There is something about approaching 50 that naturally brings up a fundamental midlife reappraisal of all the essential elements of life. It often starts with the realization that we are likely to have lived more than half of our available years. So with varying degrees of intentionality, we question the status of our relationships, our career, and whether we want to stay put geographically. Peggy Lee’s song lyric “is that all there is” speaks to this uncertainty as many of us wonder whether we need to lay down some new track.

Is It Midlife Crisis or Reappraisal?

This process is often characterized as a midlife crisis, with the emphasis on CRISIS. You know the stereotype: the middle-aged man who trades in his wife for his secretary and a red sports car. This clichéd version of the process does a disservice to any serious reappraisal in three ways.

  • First, the crisis label ignores the possibility that midlife reappraisal is a natural stage of a well-lived life.
  • Second, a damaging implication is that the inevitable outcome of reappraisal is a wild change in direction. Sometimes significant increases in satisfaction can come from nuanced changes like renegotiating working hours or giving up some aspect of the current job for a new and exciting responsibility.
  • Third, people often assume that family and colleagues will criticize this kind of reappraisal as unnecessary boat rocking.

By the time someone is 50 in their chosen field, they often have a pretty clear understanding of their prospects if they decide to remain in their current career. How senior will I be? What does staying put mean in terms of meeting my current and long-term financial obligations? And perhaps most importantly, will staying the course allow me to achieve the contributions I imagined at the start of my career.

Choices When Facing Career Discontent

If the assessment indicates career discontent, then there are two stark choices: Hang on for the next decade or face the unsettling choice of investigating a new path.

Hanging on seems attractive in the short-run as life and career look predictable. The kids will get college money, and retirement looks comfortable. To friends and family, it can seem like a sensible choice. Besides, after 30 years in the same field, other career options are not often obvious. Many people who choose to hang on to unsatisfying jobs cope by developing new interests outside of work. Learning a new language or a musical instrument can be exciting distractions from 9 to 5 boredom. But ten more years in the wrong job can seem endless. It is after all more time than one spends in high school and college combined.

The problem of hanging on to an unsatisfying career is that it can lead to a kind of professional depression. The feeling that one has underplayed one’s cards or has not lived up to one’s potential can be devastating and can leak into the parts of life that are working well. Most people on their deathbeds report that they wished that they have taken more risks rather than settling for the safer option. Enduring years of job dissatisfaction when one is actually at the height of one’s powers can lead to the loss of self-esteem and self-destructive behavior such as drinking and eating too much

A healthier approach to an unsatisfying career at 50 is to ask the question “what kind of contribution do I want to make with my skills and experience now”?

Finding the Next Step

When a midlife reappraisal indicates the need to change careers, the next step is not always obvious. That is what I help my clients to sort out. Facing the truth of not knowing the right next step in an unsatisfying job is both unsettling and healthy. The analysis of what to do next professionally often requires an in-depth understanding of one’s accomplishments, skills, and an assignment that looks promising.

A good career coach can support and guide a client through the process. An intelligent investigation of the many and often competing objectives can lead to the most exciting professional decade. Many of my clients who are willing to go through this analysis are incredibly invigorated. They report that they wished that they had met with me much earlier.

Peter Sherer is a nationally recognized career coach who offers clarity and confidence to mid-career and senior executives in transition. In just two short days, his rigorous assessment tools enable his clients to identify a meaningful assignment that uses all of their skills and experience. Learn more and get in touch with Peter today.