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Career midlife crisis: do you really want to win the rat race?

February 14, 2011

​Matt Ma, a former high-flying management consultant and one-time investment banker, suffered two career mid-life crises in his late 30s. "There was a certain amount of pointlessness that was compounded by a feeling of being trapped," he recalls. "The pointlessness came from having enough experience in the job to recognise that it wasn't as satisfying as I thought it would be. You naively make assumptions about a specific career path. Then you get to that point where it doesn't live up to your expectations, so you stop aspiring to progress. You look at your role models further up the food chain and realise you don't want to be like them. All of a sudden that path looks very unattractive."​

Ma is describing a serious – but not always negative – affliction that psychologists and career advisers report confronts many employees today. Some call it a career midlife crisis, while others simply consider it natural progression. What's confusing is the symptoms of midlife career crisis are manifesting in a range of stages. According to Peter Heslin, a professor in Organisation and Management at the Australian School of Business and Professional Development Workshop chair for the Careers Division of the Academy of Management: "Career stages – such as learning the ropes, becoming established, making your mark and then moving on – used to be age-related. But now that the idea of a 'job for life' has gone, people often cycle through these career stages multiple times in their working lives. There is scope for the career angst that motivates people to move on to be felt in almost any phase of a career, and therefore at virtually any age."

The 21st century presents a new range of triggers for career crises, Heslin believes. "There are more cues to 'know thyself' these days and (in terms of jobs) an increasing number of inducements to love it or leave it," he says. "Relentless marketing by internet-based employment websites is one of the biggest. A growing emphasis within society on discovering and capitalising on one's 'strengths' is another factor putting emphasis on self-awareness." Such trends make people feel a career transition is in order, unless they love what they do, he suggests.

A common trigger for a career midlife crisis is the realisation that there's a misalignment between an individual's career and his or her deeply embedded life interests. "A career midlife crisis often reflects the perennial issue of poor fit between the person and their job or the organisation," Heslin notes. "Increasingly, this involves individuals' emerging sense of not making a positive difference in the world, or more specifically, to the lives of others. The question, 'What's the real point of what I do and how I spend most of my waking hours?' can become a burning one."

Executive coach Gaby Riddington agrees that at the core of many career midlife crises is an individual's lack of fulfilment. "The problem can be highlighted by something that alters their perspective, just for a moment," she says. "It could be reports of an external catastrophe, such as the Queensland floods, or the death of somebody they know, a divorce, a health scare. Suddenly they realise life is short and they want to make it count."

Another common cause of a career meltdown is when an individual is overlooked for promotion or made redundant, Riddington reports. "This often forces a period of re-evaluation and questioning. With the right support this can be a real turning point, but handled badly it can cause more angst and a downward spiral."

Through her Sydney company, Yourpotential, Riddington often helps senior managers realise what they really want to do. However, the process of figuring it out is easier for some than others, she says. "It can be difficult to actually make the shift, particularly in professions such as law, medicine and accounting where there has been a substantial investment of time and money on education. The thought of giving that up and starting again can be daunting and often leads to a period of serious reflection before a change is made."

Turning Negative Into Positive

The heartening news about such career uncertainty is that it can mark the start of something far more satisfying, the experts insist. The challenge is identifying exactly what that is. Ma's first step was simply figuring things out on paper. "I felt anxious that the skills I'd picked up throughout my career weren't applicable elsewhere, so options seemed quite limited," he says. "I sat down with my wife and assessed, from a financial and material perspective, what it was we really needed as opposed to what we wanted. That was liberating because what we needed was substantially less than what we'd been aiming for. We recognised the parameters of what the next step could look like."

This realisation is powerful, says Heslin, who teaches managerial skills to AGSM (Executive) MBA students. "Because a high salary has traditionally been deemed the hallmark of a successful career, people often naturally choose the job that offers the most money. But if doing what it takes to earn what you earn starts taking its toll in terms of relationships, health, spirituality or happiness, it can soon result in a misery and despair that makes hollow any sense of being successful. What's the point of continually striving to win the rat race, people ask themselves, if doing so makes me feel like a rat?"

Career angst and hitting a "career plateau" often drive the decision to enroll in MBA programs, Heslin notes. "In a sense, an MBA program is a career-change mechanism – it helps people make transitions that otherwise would have been long shots, helps to reset their careers and gives recruiters a reason to look at them in a new light. It offers a second chance, which can be exactly what people experiencing career angst are searching for." Heslin believes it's useful for people to be explicit about their expectations for career success. "Their standards can be unrealistic and often are much easier to adjust than the timing and size of the next pay raise or promotion," he points out. "It enables many more career options – as well as peace of mind – and the chance to feel successful now, rather than only after earning and owning 'just a little more.'"

After conducting a skills audit, Ma realised he had – through his various career roles and extensive education including an MBA – become a very competent generalist. In a job application for a specific role, this was not a strong point, but it was a useful prerequisite for running a business. Ma started The Interview Group, a Sydney-based on-boarding, stay and exit interview specialist firm.

What's The Process?

​To determine a new career direction, Riddington puts clients through a fairly standard process. First, they must take a holiday, escape the pressure and the distractions and get some perspective on why they want to make a change. "With a clear headspace, the discovery process and putting definition around ideal career roles can begin," she says. "We try to start with a solution and then work backwards. One of the first things to look at is vision; in five or 10 years what do you want to be doing? What do you want to be known for? What would happen in your ideal week?"

Next it's important to identify genuine interests. "This requires detective work, looking back on every previous role and listing likes and dislikes of the tasks, people, and working environments," reports Riddington. "A look at future opportunities and what appeals and doesn't appeal can also be helpful. Summarising the key themes provides a clear future direction."

Further considerations involve values and needs. It's worth remembering that people's needs in their 20s are not the same as they are in their 40s, suggests Riddington. In their 20s they may be more focussed on prestige and getting ahead, whereas in their 40s family time may be more of a priority, she says. The work environment may also need evaluating. Is working from home important? Some people may like the idea of an international corporate office, while others would prefer a small start up. Inevitably, individual strengths and core factors, such as income and hours available to work, also must come into play.

This type of career analysis is stock-in-trade for career professionals and has helped Riddington guide one Australian lawyer into a business line management role in the UK and another lawyer into starting an organic food market. The size of the shift does not count. However, the experts' over-riding message is that, if well-managed – which often involves hard work and coaching by a well-qualified professional – a career midlife crisis can have very positive outcomes.
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