It starts often as you hit mid-life. The glittering promotion. The dynamic career. The corner room office. It doesn’t sparkle like it used to – priorities have changed. Children are growing up and they need your time. You honestly prefer a good night’s rest to drinks out with the office crowd on Friday nights. Working late is not what it used to be; you no longer can manage with four hours of sleep at night and realise you need to hit the pillow by 10:00 p.m. latest in order to put in a good day’s work the next day.
Of course, there are those who can continue until retirement with the same spring in their step. But the majority feels a little tired, a little laid back, wishing that instead of that six p.m. telecon meeting with the global corporate office, you would rather be walking along the Independence Square or doing homework with the children. Of course you may not tell anyone but honestly, there are the days when you wish you could get out of office early and take a break.
A lack of what is traditionally defined as ambition begins to be visible as most of us hit the big 40. Advancement, career, ambition, these criteria are relevant to almost all stages of our working lives but they begin to hold different meanings as we go along. As we get older, we tend to display a lessening of being driven by ambition, goals that define a stellar career and the other alpha qualities that some of us are capable of displaying until retirement beckons.
Instead, our focus changes. We look at changing careers – most of us would love to start on our own and some of us do very successfully. Being able to finally make the balance right, between managing the home front and a career you are in charge of, can be fulfilling and stimulating at the same time. Of course, entrepreneurship has its ups and downs but being let off the leash is in itself a liberating experience, especially for women whose children are at that age when they are older and need constant supervision and attention.
A study conducted by the Families and Work Institute in the USA found that often, most start losing ambition to get promoted and seek more responsibilities around 35. Researchers like to attribute this decline in motivation to the demands of having children.
Yet, further research seem to suggest that the loss of ambition may have a lot more to do with our natural life pattern than a mere aversion to work.
Research consistently shows that people peak in happiness at ages 18 and 28 and hit a nadir of unhappiness at age 46, known otherwise as the mid-life crisis.
U bend theory
Research identifies this point in life as the U bend; the U bend theory apparently holds true in almost every culture and whether or not you have children. In contrast, when you start life, you are fresh and excited about the future and also you have a fewer responsibilities, so you are happier. There are of course those who defy all of this wisdom and continue in life to be happier whether older or younger.
As you get older, whether established in a career or otherwise, you tend to care less about what other people think and pleasing people – you may also be getting out of the demands of having to prove yourself in a career. You are fulfilled enough to settle down either into the career you have always wanted or into a complete change of careers.
‘The Progress Principle’, a book authored by Harvard University Professor Teresa Amabile and Researcher Steven Kramer, says that employees are far more likely to have new ideas when feeling happier. Contrary to the belief that pressure increases performance, these researchers suggest that happiness is a key factor to enhance progress and performance.
Middle years are the years when you reap the rewards of a hard-working career, to which you have given your life’s best. As you settle into senior management and perhaps await being appointed to the board, with so much of sacrifice and personal cost under the table, does it mean that you may throw it all away? Not really, say the researchers. Just because one is upbeat about a career when younger or ready to slow down when older, the career potential stayed the same. What changed was the perspective. And of course the level of maturity and emotional intelligence all of us bring into our own unique lives, have a say as well.
So enjoy your career – but also listen to your heart when it wants to enjoy a sunset, have a close conversation with the kids as they come home or simply spend time doing the kind of things you know you enjoy doing.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)