If someone in their mid-late 40s or 50s buys a sports car, takes up a new and unexpected hobby, or becomes suddenly more impulsive in their decision making, we assume they must be having a mid-life crisis.

As people transition from younger to older adults, they tend to evaluate where they are in their lives, what they’ve achieved, and how this matches up against the hopes they had wished for in the past. And sometimes, this can result in a loss of self-confidence or feelings of anxiety or disappointment - hence the sudden need for change.

Research has proved that the mid-life crisis is a real phenomenon. In 2008, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found that life satisfaction tends to take the form of a gentle U shape, beginning high in our youth, bottoming out in our mid-late 40’s, and then recovering as we get older. And this pattern affects both men and women all over the world.

But, how do you spot the signs of a mid-life career crisis? How do you survive feelings of regret, ‘what ifs’, and restlessness when it comes to your career? And how do you know if you really need a change?

The mid-life career crisis

When it comes to our career lifespan, the ‘crisis’ may not align exactly with middle age. It may hit after ten, 15, 20, or even 25 years in a sector, but many people experience this mid-life or mid-career crisis at some point.

If you chose what you wanted to do straight out of university, or even beforehand, and you haven’t thought much about alternatives throughout your career, it might be that it dawns on you what you could have done, or what you could have been. You start to think about the roads not taken and wonder if you missed out. Then there are mistakes you’ve made and failings you’ve experienced along the way. What if I had done a better job? What if I had gotten that promotion?

When lacking in confidence or feeling fed up, it’s easy to get lost in this loop of regrets and ‘what ifs’. But, you’ll never know what might have been. Who’s to say that if you’d gone into Finance instead of HR, or if you’d started out in a different company, that your life would have worked out for the better? And many of the things you are grateful for may not have happened had you taken a different path.

Crisis or opportunity?

For some people, it might seem like there is an insurmountable gap between where they are and where they really want to be. But for others, it might spur them on to make decisions that will enhance their career. Although it can be stressful, a mid-life career crisis is also an opportunity to move closer towards a career you love.

The first step is figuring out what’s wrong or missing. Are you dreading going to work every day? Are you being given the freedom you need? Or are you finding your team impossible to work with? Are you worried about age discrimination? Or do you just feel that you haven’t yet achieved what you had hoped to by this point?

Chances are you don’t need to completely overhaul the career you’ve put your heart and soul into for so many years. It might just be that you need to switch positions, to find new ways to develop your skills, or to find better ways of communicating with those around you.

Perhaps there isn’t anything wrong or missing at all. Perhaps all you need is to re-connect with your career identity and remind yourself of your successes, the challenges you’ve overcome, and the legacy you’ve built. Then you can look forward and dive back into the next challenge with reaffirmation of who you are, where you came from, and where you're headed.

How do you know if it’s time to make a bigger change?

Assess your career plan, work out what you want to achieve, and explore whether your current role can afford you the opportunity to get you to where you want to be. If the opportunities are not there, then you will have to move somewhere where you can get the personal fulfilment you want.

Perhaps you decide you want to change to a different industry. The good news is, whether you’re in Finance, HR, IT, or Marketing, organisations today are more open to recruiting outside of their industry than they were in the past. Of course, the more senior you are, the trickier it becomes, but there can be a massive value add in recruiting someone from a different industry with a different perspective, and organisations are recognising this.

The most important thing is to allow yourself time to think about any change you want to make. Do you really want to do something different? Will you still be able to support your family? And will it really make you happier? Most people will find that their feelings of anxiety and restlessness eventually pass.

A mid-life career crisis can be daunting and stressful. But it can also be the trigger you need to spur you on to make decisions that will advance your career and help you to feel more fulfilled - both professionally and personally.

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