Mid Career Crisis: Beware of the U-Curve

Mid-Career-Sports-CarOne of my coaching clients came to me complaining about a mid-career crisis: In spite of being promoted and having reached (by most standards) a comfortable degree of success and financial stability, he felt a gnawing sense of unhappiness. He loved his chosen profession and industry. But he questioned everything. Something was missing and didn’t feel quite right. Is he really doing what he was meant to do? Should he make some changes?

This isn’t unusual mid-career. However, so far the phenomenon remains stigmatized and under-researched, leaving crucial questions:

  • What are the causes?
  • Why does this malaise seem to strike in mid-life?
  • And how can those who are stuck in its grips shake themselves loose?

Changing careers, organizations, and family structure isn’t always a good idea, and often creates more problems than it solves. It’s a very common problem for just about everyone I’ve asked. Perhaps it’s time we take a new look at mid career crises.

For example, there are some scientists who are beginning to think it may be more biological than situational.  As reported in a Harvard Business Review article, Why So Many of Us Experience a Midlife Crisis by Hannes Schwandt in April, 2015, here are some interesting studies.

Analyzing a nation-wide survey from the UK, a group of economists working with professor 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.

Subsequent research discovered that this age-related U-shape in job satisfaction is part of a much broader phenomenon. A similar midlife nadir is detectable in measures of people’s overall life satisfaction and has been found in more than 50 countries.

On average, life satisfaction is high when people are young, then starts to decline in the early 30s, bottoming out between the mid-40s and mid-50s before increasing again to levels as high as during young adulthood. And this U-curve occurs across the entire socio-economic spectrum, hitting senior-level executives as well as blue-collar workers and stay-at-home parents.

Mid-Career-Happiness-U-CurveThis graph accompanies another article, “The Real Roots of Mid-Life Crisis,” written by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic (Dec. 2014).

The exact shape of the curve, and the age when it bottoms out, vary by country, survey question, survey population, and method of statistical analysis. The U-curve is not ubiquitous; indeed, one would be suspicious if a single pattern turned up across an immensely variegated landscape of surveys and countries and generations and analyses.

Still, the pattern turns up much too often to ignore. For example, in a 2008 study, Blanchflower and Oswald found the U-curve—with the nadir, on average, at age 46—in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

Graham and Milena Nikolova recently looked at an international survey that asked people in 149 countries to rate their lives on a zero-to-10 scale where 10 “represents the best possible life for you” and zero the worst. They found a relationship between age and happiness in 80 countries, and in all but nine of those, satisfaction bottomed out between the ages of 39 and 57 (the average nadir was at about age 50).

To me, this puts a whole new perspective to the mid-life experience. It’s a normal life passage, and when we view it as such, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should upend everything, buy the red sports car, and leave everything behind. But it does offer an opportunity to examine values, meaning, and future direction. And that’s always a good thing.

Most of us don’t do enough reflecting on the big questions in life, we’re so wrapped up in getting to the next waypoint. What’s your opinion? Have you experienced mid-career yet? One thing’s for sure, it’s a good time to get some coaching on the big questions in life, don’t you think? You can contact me here and on LinkedIn. Let’s talk.

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