Longing for the road not taken can weigh on employees

Study finds dwelling on forgone careers has consequences, if those feelings aren’t addressed

Merritt Melancon | Jun. 01, 2021


  • Employees can experience longing for jobs they left or career paths they didn’t pursue. The lingering feelings can lead to distraction and poor job performance.
  • Employees who are given some autonomy over how they perform job tasks often incorporate skills or interests from their foregone identities, making their current work more fulfilling.
  • Managers who can support this type of “job crafting” have a better chance of helping employees fill that void and still meet company goals.

Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll hear some great answers: professional athlete, actress, archeologist.

Unfortunately, an economy doesn’t run on just astronauts and rock stars, and most adults end up finding other occupations.

However, the memories of what we wanted to be and thoughts about opportunities gone by can weigh on employees throughout their careers, said University of Georgia management professor Erin Long.

“People can often tell you about a past career path or professional identity that wasn’t realized or that shifted at some point in their lives,” said Long, an assistant professor at the Terry College of Business. “The truth is, people don’t forget about these twists and turns in their professional makeup and often spend time reflecting on those  roads not taken and what might have been.”

“What we find in our research is that dwelling on these alternative professional identities can lead to a sense of longing that affects employee behavior in the here and now.”

Long and 2021 Terry College Ph.D. graduate Rachel Burgess published their paper “Longing for the Road Not Taken: The Affective and Behavioral Consequences of Forgone Identity Dwelling” in the Academy of Management Journal with Jason Colquitt of the University of Notre Dame.

Burgess decided to investigate the impact of forgone identities after she found herself wondering where she’d be if she’d gone into industry instead of pursuing graduate work in management.

A forgone identity can be far afield from what employees do today, like an office worker who is wistful for her days performing as a musician, or closer to home, like a salesman wondering if his career would have unfolded differently at another company, she explained.

Burgess and Long surveyed hundreds of employees about the paths they could have taken and found that many people long for their forgone identities, even if they consider themselves successful and enjoy their jobs.

That longing can cause problems in their current roles, Burgess said.

“A lot of managers may assume that an employee is just withdrawing because they’re not a hard worker or they just don’t care, but in reality maybe there’s something else going on,” she said. 

One way employers can help employees struggling with forgone identities is to allow them some autonomy in how they do their jobs. People may use their forgone identities to shape the way they approach their day-to-day work tasks, and that’s OK if the company’s goals are being met, Burgess said.

“That was the most interesting finding to me,” Burgess said.  “Forgone identities and longing can have negative consequences, but they can also have positive consequences. It can encourage people to craft their job in a way that can still fulfill the things they miss about the career they might have had.”

Workplace service projects and planning committees can also offer employees a chance to tap into the interests, skills and passions they don’t usually tap into at work and help fill that void.

“There’s so much focus on being productive and getting the results that you need, which is important as a manager,” Burgess said. “But at the same time, I think that can eclipse some of the underlying issues that could be harming production. Feeling unfulfilled by your current role is common, and it may not be that difficult to resolve in many situations.”