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Smells like middle-aged spirit
or, navigating the midlife career crisis
A few weekends ago, my husband and I drove into Manhattan for the wedding of a dear college friend. We were excited to catch up with several former classmates, all of us now on the precipice of 40. As we talked about kids, jobs, and old memories, two themes kept coming up. The first was a collective sense of disbelief that we had reached middle age. The subtitle for the weekend could have been: “Are we really this old?”
The second theme—disclosed after niceties were over and real conversations began— was a restlessness in people’s professional lives. By all measures, this was a group of well-educated, accomplished individuals, but many people expressed feeling unsatisfied. At the very least, they felt they had reached a crossroads. For most, there was nothing glaringly wrong with their jobs, but they felt a sense of uncertainty. Am I on the right path? Should I be doing something else? If so, how do I make that happen—especially given all of the realities and responsibilities that come with this life stage?
Middle age is a reckoning. We begin to come to terms with the truth that we no longer have limitless possibilities ahead of us. As philosophy professor Kieran Setiya astutely points out in his article on mid-life crises at work:
As life goes on, possibilities fade, options are constrained, and past decisions forge limits upon us. Even if we underestimate how much we can still do, we cannot avoid the fact that every choice results in the exclusion of alternatives. It is often in mid-career that we acknowledge the lives we’ll never live and the pain of missing out.
I hear these kinds of sentiments a lot in my coaching work, and I wanted to write about it here—first, to normalize this experience—and second, to examine this phenomenon and offer some suggestions for grappling with it.
Millennials in middle age
Erik Erikson first proposed his eight-stage model of human development in 1950. His seventh stage of development, which occurs roughly from ages 40-65, is focused on generativity vs. stagnation. In Erikson’s conceptualization, generativity—the process of “establishing and guiding the next generation”—largely takes place in the context of parenting (although he does allow that it can be achieved through “other forms of altruistic concerns”).
Both scholars and public intellectuals have since refined and added nuance to the field of adult development. In his book Seasons of a Man’s Life, psychologist Daniel Levinson suggested that the “midlife transition” (roughly ages 40-45) is characterized by an urgent re-evaluation of life choices and, subsequently, the implementation of drastic changes, when necessary. In Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Gail Sheehy described ages 35-45 as “The Deadline Decade”. During this span of time, we come to accept that we don’t have our whole lives in front of us; in Sheehy’s words, “time starts to squeeze”.
Developmental theories presume that these stage transitions are universal—although, it’s important to note that most research in this field has been performed on educated, affluent, white people. And there’s no doubt that the mythology around the midlife transition has entered the cultural ethos to the point of becoming a tired cliché. (Who doesn’t associate “mid life crises” with a gray-haired, white guy driving a Corvette?)
And so, Elder Millennials have entered middle age, just as every generation before us has. As Willa Cather observed, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
But there does seem to be an added layer of complexity for those of us in this stage right now. Dubbed—perhaps melodramatically—“the unluckiest generation in U.S. history”, Millennials have had to deal with some unique hardships. A source in a recent New York Times article about Millennials entering mid-life pointed out, for our generation our “entire adult life has been a crisis”. According to the reporter, this theme echoed throughout her interviews:
“Many people said they felt they couldn’t be having a midlife crisis because there was no bourgeois numbness to rebel against. Rather than longing for adventure and release, they craved a sense of safety and calmness, which they felt they had never known.”
For many people I coach, the de-stabilizing impact of the pandemic remains most salient. Now that we are exiting the haze and craze of the past three years spent parenting young children while trying to manage professional responsibilities and our own anxieties about global and national catastrophes, we’re thrust right into the mid-life transition. Much has been written about how the pandemic has led all of us to reassess our priorities, but for Millennials, this situationally-motivated soul-searching is coupled with a developmentally-grounded crisis. This double-whammy of existential panic can feel overwhelming, to say the least.
Moving towards resolution
Erikson warned that developmental crises needed to be resolved at each stage in order for individuals to remain “psychologically alive”. So, how do we move past feelings of dread and upheaval, and towards a more integrated sense of self? There’s no silver bullet, but insights from psychology and philosophy suggest a path forward.
The first step is to engage in honest reflection. Start by clarifying your values. Spend 15-20 minutes intentionally writing out the 5-7 principles you hold most dear and define each one. Then ask: When do you feel like you are most fully living your values? What situations cause you to feel like you’re compromising them?
Next, perform a “professional audit”, of sorts. What’s working in your career? What’s not? What are the overarching characteristics that are important to you in a role? Is what you have “good enough” (more on this next week!), or do you desire something else?
Acknowledge and—if necessary—grieve the paths not taken
At this point in life, you’ve probably realized you’re unlikely to accomplish some of the dreams you imagined in your younger years. At the very least, it’s clear that some paths will remain untaken. Curiosity, and even regret, about these untaken opportunities are incredibly common.
These feelings can start to become toxic when we dwell on our imagined or real mistakes, failures, or misfortunes. Instead of perseverating in regret, it is more helpful to mourn. According to Sheehy:
“There is grieving to be done because an old self is dying. By taking in our suppressed and even our unwanted parts, we prepare at the gut level for the reintegration of an identity that is ours and ours alone—not some artificial form put together to please the culture or our mates”
Reframe limiting beliefs and form new narratives
We all hold limiting beliefs—oversimplified, incomplete, or overly rigid narratives—that get in our way of success. What are the messages you’re telling yourself about your career? Examples of limiting beliefs I’ve heard from clients include: “It’s too late to make a meaningful change”; “I’ve invested too much in this path, so I’m stuck”; “I’ve come to accept I will never be happy at work”; “I’m too old to change careers now”.
What limiting beliefs do you hold about your professional happiness? How can you start to question them and create new, more accurate narratives?
Set new goals
If part of the mid-life transition is accepting the things you cannot change, this step is about having the courage to change the things you can. If you have engaged in thoughtful reflection and realize you need a change, go for it! That change could be taking a bold career step, or it could be embracing the fact that your definition for success has changed and you want different things than you did 15 years ago. Either way, create goals that feel authentic to who you currently are and pursue them.
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