The New Midlife Crisis–It's an 'Existential Necessity'

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by: John Caddell

I’ve been working through my midlife crisis (profiled in this earlier post)–not buying a sports car or seeking a trophy wife (I have one of those already), but confronting this: since retiring at fifty is neither practical nor desirable, working 2000 hours or so per year better be fun and have some meaning in it.

 For me, that means working for myself, engaging in lots of different projects with different clients, working with folks from different countries (UK, Brazil, Japan, Northern Ireland in the past year), reading and researching, and playing with some new product ideas that may never earn a dime. (And being able to spend time with the family guilt-free.)

It may not be a house on the Maui beachfront, but it’s a bit of paradise to me.

I have found that I have company in this new midlife crisis. I just caught up with a colleague from the ’80s who left the rat race to develop a business combining his passions of marketing and auto racing. Very cool.

And now I learn that it is not only desirable, but necessary, to go through this change. Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg write in the February Harvard Business Review about "The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change" (link – $$). Strenger and Ruttenberg recognize that the midlife years often bring a need for career transition–boredom with the "same old job," lack of promotion opportunities, corporate restructuring or even being fired during our forties and fifties. Yet our assumptions of what we have left to offer are hopelessly out of date:

The myth of midlife as the onset of decline is rooted in historically outdated conceptions. According to this myth, people end their productive lives and retire at age 65. Sixty-five is not a magical number, however. It was introduced as the retirement age in Germany in 1916. Twenty-seven years earlier, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had established 70 as the age to begin receiving a pension. When asked how the state could afford such largesse, Bismarck replied that almost nobody would reach this age anyway. He was right. According to one source, life expectancy in Germany at the time was 49.

Since life expectancy in much of the developed world exceeds 80 years, retiring at 65 is a decade or more too early (ask my 83-year-old dad, who is completing his seventeenth year of work at the local elementary school, a job he took after retirement).

But for those forty-somethings who are looking at how to spend their next thirty years’ productivity, there’s another trap, write the authors: the myth of magical transformations:

This myth, the fruit of the past few decades, has been fed by countless self-help books and magazine articles, and by a general cultural atmosphere. The myth tries to sell the illusion that if people have enough vision and willpower, they can be anything or anybody they want to be. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make midlife career changes easier–it makes them more frightening. Faced with stories of doctors who get up one morning knowing that they want to become chefs, housewives who have a sudden vision of the business empires they are about to build, and lawyers who one day have crystal clear plans for high-tech businesses, real-life human beings are bound to feel inadequate. They have fears, doubts, and vague ideas at best, so they’d better stick to their knitting.

 To sidestep this trap, the article gives us some commonsense advice: "To be productive, dreams must be connected to our potential. Otherwise, they are idle fantasies."

So, there’s a prescription. Dream your future–as connected to your capabilities and strengths. Then go do it.

Anyone else out there giving it a go? Let me know.

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