Career Path

Minimizing a Mid-Career Crisis

Three ways to handle a mid-career crisis that don’t involve buying a red-hot sports car.

It’s a cruel reality: just when we begin to get used to the ebbs and flows of work and find a rhythm that works for us, we wake up one morning only to ask ourselves what the heck we’re doing.

And whether you’ve been in the same job for a decade or are only six months in, a mid-career crisis doesn’t discriminate. Research has shown that our overall happiness steadily falls in our 20s and 30s, culminates in our 40s, and then tracks back up in our 50s and 60s. A mid-career crisis can, but doesn’t always, coincide with that mid-life crisis. Indeed, a Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Gen Xers and baby boomers aren’t fully engaged at work, with 50% saying they weren’t engaged at all.

Our overall happiness steadily falls in our 20s and 30s, culminates in our 40s, and then tracks back up in our 50s and 60s.

“Decisions driven by mid-life concerns are often misplaced attempts to address feelings that haven’t been fully sorted out,” says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry.

The good news is that there’s never been a better time to have a mid-career crisis. Unemployment rates continue to hover around record lows, and the rise of the nomad economy, in which people change jobs every couple of years, allows people to test out a career change without the ramifications that may have come with job-hopping a decade ago. Here’s how to work your way through the mid-career conundrum. 

Create your own milestones.

When you’re in your 20s, it isn’t uncommon to find a new role or receive a promotion every other year. But by the time you’re in your mid-30s to mid-40s, the layers of growth within an organization become narrower. You might have only a handful of bosses above you, which will limit the number of options when it comes to promotions. For goal-oriented employees, this lack of a carrot can lead them to feel badly. 

If you’re in such a situation, career experts recommend setting new goals for yourself that allow you to break down your year, month, or day in a way that inspires you to try to achieve something new. Such goals could include hitting an all-time sales high or spearheading a new initiative at the firm.

Address the ennui.

One of the most difficult parts of a mid-career crisis is that feeling of listlessness, and pinpointing exactly what’s causing it. Is it the team you work with, or the company you work for? Is it that your standards have changed, or that you aren’t in a challenging work environment anymore? “One reason for a mid-career crisis is that too much of your time at work is spent putting out fires and avoiding bad results, instead of pursuing projects with existential value—the kind that makes life worth living,” noted Kieran Setiya, an MIT professor of philosophy, in the Harvard Business Review.

Before you make a dramatic career move, try to incorporate activities into your life that you’ve wanted to do for years, be it a pet project or a hobby. While it may not be office related, finding something you enjoy again can give you some distance to help you sort out whether you’ve been boxed into remaining at an organization that isn’t a great fit, due to concerns about maintaining job security, income, or work-life balance, Royal says. “If so, perhaps you don’t need to change the work you do as much as the environment in which you’re doing it.”

Rethink regret.

By the time you reach your mid-career, there’s plenty to regret—staying in a job too long, not pursuing another field, or choosing, say, the managerial path instead of an entrepreneurial one. Setiya recently detailed his own mid-career crisis, outlining his regrets about not becoming a doctor like his father, despite the success he’s achieved in his field.

One of Setiya’s pillars for working through this regret was to view it as intellectual curiosity instead of a loss. “Even when outcomes are rosy, regret of a certain sort is appropriate and not something you should wish away,” Setiya wrote. “Regret shows that you value many activities.”

Think about it: if you only valued one thing in the world, regret might not appear. But that’s unlikely, so the next time you sense that feeling creeping in, take it as a signal that you have much to offer because of your curiosity.

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