Career wobbles! If you’ve never had a career wobble, are you even normal?
A career wobble is when you start feeling unhappy or dissatisfied with your job or career. This can happen quickly, as in virtually overnight, or slowly, over a period of weeks or months. It could be due to external reasons (I hate this place / this manager / this is not my tribe) or internal (I’m not feeling this career anymore / this adds no value to me or anyone else).
Ignore the wobble at your peril! It’s not going to go away. If anything, it will get stronger. And if you stay passive in the face of unhappiness, you’re likely to become negative about everything else in your life too.
Part of what keeps us stuck is that we view a career as a linear ladder of progression, instead of a series of experiences. Change navigator April Rinne explains this really well in her recent article, It’s Time to Rethink Traditional Career Trajectories (hbr.org). And to read more about viewing your career as an experience, read here.
Our wobbles are likely to look different depending upon the age we are when we hit the wobble. Below I unpack what the wobble can look like at different age-stages. I also suggest some smart moves we can make to boost ourselves out of the dip.
20’s – quarter-life crisis
A quarter-life crisis sounds dramatic. It is!
It’s a crisis that may be experienced in one’s twenties, involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one’s life, as per the Collins English Dictionary. Clinical psychologist Alex Fowke, as quoted in an article by media body Independent, describes it as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation”. One such pressure includes needing to navigate an increasingly complex professional landscape.
The same article quotes a LinkedIn study which found that 72% of young professionals in the UK have experienced a quarter-life crisis, with 57% facing pressure to find a career they’re passionate about. This ranks higher than the pressure of finding a life partner, so it’s serious stuff indeed.
Common stressors that pre-empt this type of crisis can include:
|Job-hunting or career planning.
|Living alone for the first time.
|Navigating both personal and professional relationships.
|Making long-term personal or professional decisions.
The better you understand yourself, the more likely you are to select a career path that fits with your personality and aspirations. If you’re experiencing a quarter-life crisis, or if you know some-one who is, encourage them to undergo some personal development. By the way, the average age for a quarter life crisis is 26 years and nine months, if you’re wondering.
If you’ve been in the workplace for a while and are coming to the realisation that you’ve picked the wrong career, don’t delay. The longer you stay on the same career path, the more difficult it is to break out. You may need the help of an experienced and insightful career coach to build a well- thought-out bridge between where you are now, and where you want to go.
Mid 30's blues
Our thirties are typically a hectic time. So many demands. Proving ourselves at work. Aiming for that promotion. Trying to balance the demands of work, commuting, relationships, family, running a home, healthy living, fitness, (insert all your other aims and commitments here).
If you can survive your thirties, chances are things will get less busy in the following decades. Something to look forward to!
Recent research tells us that Americans in their 30’s find their job less enjoyable or fulfilling than their co-workers aged 50 and over; similarly this age group finds their job more stressful and overwhelming than older workers. Women experience less satisfaction with pay and benefits, and more stress, than their male counterparts. Previous research from the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work which gathered data from over 11 000 people in 11 countries had the same findings – that the most dissatisfied workers are aged between 30 and 39.
UK-based research tells us that Brits typically start hating their jobs in their 30’s, specifically over the age of 35. More overtime gets put in (often unpaid), but at the same time career satisfaction drops to an all-time low.
Promotion bottlenecks also play a part at this career-stage. Increased competition for fewer higher-level vacancies means less winners. Also, in our thirties we’re usually engaged in continual on-the-job learning, along with increased responsibilities.
That makes for grim reading. A key influence on low job satisfaction is thought to be fatigue-related – trying to juggle too many balls, whilst spending too many hours commuting and at work. All this during a time when there are so many competing demands for our attention. And when we’re tired, we get overwhelmed easily. Which makes everything seem harder.
It’s at this stage of our careers that mentors can be of huge benefit to us. Some benefits of having a mentor include skills and knowledge transfer (by quickly tapping into the expertise and insights of some-one highly knowledgeable in your industry or line of work); career path guidance; confidence-building and increased networking opportunities.
|Here are some concrete things that can help to survive the mid-thirty blues:
|Finding a supportive mentor.
|Putting clear boundaries around your personal & family life.
|Acknowledging that you can have it all, but not all at once – so choose your priorities wisely; and let go of the less important stuff.
|Building self-care into your monthly routine, no matter how short – right now quality is better than quantity.
40’s – Midlife career crisis
You’ve spent the last 15 plus years building your career. You’ve built a wealth of knowledge and skills. You’re comfortable in your work skin. So why, then, have you lost passion and fulfilment in your profession?
The answer lies, unfortunately, in your age. You, along with others in their 40’s, have just hit your most unhappy decade. And if you don’t manage this decade well, you’re going to make decisions you’re not going to be proud of. Like the ones you made twenty years ago when you were lacking in both judgment and experience.
Here’s the science behind this emotional ambush:
Happiness comes in the shape of a U. Indeed. Dialling back to 2008, two economists found that self-reported life satisfaction is in the shape of a gently curving U, beginning high when we’re young. We hit the bottom of the curve around our mid 40’s, and then the curve starts going up again after age 50. Countless studies have done similar research, across different countries, and have had very similar results. And some studies pinpoint our most unhappy year at age 47.2.
What makes us so unhappy during this decade? There are a multitude of factors, some being the narrowing of options, regret over what we did or didn’t do in the past, feeling that life is repetitive and getting stale etc. There may be professional dissatisfaction because our job no longer provides us with the satisfaction it used to, or we feel we’re not progressing as we should, or we’re forming different interests. There’s often also a feeling of “has it all been worth it?”. This is the age when we are most likely to do an internal cost versus benefit analysis, and to find that although we’ve been successful in some areas, we’ve neglected others. And now it bothers us.
Doing some healthy introspection can help us gain valuable perspective. What do we want to change, and what do we want to accept gracefully?
An experienced executive coach can help us gain insight and focus as we navigate this turbulent decade.
The good news is that as we age, we get happier!
And if you’re considering entrepreneurship, here are some very interesting statistics from research reported on in the Harvard Business Review: the average age of entrepreneurs at the time of their company’s founding is 42, and the average age of highly successful start-up founders is 45. The young techies who get all the headlines are outliers.
50’s – Slaying it
Having a career wobble in your fifties is very enlightening. And it can lead to a great outcome.
There are many success stories of late career switches. By the time you’re in your fifties, you’re likely to have a very realistic picture of who you are, what you want, and what you’re good at. All that’s needed is the courage to make the change.
Mindset is a key issue here. There are two very different perspectives we can adopt in our fifties.
The more conventional one is to think of ourselves as an aging commodity. “I’m getting old and stale, things are moving too fast around me, I don’t understand half of what my younger colleagues are excited about, and I wish I could retire but I can’t afford to”.
The other script is way more empowering. “I’m at the height of my super-powers. I have a wealth of experience and knowledge which means I find good solutions quicker than most; I don’t have the patience to tolerate nonsense; and I’m confident enough in myself to make changes to my career to suit the life I want”.
Let’s be realistic, though. Whereas most countries have legislated against age discrimination, it exists.
Smart companies, however, focus on ongoing learning. They seek agile employees, and don’t assume that age and agility are inexorably linked. Age can be just a number. What’s important is finding people who have the passion and energy to learn new skills and thrive in changing environments.
Consider captains of industry. They’ve had many years of experience and use this highly effectively to manage complex organisations. They don’t hide behind their years – in fact they acknowledge the key role their years have played in getting them this far.
If you’re feeling fifty and stale, it’s time to find some-one positive and supportive to bounce ideas off. Start deciding what you’d rather do with your life.
Do your research.
And then don’t hesitate.