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Laid Off? How to Make the Transition Abroad From a Career Tragedy

Short-Term Travel Jobs Abroad Offer Liberating Ways to Live During Hard Economic Times

Lost: Finding travel jobs in unlikely places
Lost after being laid off—you may find direction in an unlikely place.

Mary was laid off. She had poured 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears into one company: a company she was to retire from, a company she was prepared to sign a lifetime membership with, and a company she about which she had sung to anybody who would listen. This was one company she would stick with through thick and thin. But when things got thin, this one company spurned her loyalty, and laid Mary off.

Mary is not alone, left dangling from the end of a career leash thought to be solid and secure. She is not the only person in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s who is not yet ready to retire (financially or otherwise), but whose skills are now outdated or being outsourced.

Mary is accustomed to a manager’s income – a privilege she earned by working her way up slowly, but in searching for a new job she has finds that she is competing against energetic college grads with fresher skills and lower income expectations. After months of searching, she discovers that she is either too qualified to get the job, or under-qualified for the increasingly technology-riddled workplace.

Discovering a New and Liberating Way of Life

But things are not quite dire for Mary. She was always a good saver and has some cash tucked away. She also received a severance package from her workplace that will take care of her for a year. This safety net has kept her sane, and ultimately helped her make a life-changing leap of faith into a world she only dreamt of visiting: the world at large.

I met Mary in Hawaii. Frustrated and brow-beaten by her unsuccessful job search, Mary simply gave up, switched gears, and took a vacation. “I can’t remember the last vacation I had that was longer than two weeks, and I had to practically beg to get even that much time off,” she says of a life from which she already seems disconnected. Here in Hawaii, she has been enjoying the sunshine for over a month.

Mary is not spending a fortune on the road, either. She stays in hostels, and enjoys the hospitality of others with cultural exchanges like Couch Surfing and Hospitality Club. In fact, her frugal approach to life on the road has cost less than what she spent at home, and she is realizing that if she plays her cards right, she could continue to enjoy an extended vacation long beyond the time her severance payments dry up.

Short-Term Jobs Abroad as an Option

Mary has so enjoyed her time abroad that she is considering making it a new way of living. She has a good tenant renting her property back home, and her belongings are in storage. “I have everything I need right here,” she says, resting her hand on her two bags – one carry-on, and the other with checked luggage tags dangling from the handle. “And I’m getting restless. Hawaii is great, but I think it is time to move on.”

So Mary is now dipping her toes in the world of caretaking. Finding the right house-sitting or pet-sitting opportunity, or position where she can trade her fondness of gardening for accommodation in a special place in the world appeals to her. “I miss my cat most of all, so I would love a pet-sitting gig,” she says. “If I don’t have to pay for rent, then I’m set. I could travel forever, practically.”

This is not to say that Mary will forever be on vacation. Even in her enthusiasm for travel, she acknowledges that a nomadic life could wear thin after a while. So she is using the downtime on the road to upgrade her skills and find a new career passion. “I am taking a few e-courses in my area of expertise, and I realize that with a little ingenuity, I could even take my job on the road and work for myself.”

Mary is also looking at overseas volunteer opportunities. “There are volunteer organizations around the world that need mature, qualified people to help. And they pay too! Or at least, they will pay for my travel, accommodation, and food expenses. The stipend is gravy after all that.” And although she is wary of the workload and living circumstances that such volunteer positions might entail, she is also happy to have options available to her. “I never even considered the possibility of combining travel with work and volunteering until now. My world really has opened up as a result of being laid off,” Mary says with a pensive look at her now-distant career life.

Traveling abroad with children
Traveling with children is not as difficult as it may seem.

Redefining Life in the New Economy

For Mary, being laid off was a transformational opportunity to redefine her life entirely. And in this tenuous economic climate with increasing trends towards globalization, she is not alone; nothing is forever. Employee and employer loyalty for life is a thing of the past, being replaced by outsourcing and freelance positions--and even bankruptcy as businesses struggle to survive this economic downturn. “Job security” is almost an oxymoron in these times.

Here are a few things to consider if you have been laid off or even if you see the writing on the wall and have aspirations to travel:

Do You Have Money Saved?

Obviously you must have a few dollars in the bank not only to cover the cost of transportation and accommodations, but also to provide a safety net for emergencies – on the road or at home. If you do not have cash available (and retirement funds do not count, as you will need them later on in life), then are you prepared to sell off your belongings and/or your home to embrace a life on the road? As somebody who had a gorgeous beach-side loft full of antiques and other beautiful things, I can honestly say that I do not truly miss any of it having lived on the road for a few years now. Formerly a somewhat materialistic person, I am now happy with a place to put my head down at night and a kitchen in which to cook a delicious meal. Travel has a way of simplifying life and life’s desires.

What is Your Family Situation?

Having children and/or a spouse can complicate matters slightly. If it is just you and your spouse, you both need to have the desire to travel, or the desire and ability to take time away from each other if travel is only in one person’s blood. And despite popular opinion, having children does not negate the ability to travel by any means. I know a couple who bought a boat, pulled their two kids aged 11 and 13 out of school and home-schooled them for two years while they sailed around the Caribbean. I know another family of four who relocated to Bolivia on a volunteer project, and a couple of Canadians who are teachers in Malaysia, and just enjoyed the birth of their first child - abroad. It can be done, and can be quite fulfilling at that.

Dan Clements, author of Escape 101, who is an expert on sabbaticals, says "Of all our sabbaticals, the one with our daughter was most rewarding. Looking back, I cannot imagine our lives without that experience -- it was so incredibly good for our family, and so much easier than I ever imagined. When people talk about taking career breaks after their children have grown up, I say, ‘Do your kids and yourself a favor. Don't wait until they're gone.' "

For those who wonder if traveling with children is good for them, Dan says this: “[Kids are] so resilient and curious. I think in many ways, it's easier than traveling with grown-ups. I do feel it was a real bonus for us to stay in one place for a relatively long period of time and let [our daughter] develop relationships. Being on the road is exciting, but kids enjoy some stability, too. That transition from the heavy routine of ‘real’ life to a complete lack of structure can be a challenge, but it's easy to resolve.”

“The most important thing I've found, though, is that kids reflect your mood. If you're nervous, they’re nervous. If you're open to new experiences, and willing to roll with things, they'll be the same. They're little mirrors of your own travel experience,” were Dan’s parting words. This applies to so much more than traveling with children too. Your partner, your friends, and even perfect strangers on the road will mirror your attitude and openness.

Do You Have Skills That Can Be Applied Elsewhere in the World?

You may be surprised at what skills some non-profit and volunteer organizations are hungry for. There are financial jobs, IT opportunities, and even artistic positions geared to creating and strengthening communities around the world. You may also discover that your skills are in greater demand in other places in the world; so much so that a company will hire you and arrange for your relocation.

What Living Conditions Are You Prepared to Accept?

Are you prepared to sleep in a bug-infested tent with no shower, and water and pit toilets a 5-minute walk away? Although this is far from the best case scenario you could encounter while working or volunteering abroad, it is also not the worst. Knowing what you can accept will in part dictate where in the world you can travel and what sort of activities you will enjoy.

Knowing where abroad to go.
Romantic but primitive...knowing what you can handle will in part dictate where you go.

Can You Speak Another Language?

You stand to have a more fulfilling experience if you can communicate with the locals. Either choosing a language-compatible destination or taking a language course before you leave may help. If you want to explore paid work and even certain volunteer positions, then speaking the local language is often a pre-requisite.

As for your travel options, there are many. Here are a few:

Volunteering

Volunteer trips will vary in nature from multi-year professional positions that cover all your expenses (including flights) and pay you a stipend, to those you for which you pay $2,000 per week. Knowing what you are good at, where you wish to go, and what your budget is will help dictate what type of volunteer experience to look for.

Caretaking

Working to trade for your accommodations can involve gardening, cleaning, caring for the elderly or young children, handy-work, or even just being present on the property.

House or Pet-Sitting

This is particularly common in Australia and New Zealand, where the natives like to take longer vacations and need somebody to tend the home fires in their stead. But search around enough, and you may find yourself enjoying an Italian villa, old English stone home, or eastern Canadian beach-front abode while its residents take off for a quick break.

Hospitality Exchanges or Home Exchanges

If you own your home and want house sitters yourself, you can arrange a home exchange. If you would prefer to stay with a local in their home for a dose of “real” culture, hospitality exchange programs will give you free places to stay with locals along with the potential for new friendships. Simply be prepared to open your own home to visitors when you return, in order to keep the good karma of hospitality exchanges alive.

Conclusion

Being laid off is a crushing blow to both the ego and the pocketbook. But it seems that given the current economic climate, even holding a steady job is not as secure as it once was. If you have been (or may be) laid off, take some time to explore the resources below and you may realize this career tragedy is really an opportunity in disguise.

For More Info

Here are some ways for you to explore your opportunities as a result of being laid off.

Volunteering

  • Transitions Abroad has a brilliant section on Volunteering, with articles and resources galore. This should be your starting point.

House Sitting

House Carers is a leading resource for house-sitting opportunities. There are a few house minding or pet-sitting vacancies on the sites below too.

Caretaking

  • The Caretaker’s Gazette is a quarterly publication with thousands of opportunities around the world.
  • WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is not just about organic farming.
  • Likewise, Organic Volunteers has a variety of positions to explore.
  • And of course, Transitions Abroad is a wonderful resource for short-term work and work-trade arrangements.

Hospitality Exchanges and Home Stays

Spend some time on the sites below to find the one which speaks to you the most and has the greatest number of compatible members. Each has its own flavor and membership.

Home Exchanges

  • Home Exchange is the largest forum to connect house-swappers online.
  • Editor's note: See our section for a comprehensive list of other Home Exchange organizations as well as first-hand participant reports.