It happens to a lot of employees: After two or three decades in the workforce—after they've landed the job they dreamed of, achieved what they wanted and reached a comfortable salary—suddenly it seems there's nothing left to strive for.
It's called a midcareer crisis, and according to researchers, it's a key reason why employees become disengaged.
A midcareer crisis can happen to anyone, said Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich who researched the midcareer crisis as a postdoctoral student at Princeton University's Center for Health and Wellbeing. It can hit even those who—from an objective perspective—have fulfilling jobs.
"Suddenly, the employee is no longer challenged at work and is unable to identify a stepping stone to some activity that will keep him engaged in his current position," said Gabriel Shaoolian, founder and CEO of DesignRush, which offers design and technology tools. He has over 20 years' experience managing people and businesses as the former founder and CEO of Blue Fountain Media, a digital-marketing agency in New York City. "This is when the employee becomes bored, unmotivated and may start looking elsewhere for opportunities that will satisfy their need to feel valued and worthwhile."
The U-Shaped 'Satisfaction' Curve
The midcareer crisis, according to Schwandt, typically happens when employees are in their late 40s to early 50s. And there's actually a biological reason for this dissatisfaction, he discovered.
Job satisfaction tends to follow a U-shaped curve, he explained, with young workers tending to be overly optimistic about the jobs they'll get and the trajectories their careers will take.
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"As we age, things often don't turn out as nicely as we planned," Schwandt wrote in an article in the Harvard Business Review. "We may not climb up the career ladder as quickly as we wished. Or we do, only to find that prestige and a high income are not as satisfying as we expected them to be. At the same time, high expectations about the future adjust downwards. Midlife essentially becomes a time of double misery, made up of disappointments and evaporating aspirations."
The good news is that at the bottom of the U-curve—when workers are in their mid-50s or so—people tend to make peace with how their life is playing out. At the same time, the aging brain learns to feel less regret about missed chances, brain studies show. Satisfaction starts to rise, climbing out of the bottom of the U-curve.
Focusing on the Future
Jane Benston is a career coach for women in corporate leadership positions and is based in Melbourne, Australia. In her work, she often sees women hit a midcareer crisis because "they don't have clarity about what they actually want for the next phase of their career.
"They have achieved success and done everything they dreamed coming out of university but are at a loss as to what they want to do next," she said.
A manager can help, she noted, by having a discussion with the employee to help him or her focus on the future.
"Without clarity and direction, smart professionals often stop learning, growing or stretching, and with that, their career plateaus and boredom sets in. Not only does it leave them feeling confused about what's next, it makes it very difficult for their boss or mentor to support them to take the next step."
Many employees "bottom out" because the companies they work for have failed to develop a growth plan that keeps up with the employee's advancement, Shaoolian added.
Breaking out of the Slump
What does a manager do if there aren't any clear-cut advancement opportunities or new challenges for the midcareer employee? It's a phenomenon that happens more often than one might think, said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at Gartner, a research and business advisory company in Stamford, Conn.
"For most employees, the opportunities to move up in their own organization have become more limited across the last 10 years," he said. "In fact, the average employee is staying at the same level for almost 50 percent longer than they did 10 years ago."
Still, the creative manager can almost always find ways to accommodate the midcareer worker, Shaoolian said. He noted that most development budgets focus on the onboarding and training of new recruits. Because it costs a lot in time and money to replace employees, businesses would be wise to invest in finding new missions for employees whose advancement has stalled.
For companies and managers, this means:
- Assigning midcareer employees to cross-functional internal teams to work on projects and to learn about areas of the company with which they may not be familiar.
- Creating a succession plan that allows for more lateral moves within the organization.
- Encouraging the worker to develop new skills that can benefit the worker and the company, such as public speaking, blogging or networking.
- Encouraging the worker's role as a mentor or senior advisor.
Schwandt noted that in addition to mentoring younger workers, midcareer employees can also seek to be mentored by more-senior people at a company. Often, these senior people have weathered their own midcareer crises and can offer support and advice, he said.
"Those at the end of their careers may have gone through this midlife dissatisfaction and learned to deal with this disappointment. It's important to normalize these kinds of feelings, and maybe senior workers can relay to their colleagues that this is normal and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel."