Wake-up Call: Why we experience mid-life crises

Research suggests job satisfaction increases in the second half of people’s working lives

An emerging literature in economics has started to investigate what’s happening during midlife, providing insights that might help people and firms to better handle these painful and costly episodes

An emerging literature in economics has started to investigate what’s happening during midlife, providing insights that might help people and firms to better handle these painful and costly episodes

 

A mid-career crisis can happen to anyone. It can hit even those who objectively have the most fulfilling jobs. When it does, it inflicts pain on the individual, and causes productivity losses for employers.

Yet the phenomenon remains stigmatised and under-researched, leaving crucial questions unanswered. What are the causes? Why does this malaise seem to strike in midlife? And how can those who are stuck in its grips shake themselves loose?

An emerging literature in economics has started to investigate what’s happening during midlife, providing insights that might help people and firms to better handle these painful and costly episodes.

Analysing a nationwide survey in Britain, a group of economists working with Prof Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found that the job satisfaction of the average employee deteriorates dramatically in midlife.

Mid-career crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than the misfortune of a few individuals. But here’s the good news: in the second half of people’s working lives, job satisfaction increases again, in many cases reaching even higher levels than earlier in the career – essentially forming a U-shaped curve.

As we age, things often don’t turn out as nicely as we planned. 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 downward. Midlife essentially becomes a time of double misery, made up of disappointments and evaporating aspirations.

According to data, it’s in the mid-50s when expected life satisfaction aligns with current satisfaction levels. People come to terms with how their life is playing out. At the same time, the aging brain learns to feel less regret about missed chances, as brain studies have shown.

This combination of accepting life and feeling less regret about the past is what makes life satisfaction increase again. And since people over 50 tend to underestimate their future satisfaction, these increases come as an unexpected pleasant surprise, which further raises satisfaction levels.

Unmet aspirations

As a whole, these findings tell a story in which the age U-shape in job (and overall life) satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt in midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age. The data seems to suggest that if you’re in the throes of a mid-career crisis, maybe you should just wait it out until the U-curve’s upward slope is reached. But there is more we can do in the face of mid-career malaise.

At the individual level, acknowledging mid-career dissatisfaction as a normal and temporary stage in your work life provides a light at the end of the tunnel when you feel like there’s no hope. Moreover, hearing that it’s okay to feel regret from unmet aspirations helps you break the vicious circle of disappointment about feeling discontent.

At the firm level, human resources departments could create mid-career mentoring programmes. Mentoring is usually directed at early career stages and continues only informally through the rest of the career. Those in a mid- career low can learn from their older colleagues who already went through the valley and have emerged feeling less regret, having adapted to life’s circumstances. A corporate culture that openly addresses mid-career discontent could support employees in this reorientation process, helping them explore new opportunities – within the firm. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015 Hannes Schwandt is a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Centre for Health and Wellbeing.

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