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Beware the Mid-Career Slump

Feeling your job satisfaction flag in your thirties? You're not alone. A new study reveals what's behind the phenomenon and suggests remedies.
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You've heard of the mid (and quarter) life crises. Now meet the mid-career slump.

While some surveys show job satisfaction increasing steadily with age, research has revealed that things are a bit more complicated. Job satisfaction actually tends to be U-shaped, starting fairly strong in the early days of your working life, then declining in mid-career when folks are in their thirties before steadily rising again. So what's behind this mid-career slump? And can an investigation of causes help those folks battling through the work doldrums get their mojo back?

The middle is a particularly perilous time for any endeavor as initial motivation fades but the final energizing sprint to the goal line seems far off. A new Australian study suggests there's a particular reason for falling job satisfaction levels mid-career, however. And no, it's not that these are the years where many people are time squeezed with young children and other burgeoning family responsibilities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that, while work-life stress does lead to greater job dissatisfaction (shocking absolutely no one), the timing of people's peak complaints on that front didn't map onto the mid-career decline in job satisfaction. Something else was going on.

The Cutthroat Thirties

The study did show workers facing more of a time crunch as they entered their thirties, but the pressures on them were made much worse by another factor. At the same rate that their responsibilities were multiplying at work as well as at home, the support they received from co-workers was declining, creating a double whammy of more demands and less help. What's behind this phenomenon of less cooperative colleagues?

"Support from co-workers probably dips in midlife as peers compete for scarce resources (promotion bottlenecks are often encountered during this career stage). Also, whereas younger counterparts are often hungry to forge new social networks and older workers seek identity-affirming work experiences in their remaining tenure, midlifers find it demanding enough just to maintain existing social networks. Meanwhile, time pressure likely intensifies mid-career as colleagues try to leverage one's knowledge and experience," reports a write-up of the findings in the British Psychological Society Research Digest.

Straightening out the Slump

So if isolation and competition are likely to blame for the mid-career slump, are any remedies available to fix the problem? Yup, says the BPS blog post. As the problems aren't an inevitable part of people's life cycles, "training in time management skills, fairer delegation, and methods for reducing competition between mid-level peers" could help.

For managers, this suggests thinking twice about the wisdom of pitting your mid-level employees against one another in naked competition, as well as pondering ways to build social support into the work environment despite its pressures. Meanwhile, individuals going through the slump themselves might want to focus on ways to keep cooperation up--offering their services to teammates, inviting colleagues out for an after-work drink, and generally finding ways to support one another more.

Have you experienced the mid-career slump?

 

Last updated: Jul 16, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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