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Why ‘career cushioning’ is taking over from ‘quiet quitting’

Making sure you keep in touch with former colleagues is one way of career cushioning  (ES Composite)
Making sure you keep in touch with former colleagues is one way of career cushioning (ES Composite)

Once a month, Mark, 41 a film production manager, goes out for drinks with former colleagues – people he met at the start of his career – many of whom now have high status roles across the entertainment industry. While Mark is mostly there for the gossip and good times, these get-togethers are also a calculated and essential part of his career strategy. It’s his way of low-key networking, despite being happy in his current role.

This is just one facet of “career cushioning”, which essentially means having a solid, albeit secret, “plan B” just in case you are laid off without warning. Also known as recession-proofing your career, it is about being open to and prepared for opportunities before you really need them.

It’s no wonder we’re preparing ourselves for the worst, workwise. We’ve had four chancellors this year alone. Workers at tech giants including Meta are suffering mass layoffs in the past six weeks and popular brands such as Made have gone under. According to advisory firm Mazars, in the past three months alone 453 UK restaurants have gone belly up, an increase from 395 in the previous quarter.

“Put simply, it’s an insurance policy to set [workers] up for success,” says Charlotte Davies, career expert at LinkedIn, which has seen a 43 per cent year-on-year increase in members adding skills to their profile – with 35 million added in the last 12 months. “Employees are not changing their view or attitude to their current role, but they are taking a pragmatic approach to the fact they need to be prepared for change in an uncertain climate.”

The uncertain climate is of course the economic crisis, which looks likely to descend into a full recession in 2023. Jill Cotton, careers expert at jobs site Glassdoor, says there is certainly a general and pervasive sense of insecurity across the UK workforce in all sectors right now. Mentions of layoffs and being made redundant are up 101 per cent in Glassdoor reviews in the last 12 months, while ‘Inflation’ has been named Glassdoor’s Word of the Year, with mentions tripling since 2021.

As with many buzz phrases, this has been borrowed from the lexicon of dating, where “cushioning” means having a potential love interest on the backburner – always there on a gentle simmer in case your actual relationship burns out. In the workplace, career cushioning doesn’t mean neglecting your role or even quiet quitting – the practice of mentally checking out of your job and/or not working a second more than you are being remunerated for. But it is also world’s away from going above and beyond in order to reach indispensable status – a popular tactic when we feel professionally insecure.

Plan B: workers in the UK are trying to recession-proof their careers (Shutterstock / racorn)
Plan B: workers in the UK are trying to recession-proof their careers (Shutterstock / racorn)

Cushioning is about keeping your CV updated, but it isn’t actively applying for another job. It can, as in Mark’s case, involve soft networking – going for lunch with a former boss or colleague or frequently interacting with people in your industry on social media. It might mean learning and promoting a new skill that will complement your existing assets and making sure you could easily pivot to another sector if your industry specifically gets hit with cutbacks.

For Dr Bex Hewett, assistant professor in the Department of Organisation and Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management, career cushioning is a classic coping strategy.

“When people are faced with stress they either put their head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening … or they try to fix the problem,” she explains. “With a recession, there is nothing they can do about it except prepare for potential job loss. This makes them feel more in control, which will reduce their stress.”

But is this cushioning really a new phenomenon? Yes, it fits with the current economic climate but does it also speak to society’s increased appetite for buzzwords?

For many, career cushioning is part and parcel of work life. “This is every single second of freelance life, surely?” laughs Beth*, a TV producer who is currently lining up work for next year.

“I’ve always done this,” says Anna*, 37, who works in the music industry. “I always have sneaky conversations with people – keeping my options open: optimising. It’s exactly how I do dating. I’ll always make conversation with people who might have opportunities for me even when I’m fully contracted and happy.”

Employers must know that this goes on, especially right now. How can they best handle career cushioners in their midst?

Cotton believes that what employers need to focus on is transparency, saying that 48 per cent of UK workers enjoy better job satisfaction when working for a company that is transparent.

“If you don’t want your workers to consider career cushioning, trust them with information and be clear on what the road ahead holds for the business.”

By the same token, Cotton also believes that it’s completely appropriate for employees to ask their bosses how safe their roles are. “I think it is not only acceptable to be having this conversation but I think it’s absolutely needed as well.”

Five ways to cushion your career

1. Keep your CV up to date, regardless of whether it’s being sent anywhere.

2. Upskill. Identify your professional weak spots and actively work towards improving them via courses, mentors, additional reading or practical experience.

3. Network. This can be as simple as having coffee with former colleagues or making contact with professionals you admire on social media.

4. Perceive the fine line between career cushioning and job hunting: the former is a discreet ‘plan B’, the latter is an active pursuit that often involves almost full-time dedication and going to interviews. It also indicates dissatisfaction with your current role.

5. Address the elephant in the room. If your industry or company is under threat, voice your concerns with your managers. They might not have answers but at least a dialogue has opened up.