CareersPeer-Reviewed Research

Rite Of Passage

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  • As careers become less predictable, it’s more common than ever for people to find themselves in limbo between jobs.
  • These periods of transition can induce fear, depression and self-doubt. But they also offer opportunities for creative growth.
  • ​Viewing periods of limbo as opportunities to better understand ourselves and our options may help make them less painful.

To really learn who you are, get lost – “lost enough to find oneself,” as Robert Frost wrote. Social scientists agree. It may be painful, but fumbling through the chaos of uncertain times can inspire personal growth and ultimately improve performance – hopeful news at a time when no job is completely secure. 

Social scientists refer to the periods of transition between jobs or social roles as liminal experiences, from “limina,” the Latin word for threshold. The concept of liminality is typically associated with anthropological research into rites of passage, but the term has also been used in sociology, psychology and even marketing. 

Now, Rice Business professor Otilia Obodaru and Herminia Ibarra of London Business School argue in a recent paper that the concept of liminality should be updated to apply to the 21st-century workplace. It is, they say, an apt description of the modern experience of living through career transitions. 

Traditional liminal experiences centered on ritualized transitions from one social role to another – from childhood to adulthood, for example. Those transitions had the benefit of specific timelines, clear rules and institutionalized support in the form of guidance from elders. Perhaps most importantly, it was understood that after a period of trial one would emerge triumphantly on the next rung of the social order.

So nice, so comforting, and so not the case today for those who get laid off after years of loyalty and have no clue what’s coming next. 

Liminality, Obodaru and Ibarra write, can feel much more precarious in our world of “jobless growth.” Without choosing to, many adults find themselves in career limbo – with no guarantee that they’ll advance to a higher rung. Lacking the built-in guidance of elders or a script for how to proceed, people in modern liminal phases often feel that the narrative thread of their lives has simply been left dangling.

Of course, some people don’t mind the uncertainty of being between jobs – or hovering between the dependence of adolescence and the independence of adulthood. As Obodaru and Ibarra note, for a subset of unemployed or underemployed Millennials who still live with their parents – dubbed “twixters” – this transitional period is more likely a choice, and it can go on indefinitely. The phenomenon, the professors write, “has been diagnosed as permanent liminality.” 

But most people have a deeply ambivalent response to career uncertainty: it’s simultaneously anxiety-inducing and exciting, disorienting and liberating, frightening and exhilarating. And it is precisely from that ambivalence, if managed correctly, that personal growth can stem, Obodaru and Ibarra say. 

The key to growing from uncertainty is, paradoxically, not bringing this uncomfortable period of transition to a premature end. “Tolerating painful discrepancies and allowing time for self-exploration and self-testing” are crucial to expanding your sense of purpose and identity, the professors write. 

Whether it’s in the workplace or at home, this new model of transition can provide modern limbo-dwellers some comfort – and even guidance. 

Life is changing. It can be tough to face an unknown future. But in the early 21st century, such uncertainty is also normal. In the absence of guides and rituals, it may help to know that modern limbo is a place where we all land at some point, and that it’s worth sticking around there for a while to learn what you can before scrambling out.


Otilia Obodaru is an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Ibarra, H., & Obodaru, O. (2016). Betwixt and between identities: Liminal experience in contemporary careers. Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 47-64.