Articles > Midlife Rejuvenation

Midlife Rejuvenation
Globe & Mail, May 13, 2005

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "There are no second acts in American life." Maybe that was once true but today, thanks to record levels of career distress among managers and professionals, more and more people are performing second, third and even fourth acts.

Some do it out of choice -- because of boredom, restlessness or disgust at organizational life. Others are forced into it, through downsizing or age discrimination. Whatever the reasons, many people at mid-life are asking the questions: How do I want to spend the next 20 years? And, what really matters to me now?

In answering those questions, they are taking different approaches to career renewal at midlife. Here's how several managers and professionals I spoke to are handling it:

Total transformation: Sometimes people think their only option is to dramatically remake themselves, for example, a lawyer who becomes a florist.

While the concept of complete change is seductive and resonates with the current zeitgeist (throw away the old, embrace the new), it is expensive -- often involving upgrading education and, since change may involve entirely different skills, even essentially starting out all over again.

There are happy and successful re-inventers. Some are semi-retired with a financial cushion, such as the teacher who took early retirement and opened a jewellery store. Others may see reinvention as a necessity, such as artists tired of scraping by. One dancer I know became a lawyer.

Most important are those with unfulfilled dreams, such as the secretary who had always wanted to be a therapist. She sold her house, moved to a cheaper city and spent six years studying psychology.

But few people actually need to make radical moves to rejuvenate tired work lives.

Moreover, I've always had trouble with the concept of reinvention. At a philosophical level, how do you reinvent the self? Who you are -- your personality characteristics, values, looks -- is not plastic, capable of being moulded into whatever the self du jour happens to be.

Rather, I think of a person's skills and attributes more like a Lego vehicle: the pieces can be reshaped into family car, an ambulance or a spaceship -- but they are the same pieces and they still make a vehicle. At the core, we all have attributes that singularly describe who we are. We should celebrate them, rather than throw them away.

Reconfiguring work: This often is the easiest and least expensive source of renewal.

Many bored, burned-out or fed-up professionals go this route, reconfiguring their skills, Lego-like, in new and interesting ways.

Take three formerly unhappy lawyers. One became a coach specializing in lawyers. Another became a conference producer specializing in employment law. The third became a writer specializing in legal matters.

Others change who they sell their skills to. Many move into the not-for-profit sector. Others shift to organizations where the culture allows them to work in a way consistent with their values and professional standards.

Finishing earlier business: At mid-career, many us may find that we have unfinished business from earlier life stages. One man had played in a band until his late 20s. Though he considered becoming a musician, he was persuaded it was not an "adult" career choice and so became a lawyer, gradually drifting away from music. But then at midlife, we may reconnect with earlier times. That lawyer scaled back his practice and now performs a few times a week.

We may also reconnect with former dreams. One nurse was promoted and found herself the second-in-command at a hospital. But when she remembered why she had become a nurse -- to help people -- she reconnected with her desires to be a helper, not an administrator. Now, she is a career coach. This type of re-engagement provides an important opportunity for us to explore the path not taken and, for the bored, to test themselves in new ways.

Stretching expertise: At mid-career, some who love their professions stretch themselves by writing books and giving speeches. Others move into self-employment and sell their professional skills as independent consultants

Then there are professionals who have been promoted up the career ladder into management positions, where they no longer practice what originally drew them to their profession. They may choose to and return to the skills they practised before moving into management. These people are often what I call "personal developers" -- motivated more by learning and being challenged; many also want to mentor younger professionals.

Downsizing ambition: Some professionals who have had high-octane careers and proven what they had to prove to themselves now seek something else: more engagement in non-work arenas, with their kids, volunteering or the arts.

They need to work but work becomes a means of paying the bills, not how they define themselves. So they may downsize how they live and seek out less stressful and demanding jobs, which allows time and energy for a life. Many explore untested parts of themselves. Several are seriously pursuing hobbies. Others go for self-improvement.

In this group are also many victims of age discrimination who have been forced down the ladder. Under-stimulated at work, they look outside for satisfaction.

Maturing as a leader: On the other hand are those with unfulfilled ambitions and still with something to prove to themselves and the world. Their ego is on the line and they are in a hurry because they know the window is closing quickly.

Others feel good about what they've achieved to date but want one bigger kick at the can. This may be their swan song. They no longer have their egos on the line and can make decisions free of concerns about status or competitiveness.Becoming a free agent I recently asked several hundred women where they thought they'd be most authentic and happy. About 80 per cent said self-employment. Many men feel the same way.

For some, this may have been a reaction to what they see as "soul-sucking" work demands. But many others feel they can't really express their own voice in organizations or play the corporate game any longer. So, at mid-career, they dream of doing their own thing and move into self-employment. Sometimes they are ambitious career-builders who have a great business idea. Others are autonomy seekers who want to reap the rewards of their own endeavours.

Although many people have entrepreneurial desires, few actually successfully take this route: it is very difficult after working in a large organization to adjust to the rhythms of self-employment.

Creating a career portfolio: This is one of the most effective types of career configuration for renewal. It is based on the assumptions that we have many needs and desires, and play many roles.

Many people already practice this type of career without realizing it. One woman who was bored with her work started making jewellery on the side and became a volunteer for a women's organization. Soon, she quit her job, began freelancing, set aside two daysto keep up her jewellery making and still volunteers.

More and more people are taking the portfolio approach, finding they can fulfill their various parts by doing more than one thing. People who effectively work a portfolio mindfully identify the components of what they need, whether financial, spiritual, intellectual, or artistic. And they come away happier for taking care of themselves as a whole.