You probably know people like Fred and Jane, a middle-aged man and woman who seem to hate the world.
They are suddenly angry and unhappy with their entire lifestyle, their spouse, their children, their house and their job. Nothing seems to satisfy them. They question the meaning of life, challenge early life decisions about work and family and often adopt a yearning for something different.
"Different" sometimes means leaving a spouse after many years of apparent happiness or quitting a job that up to now held great interest and brought many successes. When that happens, close family and friends often don't see change coming and in the end, it's a shock to everyone.
Although there's a lot of controversy as to whether the concept of a midlife crisis really exists, I've seen enough situations -- both personally and professionally -- that I'm confident some kind of metamorphosis occurs as we go through life. Some people simply take it in stride and refocus their lives, while others throw away everything they had and start anew.
A midlife crisis is also very much manifested in an individual's job and career. You may notice your colleague dressing differently, or coming and leaving work at different times than usual. You may see that they are anxious, sometimes distraught and can't make the typical decisions found in their job. They may be tired from lack of sleep or hung over from trying to drink away their blues. They become lethargic, refusing to participate in work projects or company events. Some will snap in anger at co-workers with whom they have always had good relationships and sometimes isolate themselves from others, seeking personal peace and quiet. Finally, you might find that these people want to spend money on new gadgets and work tools that may appear to make them more efficient but instead make them feel they are "with it," so to speak. Yet, no matter what their bizarre behaviour, they just seem to have changed overnight.
Most of the time, personal behaviour change occurs over a longer time period. Some people recognize they have a career life cycle of three to five years. When the restlessness arrives on their doorstep, they know they need to move again. Still for others, a personal midlife career crisis hits them like a ton of bricks. These are the folks who need to start paying more attention to the restlessness that signals a need for a change in your work circumstances. These signals, independent of signals from your home life, include:
"ö An increase in tiredness and a lack of overall energy; you don't feel burned out but you don't feel yourself either.
"ö You are no longer interested in your work tasks, your job has become too routine, you don't feel an adrenaline rush anymore; you're bored.
"ö You don't feel like communicating with your colleagues. You just don't care what goes on around you. You're ambivalent.
"ö You're frustrated because you are starting to feel like you are in a rut; you're "rusty," a bit of a has-been, but you lack the energy to go and learn something new.
"ö You are frightened rather than excited about all the changes occurring in your workplace and wonder if you have the stamina to keep up.
"ö You start dreaming about your first choice of a profession and wonder if you should quit your current work and follow an original path.
"ö You wake up in the morning and continually ask yourself, "what is wrong with me?" But you don't do anything about it.
All in all, a midlife career crisis starts with personal job dissatisfaction and grows until it envelopes your whole being. There is no straight answer to resolve this issue, but whatever route you take, it needs to start with developing a greater personal self-awareness. And that means spending time with you.
Most of us have very busy schedules and we don't take the time for self-reflection. We might fleetingly recognize our current dissatisfaction but we toss it off as unimportant and tuck our thoughts away in the "do later" pile. We rarely sit down and conduct a strategic plan for our own careers. In fact, in my experience, most people stop examining their career once they gain their full-time job, which you can imagine, might have been a long time ago.
However, if you don't do something, this sense of dissatisfaction will creep up on you and become like an ugly weed in your backyard. It will continue to take over other parts of your life until you get dizzy from all the confusion in your mind. So, where should you start? If possible, get yourself a good career counsellor as a few hours with this type of professional will save you hours of time and anxiety. But at least take the following three key steps to get you started.
Conduct a total career self-examination -- make a list of all your jobs (paid and unpaid). Examine the tasks and activities and explore what you enjoyed or didn't enjoy... what do you want to be doing 80 per cent of the time? Make a priority list. Look at the traits of managers and work environments in which you thrived, note and prioritize them. Then compare these priorities with your current job... where are the gaps?
Examine what motivates you -- have you ever thought about this? Are you driven by a need for independence, a desire to be known as the best manager or the best technical professional? Are you seeking life-work balance or striving to work for a social cause? Understanding and matching your motivators with aspects of your job will significantly increase self-satisfaction.
Confirm your personality style fit -- both individuals and organizations have a personality style and sometimes they clash and sometimes they fit. Keep in mind that organizational personalities also change as leaders come and go. Your task is to ensure there is always a fit with who you are with respect to your leadership, team and communication style. Do you prefer small or large groups? Are you quiet and introverted or outgoing and extroverted? Each of our personalities is better suited to workplaces that support our strengths. Find out what they are and explore the style fit.
A midlife career crisis can throw anyone into disarray that impacts all aspects of your life. Yet, the only way around the dilemma of a midlife career crisis is to be very self-aware.
Learn to recognize and understand the signals that suggest dissatisfaction and career restlessness. Then do something about these feelings or else your job and your life may be in jeopardy.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice president of Legacy Executive Search Partners, Man. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org