One of the aspects of management that is under-researched and often misunderstood is that of employees’ behaviour when they reach midlife. Yet many managers will tell you that they feel confused when many of their employees start behaving strangely when they hit their mid-fifties. Why is this phenomenon so common among blue and white collar employees as well as stay-at-home parents?

Mid-career crisis can affect any employee including those who have the most fulfilling jobs and have achieved their career ambitions. When these crises erupt in the workplace almost everyone is affected. It is not surprising that such turmoil is often linked to profound biological changes that affect us in midlife. For the majority of people midlife is a time of double misery made up of disappointments in their careers and their personal lives.

Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that one of the main reasons for mid-career low levels of satisfaction is that young people are ‘overly optimistic expecting significant increases in life satisfaction’.

In reality job satisfaction takes the form of a U-curve in the careers of many employees.

They start off believing that they will be the lucky ones who will get promoted to the top posts of their organisation, have a happy marriage and healthy children, only to find out that life often delivers very different results despite all our efforts.

Many find that they don’t climb the career ladder as quickly as they wished. Those who do frequently find that prestige and high income rarely bring the expected satisfaction. This is the time when people should adjust their life expectations.

In today’s fast changing economic and technological realities it is so easy to find that one’s skills base has become obsolete. Younger people are capable of absorbing new technical knowledge at a fast rate and older employees start regretting the missed past opportunities that could have secured them the often elusive respect, status and job satisfaction they crave for in midlife.

Some take the plunge and try to reinvent themselves by a drastic career change. They are almost invariably disappointed as they do not realise that their current midlife lack of satisfaction is not really related to the way they are treated in their workplace but to deeper natural biological changes.

There is indeed life beyond the walls of the workplace if only we search for it

Mid-career changes often fail to deliver the kind of satisfaction older people expect.

Many industrial psychologists advise those passing through such a crisis to wait for the U-curve’s upward slope to materialise. While it is always best to adopt a lifelong learning attitude in one’s career, it is also advisable to understand that a mid-career crisis does not last forever.

Optimism about the future is part genetic and part learned. Surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious.

This is, of course, a tougher exercise for those who lose their jobs in mid-career. This is where government and private training organisations can help the unemployed find their way back in paid employment that encourages self-respect.

Human resources managers can also help those passing through mid-career crisis to cope by counselling them on the realities that characterise careers paths. A corporate culture that addresses mid-career crisis by helping employees reorient their expectations even within their own organisation will motivate a more productive workforce.

The worst thing that an organisation can do is to create the illusion that it can satisfy the career expectations of every employee.

Shrewd employees often know which political strings to pull within or outside their organisation to make sure that their expectations are fulfilled.

Organisations who survive after adopting this false strategy are those who have some written or unwritten reassurance that they are too big or too important to fail.

Unfortunately there are still a few such organisations around and they are not doing anyone a favour but bending to such employees’ pressures for political expediency.

Mid-career crises are painful. But they also offer an opportunity to re-evaluate what really matters in our lives. We often define ourselves by what we do in our jobs.

We rely on status symbols to assert our perceived relevance in society and in our own families. This could lead to frustration, depression and disappointment with ourselves when we should be celebrating the different phases that inevitably characterise our lives.

There is indeed life beyond the walls of the workplace if only we search for it.

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