It’s a fact: we spend a significant proportion of our life working. The average person will spend 85,000 hours at work over their lifetime. Work accounts for a third of our waking hours between the ages of 20 and 65. John Maynard Keynes wrote about the 15-hour working week back in 1930 and yet, for all the technological advancement, average working hours have remained pretty constant. Plus, it’s not just our time that we’re investing, but also our energy, brain power, emotional headspace, and even our identities. When asked to introduce ourselves, many of us (me included) will answer with our jobs first, and other characteristics second.
Work is good for us
Now, it’s no bad thing that work is a significant commitment. In fact, work can be brilliant for us. Not only does it the pay the bills, it can also make us feel happy and fulfilled. With decent work, we’re more likely to be physically and mentally healthy. At its best, work can give us a sense of purpose, opportunities to grow and develop, and a community of friends and colleagues. When we thrive at work, we’re more likely to contribute positively at home and in our communities, as well as in the workplace.
But for all the wellbeing benefits, work can simultaneously be a challenge. Work-related stress and anxiety are increasing. Over 44% of workers report experiencing a lot of stress on a daily basis. And of course, these feelings spill over into our free time, keeping us distracted when we should be enjoying time with family or friends, fretting when we should be relaxing, and awake when we should be asleep.
Careers are also becoming more complex, with more twists and turns. Long gone are the days in which someone would pick a job at the age of 18 and see it through to retirement. Nowadays, we’re likely to make at least one career change during our lifetime, with some people experiencing as many as three or more. I think the potential for changing careers several times over a working life is fantastic. I’m currently enjoying my third or fourth career, depending on how you count them. (Of how many? I’m not yet sure!)
So, what’s all this got to do with a mid-career crisis?
As with most long journeys, the middle part of your career can feel particularly tough. Marathon-runners call them “the difficult middle miles”, when the aches and pains are setting in and there’s still a lot more running before the finish line. Novelists have to work hard to avoid the “saggy middle chapters”, where the plot feels a bit thin and it’s not clear where it’s all going.
Perhaps you’re well into your second decade of work. The novelty has definitely worn off; you’re no fresh-faced junior, no longer “wet behind the ears”. And yet retirement is still a looong way off. You’ve been working for ten, fifteen, twenty years, and yet there’s still the same amount to come, or more.
Does this sound like you? If so, I hope you see the fact that you’re only at the mid-point as a very good thing. With a bit of luck, being at the midpoint of your career feels OK and, ideally even exciting. Hopefully, you’re optimistic about the potential to do more, have more impact, rack up new or different successes.
But that’s not true for everyone. Indeed, for many of us, the “middle miles” are indeed difficult, and something of a career “no-man’s land”. Having worked with hundreds of coaching clients, and interviewed many others for my research, this mid-career phase can often be the time at which we really notice an absence of some sort. A hole, a gap. A sense of something missing. A feeling of emptiness. “Is this it?”
Perhaps, you started your career with a clear sense of purpose, but it’s been chipped away over time. Or maybe when you were younger you prioritised other drivers such as salary, status, or intellectual challenge. But now they feel a bit irrelevant. Either way, this mid-career phase can feel difficult, stuck between your initial hopes and dreams, and what now feels important.
And so, just as mid-life crises are a thing, so too are mid-career crises. Of course, mid-career crises are usually much less dramatic and less visible than their mid-life counterparts. There’s usually fewer sports cars and tattoos, and thankfully much less adultery.
I’m also using the word crisis advisedly here, as in “a time of intense difficulty, when a difficult or important decision must be made” (Oxford Languages). For some people, it absolutely feels like a stereotypical crisis: severe, and all-consuming. However, for most, it’s more like a creeping sense of malaise, or even ennui. A gnawing feeling that’s almost imperceptible at first but builds over time, until eventually you’re in a full-blown career chasm, and work just feels… well, meaningless.
Mid-career crises are on the rise
How many of us experience a mid-career crisis?
In short, lots of us – and it’s a growing phenomenon. More and more of us want to find meaning in our work. And we’re becoming less prepared to settle for a career that’s not living up to our expectations. In a 2016 study, involving 26,000 professionals in 40 countries, 74% responded that it was critical for them to find their work meaningful. A 2020 study put the figure at 81%. Indeed, finding our work meaningful has been shown to be even more important than pay and rewards, working conditions and promotion opportunities.
Does this sound like you?
If any of this chimes with you, you might be experiencing a mid-career crisis of sorts. It may be just a blip, a bump in the road that will even out over time. Alternatively, it might be more persistent, gnawing away at you, making you feel unfulfilled and stuck.
You’ll probably have asked yourself questions like these:
Do I want to do this for the rest of my career?
Can I do this for the rest of my career?
Is being a butcher / baker / candlestick-maker <insert your job title> all it cracked up to be? (To be fair, at least two of those sound like they’d be lovely jobs!)
Am I fulfilled by my work?
Am I ‘getting’ as much as I’m giving, to my job?
Is this it?
“Is this it?”
The question, “Is this it?” really strikes at the heart of the matter.
“Is this it ?” Is my current work life sufficient, in terms of fulfilment, purpose and pleasure?
But also, “Is this it?”. Could I be doing work that would provide more meaning and satisfaction? And if so, what would that be?
“Is this it?” is a really meaty, existential question. One that neatly encapsulates and challenges what it is to be human and be querying what life’s all about, and what role work plays in that. And yet for such a big question, I hear it an awful lot. In coaching sessions, through my research, in everyday conversations. And it often indicates some kind of mid-career crisis.
What’s the impact of a mid-career crisis?
When we experience a mid-career crisis like this, and really question whether what we’re doing is right for us, it can really shake us to our core. It not only challenges the decisions we’ve made over many years, but even our very identities. If I’m not a <insert your job title here>, what am I?!
If this sounds like you, don’t fear. It’s a super-normal experience, one that lots of people successfully navigate (often more than once). In fact, if you can seize the opportunity, your mid-career crisis can become the catalyst for hugely exciting change. It can become the golden ticket to your most meaningful work, and a career that’s deeply fulfilling for the long-term. And often, you might not even have to change career!
So, how can you make that happen? The short answer: through the powerful art and science of Career Crafting. For the longer answer, stay tuned, because in upcoming blogs I’ll share the key triggers for mid-career crises, and how you can use Career Crafting to navigate them.
I’m currently writing a book about how we can use Career Crafting to create a more meaningful work life. To stay in the loop about how it’s progressing, register here: Career Crafting updates