What Batman can Teach Us about Career Change

Adjusting to new career challenges as you age? Learn from Batman.

Posted Nov 16, 2012

In Frank Miller’s classic, game-changing graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne has entered his middle-age years, and his secret identity, Batman, has been retired for a decade. With no caped crusader to deter the crime elements of Gotham City, civil violence has skyrocketed. In a meeting with police commissioner James Gordon, Bruce accepted this toast:

          Gordon: To Batman.

           Wayne: It’s good that he retired—isn’t it?

           Gordon: I’m grateful he survived retirement.

           Wayne: He didn’t. But Bruce Wayne is . . . alive and well.

           Gordon: Glad to hear that. You’ve certainly learned to drink.

Bruce was alive, but didn’t, in fact, appear to be well. His penchant for the bottle was raising eyebrows, and he wasn’t getting out much. Bruce was restless. As the news reports about the atrocities committed by the Mutant gang increased in frequency and intensity, Bruce finally had enough and gave into the urge that had long been welling up inside of him. And thus Batman came out of retirement with a vengeance.   

Bruce’s decision-making process highlights something important about career development: it never stops.  Career development is process, not an event, and in most Western cultures, the prototypic career path moves through a series of predictable stages. These stages first were described by psychologist Donald Super, and include periods of Growth, Exploration, Establishment, Management, and Disengagement. Most working adults probably use these stages as an outline of sorts to help describe what their career paths have looked like. Yet the extent to which this linear progression is “normal” has decreased dramatically. In today’s world, frequent career changes are the rule, not the exception. People move in and out of different careers, and more and more professionals are becoming free agents who provide services to whichever company is paying, rather than spending their entire careers with one organization. Often, as soon as people get established in an organization, they leave and face a transition requiring renewed growth, re-exploration and re-establishment. Super used the term “recycling” to describe the process through which people redo the various stages, often repeatedly over the course of their careers.

The aging, restless Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns gives us a clear sense of what recycling through career stages can look like for a superhero. Not many details are known about Batman’s decision to retire, but it seems apparent that the transition was abrupt. Although still haunted by tragic death (at the hands of the Joker) of Jason Todd, the second Robin, Bruce was haunted even more by the decaying state of Gotham and by an inner voice, impossible to silence, that urged the return of Batman. Ultimately Bruce ended Batman’s foray into the disengagement stage, entered a period of re-establishment, and returned to the world of crime fighting reinvigorated (e.g., “‘This should be agony,’ he said while hurling himself through the air. ‘I should be a mass of aching muscle . . . but I’m a man of thirty—of twenty again.’”).  Nonetheless, he also felt his age and had to compensate accordingly (e.g., “[I’m] old enough to need my legs to climb a rope,” he thought, while doing just that), a kind of adaptation to change typical of the management or maintenance phase.

The heartening part of Batman’s story is that even despite the challenges that had come with age, he was able to choose a course of action that resonated with his values and then adjust to the challenges he faced, working out a way to overcome them. Bringing it a bit closer to our own experience is Batman’s status as a superhero without actual superpowers (other than his athleticism, specialized training in martial arts, and a utility belt full of useful gadgets.) Batman simply used his training, past experience, and the resources available to him to adjust well to work-related changes. Doing this requires no superpowers; from accountants and bellhops to youth workers and zoologists, the rest of us have the capacity to do this just as well.