Middlescence

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 21 – June 27, 2006

A lot of you know that I do Bikram yoga, it is the type done in a room heated to 39C. This past weekend I went to a special class with one of Bikram’s most experienced instructors who came over from the US to teach a handful of masters’ classes in Australia. I found this teacher very inspiring, not only did she have a great command of the postures and their medical benefits but she looked great too. As you might imagine, when one exercises in that kind of heat they wear as little as is legally possible, and the teacher from the US was no exception in a black one piece bathing suit. Watching her move through the room I couldn’t help but want to be like her, be as smart, as peaceful and look that good. Fortunately for me, I still have some time to catch up, she is in her 80s. When I wasn’t thinking about being nauseous and on the verge of fainting from the heat, I was thinking I would like to have the confidence to walk around in a bathing suit,  do an effortless sit up and be a yoga teacher when I am 80. Doing the math, I could go to the 8 week Bikram training in Los Angeles now and still get in a solid thirty plus years teaching before I hit 80.

I thought the fixation about what I should do next in my career was just a passing phase; I seem to have an insatiable quest to find things that give me a greater sense of purpose in life. Naively, I thought that I was the only one who did this and assumed the rest of you were content with your chosen professions. I imagined you were all like my old boss Art Gensler, once when I said good morning to him he replied “if I was any better there would be two of me”.  It was surprising and disappointing to suddenly read that I am not the only one who spends time thinking about what’s next.  In fact it is quite common. Go figure, my crisis is not even my own, and it is not even unique, it is so common with people my age that it even has a name.  Middlescence!

Like adolescence, middlescence can be a time of great frustration and confusion which explains the poor state of my household with a pair of each. People like me, mid career employees, between the ages of 35 and 54 make up more than half the workforce and we work longer hours than our older and younger counterparts. Unfortunately, only 43% of us are passionate about our jobs, 33% of us feel energised by our work, 36% say they feel they are in dead- end jobs and 40% feel burnt out. As a group we have the lowest satisfaction rates with our immediate managers and the least confidence in top executives.  We are working more, enjoying it less and looking for something else to do that may put a little joy back in our lives.

When it comes to mid career employees, the companies they work for mistakenly believe they are settled and content, the solid backbones of the organisation; and unfortunately often ignore them. This can lead to middlescents becoming so dissatisfied that they will leave their jobs, or worse stay and fester with a bad attitude. Every day companies all over the world are paying the price of lost energy, enthusiasm and a lack of innovation and focus from their middlescent employees, which is often more threatening to productivity than employee turnover. The Harvard business review states “companies are ill- prepared to manage middlescence because it is so pervasive, largely invisible, and culturally uncharted”.

The outcomes for business are not good, with fewer emergent workers entering the workforce and those that are, planning their exit, many companies could be caught out by their valuable experienced people quitting sooner than necessary. As workforce demographics shift over the next ten years, it would be wise for any company that wishes to control its fate to learn to recognise the early warning signs of middlescence frustration, and to actively develop strategies to combat it.

For obvious reasons I will not disclose which of these symptoms that I still have or had. However I will confess to having already gone through one middlescent crisis. Because it was more than shrimps on the Barby and distaste of the Republican administration that got me to: move around the world, switch jobs, and do something completely different. In the event you in the 35 to 54 age group and fear you may have this condition, here are some signs of middlescence:

  • Being stuck in a bottleneck – you are competing for too few leadership positions in an organisation
  • Stuck in work life tension, once referred to as the sandwich generation you’re caught between caring for the kids and the parents
  • Burnt out, being in a career for 20 or more years, you are stretched and stressed and find your work unexciting or repetitive.
  • Disappointment, realising that you haven’t achieved what you thought you would and probably never will.
  • Unimpressive boss, distrust of the company, great gaps in compensation between you and those above
  • Lengthening horizon, realising that you can’t retire and will have to work for quite a while longer.

As most of you know, Bill Gates has retired from Microsoft. While he plans to maintain a large holding in the company, he and Melinda are going to put all of their energy into the philanthropic organisation they founded several years ago. His primary motivation in retiring is a desire to spend more time on the issues that he really cared about. Whadaya reckon, Middlescence? Yes it is perhaps easier to search for greater purpose in life when you are worth 50 billion US, and you are the boss. Never the less, it is somewhat comforting to see that this condition can happen to just about anyone regardless of your position in a company or the number of noughts on your pay cheque.

For those of us without a spare billion let alone million to finance our pursuit of greater meaning, there are other strategies for revitalizing careers that are more attainable for us commoners. First is what the employer can do, followed by a few tips on how to take matters into your own hands.

For employers, it is advised that two preliminary steps are taken before embarking on the six following ideas. The first preliminary step is to remove barriers to occupational mobility, such as the policies within your company that may block employees. Second, it is advised that you ‘find the keepers’ and this means going beyond the stars in your organisation, who are probably already recognised, to identify the people whose skills and experience you need and want to retain. Once you have done that you can zip up a mid career employee by doing the following:

  • Offer fresh assignments in different geographical locations or other parts of the company.
  • Offer an internal career change, allow the employee to assume a different job.
  • Put experienced employees into mentoring, teaching and other knowledge sharing roles
  • Offer fresh training, refresher courses, in depth education to develop new skills in new areas
  • Let your people take Sabbaticals, (only 5% of the 500 organisations surveyed by Hewitt Associates offered sabbaticals)
  • Expand leadership development; there are shortages in leadership succession. Corporate restructuring and flattening of organisations has eroded career paths. The result is people can’t accumulate needed leadership skills on the job anymore.

In the event the company you work for does not recognise the signs or worse chooses to ignore them.  How can you take charge of your own work/life and find meaningful absorbing work?

Richard Leider founding partner of the Inventure Group has over three decades of experience as a career coach and counsellor. He believes that each individual is born with a reason for being and that life is a quest to discover that purpose. To help people decide where they are going he asks his clients to answer two questions honestly: What do you want? And how will you know when you get it? Leider believes that people have their own solutions; they just don’t know how to discover them or avoid that discovery. He goes on to say that if you want to make good decisions for your work in life, it all comes down feeding your three hungers.

The first hunger is to connect deeply with the creative spirit of life; not in the classic sense but to “touch creative energy and be touched by it” this could come from bringing a child into the world or introducing playfulness and creativity to the workplace.  (or for you clients might I suggest you could just hire Geyer) The second is to know how to express your gifts and talents, each of us has something to contribute we just need to figure out what that is. Aristotle said “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation” Determine what needs doing in your organisation? What needs doing in the world?  Finally you must know that our lives matter, we are here to leave behind something of ourselves. Work can and should give you a sense of joy, you spend 60% of your life doing it, make the most of it.

Many of us know all too well that there is nothing like a few kids, aging parents to care for, a mortgage and school tuition to make you feel like you have lost the opportunity to search for meaning and purpose.  We all want and need money but we also want to use our talents and want the ability to control our own time. We want to work on something we feel is worthwhile. Sadly, many of us measure our worth by our work. The good news is we don’t always measure this in dollars anymore. “The search for meaningful work is the heart of middlessence, just as the search for an identity – a calling – marks adolescence.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us” From the time we are small children we are asked what we want to be when we grow up. Looking at my children, both teenagers, it is hard for me to imagine them making a career choice now that will satisfy them for another 50 or 60 years. They’re not bad kids; it is just the chance of getting it right the first time is slim.  If research on career choice has any validity, they will not be the only ones.  The reality is that most people don’t choose their career their career chose them; they start down a path and never stop to ask what their calling might be. 

According to Leider you need to understand your choices as well as understand the different points in life. He likens it to a spiral, there are times when you’re on a plateau and all is balanced and then something comes along and knocks you off balance. It is when these events occur that you need to take stock. You need to look at everything you’ve been carrying with you, unpack your bag and then repack it considering these four elements: discover how to live from the inside out, discover your gifts, discover what moves you and finally discover solitude because it is there that you will be able to deal with the first three.

I will leave you with a letter written to Fast Company magazine in response to the article “Are You Deciding On Purpose” Now, at 78, retired from major industry, I was stuck with the profound truth and beauty of your philosophy. In retrospect, you could have been writing about me… Now that I am retired and doing what I truly enjoy, looking back I wish that I had taken a few more risks and dealt with the opportunities that I chose to ignore. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

One last question, following the popularity of Big Brother can you e mail me back you thoughts on what you feel would be the best opportunity for me:

Vote A or B

A – Laurie should be a yoga teacher in her next career

B – Laurie should become a romance novelist, focusing on sleazy workplace trysts (keeping with my passion for the workplace and its issues)

Sources

Managing Middlescence

By Robert Morison, Tamara Erickson and Ken Dychtwald

The Harvard Business Review   March, 2006

My Battle with the Misery and Malaise of Middlescence

By Lucy Kellaway

The Financial Times May 15, 2006

Are you deciding on Purpose (extended interview with Richard Leider)

By Alan M Webber   

Fast Company  February, 1998

Are you leading two lives?

By Richard Leider

The Inventure Group On Purpose Journal Vol. 6 No. 1

Gates to Reduce Microsoft Role as Era Changes

By John Markoff and Steve Lohr

The New York Times June 16, 2006

Personal Business; A Burnout Cure That Few Companies Prescribe

By Lynnley Browning

The New York times June 6, 2003

Downsizing Worm turns

By Deirdre Macken

The Australian Financial Review October 7, 2005

 

 

 

 

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