Over the next nine months, we will take a big-picture look at the trajectories that shape and reflect our North American lives. We will consider “the future” of things as ordinary as the relationship we have with animals and consumer habits, to habits that are elemental (and perhaps unexamined) to our lives, such as trends about water, noise, exercise and cars.
We start with a look at what will be trending in our careers. Now that everyone in the Boomer generation is (at least) in their 50s, our attention is fixed upon the home stretch of work, retirement and career arc. In many scenarios, Boomers have a) received inherited money; b) paid off their kids’ college and wedding expenses; and/or c) hit their peak earning income. Yes, many live hand-to-mouth, are crippled by debt, and don’t save enough. But the big, big Boomer career picture is “stable.”
“Stable but unsatisfying,” that is. Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management at Gallup, says that about half of Boomer and Gen X employees fall in a category of “not engaged” at work, and one in five are “actively disengaged.” Watching junior employees promoted ahead of them, hitting the sobering reality that many early career aspirations will go unmet, and not-yet-old enough to afford retirement, many find themselves in not only a midlife crisis, or, more specifically, a mid-career crisis. Do I try to grind out another 10-20 years in a job that has grown unsatisfying?
Barbara Bradley Haggerty, author of Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, says a firm, “No!” While shifting careers can be risky, adjusting course may be the best thing you can do for your long-term mental and physical health. Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute quantitatively concluded what Rick Warren claimed in the 1990s: that they key to life and contentment is a strong sense of purpose. What the ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia, the good life, is not based in leisure, but in striving toward a goal or purpose — such as in one’s career. Erik Erikson long ago noted that the primary trajectory in the second half of life was the need to contribute.
The U.S. workforce is waking up to this reality. Stanford Medical School research connects mid-career work shifts toward more purposeful work to mental and physical robustness. Alzheimer’s research suggests that a number of people whose brains physically display the plaque of the disease do not show memory nor intellectual impairment and that in those people, there is a striking correlation with the person exhibiting a strong sense of purpose in life.
So … expect an uptick in the number of mid-career job shifts. Some of these will be more incremental than dramatic. Some people will downsize their standard of living to finance the adventure. Very few will look like the “let’s quit and go buy a vineyard” commercials.
But we are entering an age when people, realizing they have one major window left, are going to ford the stream of career change. Those who do may resonate with how Haggerty describes the feeling: “I am still a little terrified,” she says. “But one thing I am not is bored.” For those of us who are disciples, we want to be able to say with noted career-changer, Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”