June 25, 2018

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Deciding What To Do With The Rest Of Your Life

It was early Spring as I pulled into my driveway, and he came out of his house to greet me. We walked over and sat in chairs by his backyard swimming pool. “How does it feel?” I asked immediately. “Just great,” he replied. “But almost everyone around here thinks I’m a little crazy.”

What this man, forty-eight years old, married, with two teenage boys, had done was quit his high-paying job. He had quit without any definite plans and with no intention of making any fast commitments to another job.I asked him how his wife had handled his decision, and what about the boys, one in college and the other in high school? He told me that they’d given him their moral support, but also that they were confused and worried and even a little angry. I was not surprised. Although he was definitely not poor, it would put a crimp in their lifestyle if his time off, as he called it, was to stretch to any length.

He went on to describe how good it felt to have made the change, and how he was surprised that though he had liked his work, he did not miss the office. “The strange thing was,” he said, “I was actually enjoying myself more than I had in years. It was just that if I was ever going to try something different, I had to do it now.”

He was not alone. In the City of Tampa, I knew of two other men who had made similar decisions. One, a physician in his forties, had abandoned a very lucrative practice to take a job in Chicago as a medical researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. His motivation had been twofold. On the one hand, he had become somewhat disheartened by the way that modern medical practice prevented the kind of doctor-patient relationship he valued. On the other hand, he had simply always loved research. The second man, an accountant turning fifty, was sharply reducing his number of clients to those he “really enjoyed working with,” and was planning to compensate for his lost income by the buying and selling of various collectibles.

Again, it was not a case of hating what he did; it was wanting a work experience that might offer a richer life. Other examples abound: a salesperson from Microsoft dropped out at the peak of her success. A technical project manager left his career early on to study investments and “think things through.”

What’s going on here? Whatever it is, it’s happening all over America. Some would say it is a phenomenon of burnout, that psychological exhaustion that bankrupts the spirit in our competitive, complex, and driven society. That must be true in many instances, but I do not believe it is true for any of these men.

What I think is starting to occur is not a phenomenon of failure, but of success. For it is the success these men have enjoyed that has allowed them the opportunity to switch careers or simply take time off in mid-life. Part of this success is, of course, financial. But the more important element of it, I believe is psychological. These are people with the strong self-image necessary to maintain an identity without the prop of a career or professional label: Doctor, Account, and Salesperson.

I know a surprisingly large number of people who have chosen to undergo this process – women as well as men. Most of them have done so exactly at the time when they could have anticipated new career opportunities with greater financial rewards. I once asked one of these people – a guy who had just resigned a top CFO job – about what he was giving up, and he said, “Yes, maybe there’s a little drop in the standard of living, but there’s a big jump in the quality of life.”

A JUMP in the quality of life. That’s the real story here. Men and women who have good fortune and courage are recommitting themselves at the midpoint of their careers to those ideals and dreams they had at the beginning of their adult lives. It means a second career, or no career but just a job, or going back to school. It means less money, or gambling with the money they’ve got, or giving up their chances at the big money. It means answering the question, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I believe there will be a steady increase in the next ten years in the number of people who undergo this process.

Two reasons for this change stand out. The first is a general realization that if the only game in town is material success, there will be few winners. For only a small percentage of the population can ever be very rich or very prominent. A new emphasis will emerge that allows for many more winners. The second reason for the change is a growing awareness of the limits of individual achievement. It means little to be individually affluent, urban or suburban, if you live a life without family, or in fear of crime, or with the threat of a deteriorating environment.

The phrase one hears to describe this new emphasis is “the quality of life.” A new generation of people are now in their forties and fifties, and they can see ahead to what they are likely to obtain in income and achievement levels. What is happening with individuals like my friends is that they are realizing it is in their interest to sacrifice some economic payoff for more general satisfaction with their lives. It may appear to be naïve or somehow overly idealistic, but it is really a “bottom line” type of computation, which measures net happiness rather than net dollars.

My three friends, who do not even know one another, would be amazed to learn that researchers see them as part of a societal value shift, for they are consumed by their individual struggles and are basically apolitical. Yet the man sitting by his pool that day went on to describe to me with total enthusiasm how he had gotten involved with a long neglected hobby.

At first I thought I was making all this up, seeing isolated instances as a trend that really only existed in my imagination. But a few months ago, I had lunch with a university professor who makes it a hobby to identify social change before it becomes social trend. This man is very bright, and I found myself fascinated listening to him describe the subtle signs he sees that are so easy to miss. I explained my hypothesis about career switching, time off, and a different emphasis in the second half of life. He had not only already isolated a similar pattern of occurrences, but had a phrase to describe it: “The Discovery Generation.”

“The Discovery Generation,” I like that phrase. Maybe that is the real lowdown on my friends and what I am seeing as I travel this country. Social change is almost always a ground swell that begins with the response of a group of people to a problem or frustration. Their example inevitably spreads, as the media and social observers report and comment on it. In 1990, I almost never encountered people struggling with these kinds of life changes, but now it’s a common occurrence. It has certainly worked in this manner with me. As I talk with these people, I find it adds to my own restlessness and makes me question myself as I, too, struggle with what to do with the rest of my life. Maybe reading this will do the same for you.

- Joe Hodowanes, Career Strategy Advisor

J.M. Wanes & Associates

Joe Hodowanes, M.P.A., SPHR, is a nationally recognized career coach, syndicated columnist, and president of Tampa-based J.M. Wanes & Associates, J.M. Wanes & Associates is a career coaching, outplacement, and executive search firm specializing in executive-level opportunities.

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