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Article 7 min read

When the mid-life career crisis hits

By Rachel Henry

Last updated March 15, 2021

Rebecca Russell was well into her career—holding a corporate director-level position when she felt the need for space from work stress. She looked for opportunities to get distance from work while doing things she enjoyed. Russell took up yoga and, “I also began to teach college classes in communications part-time, with adult students who are returning to school to get their degrees. I enjoyed it and teaching gave me a new way to connect with people and was another outlet for my professional experience,” she said over a detailed email.

In the meantime, her company underwent significant changes and Russell noticed her stress levels still increasing. After some reflection and consultation with a holistic doctor, “I realized that my job was out of sync with what is important to me. For example, I enjoy mentoring and I’m really not motivated by a specific job title. I knew that I needed to find work that would allow me to do more of what I was interested in doing.” Russell now owns her own business as a Mindful Career and Life Coach working with clients to help them approach their career transitions with a focus on self-compassion. She is happy.

Russell’s career shift did not happen overnight (wouldn’t that be nice?) as it took her time to understand why her job didn’t align with her values and desires. And while this is not uncommon for those in mid-career, being a more mature job seeker comes with its unique set of challenges, and while certainly not insurmountable, they require some serious attention.

Know your (current) values and strengths

Just as Russell’s situation doesn’t apply to all executives, neither does it apply to every generation. Each group has a different set of needs. According to an Ernst & Young study, “Gen X respondents ranked workplace flexibility as the most important perk (21 percent) and are more likely to walk away from their current job if flexibility isn’t available (38 percent versus 33 percent of Gen Y and 25 percent of Boomers).”

Indeed, Gen X (those born roughly between 1965 and 1981) on average will change their job every three to five years. Entrepreneur magazine says, “To recruit, retain and motivate Xers, appeal to their desire for balance. Develop family-friendly programs that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting, and job-sharing. Encourage their independence and ability to manage multiple priorities. Remove bureaucracy and tenure-based rewards, but don’t remove yourself.”

In contrast, Millennials starting out in the workforce generally need to only consider themselves when making job decisions, whereas Gen Xers have more parties (partners, kids, pets, and aging parents) involved financially and emotionally. Discovering what your unique values are before jumping headfirst into a career transition will help define the next job landing. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What would you miss most if you left your current job? Why?

  • What was your “best job ever?” Why?

  • When was a time you felt really energized in your work? Why?

  • What value would you not compromise in a job? Why?

A career counselor can offer perspective

No matter what, a career change is a process and will take time. Having the guidance, and outside perspective of a professional advisor can be a huge help in overcoming a mid-life career crisis (even if you’ve done preliminary work) and dig deeper into finding patterns and themes that help inform what direction makes the most sense.

Stephanie Sattler, Assistant Director of the Office of Career Services, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Consultant at Two Oaks Consulting, says she finds her midcareer clients especially interesting because they have a better sense of self through lived experiences. Midcareer clients are better able to identify what they’re naturally good at, what tasks they enjoy, and often have more self-awareness than younger, college-aged clients. She says her work with these individuals is, “More about putting those puzzle pieces together, versus finding out what those puzzle pieces look like.”

Midcareer clients are better able to identify what they’re naturally good at, what tasks they enjoy, and often have more self-awareness than younger, college-aged clients.

Sattler prioritizes helping her clients uncover their strengths through assessments like the Gallup StrengthsFinder, and revealing their top five strengths, then moving on to discover values and interests. Sattler stresses uncovering these elements helps her, and her clients, prioritize and synthesize possible career direction and focus.

By harnessing the knowledge of your strengths and values, the mid-life career years can be a “period of unprecedented opportunity for inner growth,” Sattler says. “The more executives are aware of the skills they have developed in the course of their work lives, the more they can take advantage of these opportunities.”

Discovering new dimensions of the self

One of the terms thrown around a lot in career transition and development is the “personal rebrand”. For some mid-career professionals, it can seem like a strange concept and often is a mental hurdle. Sattler says that it all starts with the way clients view themselves. “They see the barriers rather than the advantages they bring to the table. A lot of it is helping them see the advantages and then telling a different story to themselves first, and then that’s the story they communicate to the world of work,” she says.

“It’s one of the reasons that identifying strengths and values early on helps provide the language with which to move forward and start curating your image. LinkedIn is a great platform because it lends itself well to change. You can get really creative with words and show the direction you’re going or want to go,” Sattler says.

“Identifying strengths and values early on helps provide the language with which to move forward and start curating your image.” – Stephanie Sattler

Ideally, finding your personal brand or “mission” is something professionals should evaluate throughout their career. People are always evolving and someone’s goals at 40 may not be what they are at 50. CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, Sallie Krawcheck, writes about the 7 Steps to Finding Your Personal Mission and recommends to, “Ask yourself how what you’re good and what you’re passionate about can intersect. That is the point at which you can use your skills to make a difference in something you care about.”

It’s about you; it’s not just about you

When hitting the mid-life career crisis it’s important to remember that there are more people involved in this change than just yourself.

One client Sattler worked with was the primary family breadwinner for many years, but eventually realized her job did not have much career advancement. Her desire to make a career change also required a change of mindset, as it’s not always easy to choose the self over others, even for a short amount of time. Resentment or even shame can take over, as the mindset of a career change can come from a place very different than from where that person traditionally operates from. In the case of Sattler’s client—from family to career.

Sattler stresses that the emotions a career-change consideration creates should be addressed and communicated before moving forward. Unresolved feelings can cause tension down the road between spouses or significant others.

Russell recommends clients, “Understand how they feel about change. The word ‘change’ can be loaded; to some people, it’s a good thing and to others, it feels scary, risky, challenging or threatening (or some combination). Getting insight about how you and the people in your life feel about change can inform how you talk about a career change.”

“The word ‘change’ can be loaded; to some people, it’s a good thing and to others, it feels scary, risky, challenging or threatening (or some combination).” – Rebecca Russell

Lisa Orbe-Austin, a Partner at Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, tells her clients to utilize a safe space. That space can be a group of friends, a mentor, or a career counselor or therapist; what’s important is that it’s separate from family. “You’re going to have to be able to have your safe space where you can talk about your own process of change and how you’re dealing with it and coping with it.”

The personal is professional, and the professional is personal

It is important to remember that all this hard work and self-exploration can produce significant rewards and fulfillment, and not just in the professional life. Relationship satisfaction can get a boost when individuals are more satisfied in their work life and if clear communication is a recurring practice. Orbe-Austin says that many of her clients, “Want to feel a sense of synchrony between who they are as a person and who they are professionally.” Like any significant change it is a process, but one that can make a world of difference.

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