard time, we should be more accepting of career changes

It takes guts and a thick skin to try something new.

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While most of his peers have gone into punditry or decided to rest on their laurels, former footballer Rio Ferdinand has announced that he is to embark on a new career, as a professional boxer. As he's backed by Betfair and announced the move with plenty of pomp and ceremony, there have already been claims that the whole thing is a PR stunt – and a dangerous one at that.

Boxing promoter Barry Hearn even went so far as to say: “It’s laughable. I like Rio, don’t get me wrong, but this is an advert for a reality TV show”. At 38 years old, Ferdinand is hardly a spring chicken when it comes to high-level sports, but let’s not pretend that the criticism directed at him is solely about PR and (the seemingly legitimate) fears for his safety.

As a society, we have real trouble accepting career changes. Particularly when they come later in life. The high-profile career transitions of public figures such as Spice Girl-turned-fashion designer Victoria Beckham, glamour model-turned-businesswoman Katie Price, and even X Factor contestant-turned-actor Harry Styles, are often met with derision.

Yet, what Beckham, Price and Styles have in common is that – to a greater or lesser extent – they have proved their critics wrong and joined the ranks of other successful career shifters such as David Walliams (comedian to children’s author), Harrison Ford (carpenter to actor), Glenda Jackson (actress to MP), Tom Ford (fashion designer to film director) and Oprah Winfrey (actress to media mogul).

Teaching seems to be a particularly potent incubator of extra-curricular talents, with comedians Romesh Ranganathan and Greg Davies, and musicians Sting and Gene Simons, counting it as a previous career.

Of course, these are exceptional cases and those already in the public eye have a monetary safety net in place should things fail. That said, no one wants to fail. It takes guts and a thick skin to try something new.

Now, I know next to nothing about boxing, acting, or indeed comedy, but I do know a little about career changes because a few years ago, I made one myself. After having spent several years working in specialist factual TV, I went back to university and reconnected with my love of history in the hope that I might one day be able to make a living out of it.

Rather egotistically, it seemed like a really big deal to me at the time. But, on reflection, I realised it happens an awful lot – even in my immediate circle. My grandmother took up art in her sixties, my mother packed in waitressing to work with children with special needs, and just recently a close friend gave up her role as a press officer and is now a successful copy editor and food writer. Look to your own circle and I bet you’ll find similar examples. Perhaps you are thinking of them now.

In fact, people have been redefining their lives for centuries. War, conflict, displacement, poverty and industrialisation meant that sometimes there has been very little choice involved, but there are also countless cases where people seem to have made a change just for the thrill of it. One of my favourite archival discoveries was a 17th-century man who had spent all of his working life in the pay of the navy. Yet, when the monarchy returned in 1660, he made the extraordinary transition from navy clerk to Deputy Master of the Revels. Among his contemporaries were other career shifters: the spy-turned-playwright, Aphra Behn, and the royalist army commander-turned-Mezzotint pioneer, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Of course, change has not always been welcome. The industrial age brought with it a concern for job security. Workers often rioted or destroyed the new machinery than undermined their jobs, the most famous being the Luddite Movement of 1811-1816. Two centuries earlier, Elizabeth I had notoriously forbidden the widespread use of a newly invented knitting machine because she believed it would undermine the work of textile workers. Arguing: “Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”.

In the global world that we now live, it would be nigh on impossible to simply ban technology in such a way. Perhaps, with the news that four million private sector jobs will be taken over by robots in the next ten years it’s time we changed the tired narrative we have when it comes to changing careers.

Like the industrialists before us, we have entered the unknown. Disruption to the status quo is inevitable, but debate still rages as to the extent to which technology and robotics will affect employment levels in the long term. In my own field, the digitisation of thousands of historical manuscripts and documents has revolutionized the way in which historical research is undertaken, creating new jobs and changing the focus of others. 

Responding to criticism directed at his career change, Ferdinand confessed: “I’m doing this for many reasons. I’m doing this to test myself as a man, as a human being.” If he succeeds, great. If he fails, no big deal. Obviously, we’re not all about to take up professional boxing, but on a smaller scale, we need to be more accepting of career shifts. Over the ensuing years more and more of us are likely to be making them.