Midcareer Crisis …or Opportunity?

Midcareer Crisis …or Opportunity?

Have you ever had a midcareer fantasy where you quit your job and go do something new?

Many executives secretly admit to their coaches that they’re contemplating midcareer shifts. They may not actively seek change, but they certainly start imagining it.

Of LinkedIn’s 313 million members, 25% are active job seekers; 60% are passive job seekers (not proactively searching for new jobs, but seriously willing to consider viable opportunities). There’s also been a steady increase in self-employed and temporary workers over the last two decades. Entrepreneurship may sound lucrative every time a startup goes public.

Regardless of your age, background or professional accomplishments, you’ve probably dreamed about a new career at some point. Midlife is often a time when we reevaluate our goals, aspirations and what truly matters to us in life.

In “5 Signs It’s Time for a New Job” (Harvard Business Review, April 2015), Columbia University Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic examines what happens to many people at midcareer. Few of us actually shift to something different. As he explains, complacency often trumps transformation:

Humans are naturally prewired to fear and avoid change, even when we are decidedly unhappy with our current situation. Indeed, meta-analyses show that people often stay on the job despite having negative job attitudes, low engagement and failing to identify with the organization’s culture. So, at the end of the day, there is something comforting about the predictability of life: it makes us feel safe.

Chamorro-Premuzic cites five signs that indicate it’s time to seriously consider a career switch:

  1. You feel undervalued.
  2. You’re not learning.
  3. You’re underperforming.
  4. You’re just doing it for the money.
  5. You hate your boss.

Yet, who hasn’t experienced these feelings periodically? Do they mean you’re headed for a full-fledged midlife or midcareer crisis?

The Stereotypical Story

Hearing the phrase “midlife crisis” evokes the cliche of a successful man, between 40 and 55, who wakes up one day and decides he’s been chasing all the wrong things: his career, family, wife, car and possessions. Nothing provides him with the satisfaction he craves. He demands more.

Suddenly, he divorces, changes career or organization, dresses differently, gets a young girlfriend and buys a red sports car. Years later, he finds himself with the same unfulfilled yearnings, having metaphorically changed seats on the Titanic.

While this scenario has become today’s hackneyed midlife-crisis narrative, the concept of middle age as a distinct life stage dates back to the 19th century, according to Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012). The term “midlife crisis” was first coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. In 1974, journalist Gail Sheehy famously depicted the midlife crisis as a life stage in her bestselling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.

Roughly a quarter of Americans reports experiencing a midlife crisis, according to research published in 2000 by Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington. Many who disclaim the notion regard midlife crises as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely.

The term crisis also contributes to stigmatization, as it suggests a shock, disruption or loss of control. But the actual data on midlife experience and the relationship between work and happiness points to something different: an extended and unpleasant – but manageable – downturn.

The Happiness U-Curve

The average employee’s job satisfaction deteriorates dramatically in midlife, according to a British survey conducted by Professor Andrew Oswald of The University of Warwick.

Midcareer crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than a few individuals’ misfortune.

But here’s the good news: In the second half of people’s working lives, job satisfaction increases again. In many cases, it reaches higher levels than experienced early in one’s career, essentially forming a U-shaped curve depicted in the following graph:

(Source: Crisis, The Atlantic, December 2014)

Subsequent research revealed this age-related curve in job satisfaction is part of a much broader phenomenon. A similar midlife nadir is detectable in measures of people’s overall life satisfaction and has been found in more than 50 countries.

The U-curve tells a more accurate tale of what happens midlife and midcareer. It’s not a story of chaos or disruption, but of a difficult – yet natural – transition to a new equilibrium.

Just knowing the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic. Princeton University health economist Hannes Schwandt cites a feedback effect: “Part of your disappointment is driven by the disappointment itself.”

Understanding the U-shaped curve allows us to recognize midlife as challenging, yet ultimately gratifying. We should resist judging ourselves harshly for feeling disappointed. We can avoid making bad decisions that potentially lead to midlife divorces and career catastrophes.

The Other Side of Midlife

Fortunately, most people avoid upending their lives at the first signs of midlife dissatisfaction. As noted earlier, only 25% of us even admit to experiencing a crisis. So, what happens to the75% who may feel dissatisfied at midlife, but who don’t do anything about it? Are they in denial or simply more mature?

Freud described two requisites for sanity: work and love. What happens when work and love lose their sparkle, as often occurs in midlife?

Work carries a large, invisible burden: the presumption that it will provide our lives with meaning and energize our spirits. Sometimes it does. By midlife, however, we may find that work drains us.

The ego tends to prefer security over development. Heeding it too closely means you may wind up with neither.

At midlife, most of us feel the need to rethink our priorities. Unfortunately, we avoid this task. It’s much easier to succumb to fear. We view change as threatening, and we don’t want to risk losing our hard-earned stability.

In Search of Meaning and Wisdom

Psychologists have not yet determined why people in 50+ industrialized nations experience midlife crises. It’s certainly a major reason why executives hire executive coaches. “What’s next?” is one of life’s most worrisome questions. A coach can help you reevaluate your cherished convictions, morals and guiding principles.

Experiencing disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. It signals that something is missing.

There’s a mental shift at midlife from “time since birth” to “time left until death.” We begin to feel time is running out and, more crucially, question whether what drove us in the first half of life is worthy enough for a fulfilling second half.

Being aware of the pitfalls associated with the midlife experience can prevent you from committing irreparable errors. If you know you’re vulnerable to doubts, anxieties and mood swings, you can stop yourself from storming out of a meeting or acting out of desperation. If you feel trapped, midlife can become a truly dangerous life passage. Perhaps Carl Jung said it best:

We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

Midcareer Coaching

Consider retaining a professional coach to guide you through self-examination and reflection on what truly matters most to you. The process often entails reconnecting you to what you love about your life and career.

Clinging to the status quo may, on the surface, appear to be a safer, more mature choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Redoubling your efforts to achieve happiness based on what drove you in the first half of life is foolish.

In the second half of life, facing our failures and losses facilitates course corrections. We are rewarded with deeper, more fulfilling life and career experiences. Avoiding life’s natural progressions prevents you from broadening consciousness and becoming your authentic self.

Midcareer is a time to examine regrets and accept mistakes. A coach can help you turn failures into meaningful learning opportunities. You won’t need to bury bad memories. Greater self-acceptance opens new avenues.

Unfortunately, most of us work so hard to obtain an identity that it becomes very hard to let it go. What worked earlier in your career is nearly always inadequate to meet the challenges of your mature years, as Marshall Goldsmith proved in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007).

Acknowledging midcareer dissatisfaction opens a window to exploring your options. Ask yourself:

  • What steps must I take to transition to the next stage of my journey?
  • Can I give myself permission to explore new paths?
  • How does fear keep me in a reactive stance, constrained by outmoded routines?
  • Am I content to live partially, or am I ready and willing to explore new ways of thinking and feeling?
  • Can I gather the energy needed to realize my unlived potential?
  • How can I take one small step?

The age-old Serenity Prayer comes to mind:

“Grant me the courage to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”