Managing middlescence

Managing middlescence

Mid-career employees and managers, who should be at their peak of productivity, are the most disaffected segment of the workforce.

Companies need to find ways to rekindle the fires of this vast, neglected group of people - or risk losing them together. Focus Baby boomers Mid-career employees and managers, who should be at their peak of productivity, are the most disaffected segment of the workforce. Companies need to find ways to rekindle the fires of this vast, neglected group of people - or risk losing them together.

Turned-out, bottlenecked, and bored. That's the current lot of millions of mid-career employees. In our research into employee attitudes and experiences, we heard many stories of mid-career restlessness, a phenomenon we call middlescence.

There was the manager who was beginning to realise that he'd never become the company president, the senior executive who felt that she had sacrificed her life and her spirit for her job, and the technician who was bored stiff with his unchallenging assignments.

Typical is the case of one productive and well-respected middle manager in his late 40s. He was sandwiched between obligations at the office and at home, and his work group was demoralised after two rounds of downsizing.

The company's structure had flattened, leaving fewer possibilities than ever for promotion, and he felt stalled. "This isn't how my life and career were supposed to play out," he told the employee counsellor. "I don't know how much longer I can cope."

Like adolescence, middlescence can be a time of frustration, confusion, and alienation but also a time of self-discovery, new direction, and fresh beginnings. Today, millions of mid-career men and women are wrestling with middlescence looking for ways to balance job responsibilities, family, and leisure while hoping to find new meaning in their work.

Mid-career employees, those between the ages of 35 and 54, make up more than half the workforce.

One in four has managerial or supervisory responsibility. When in June 2004 we at Age Wave and the Concours Group conducted a survey with Harris Interactive of more than 7700 US workers, we found that people in this age bracket work longer hours than their older and younger counterparts, with 30 per cent saying they put in 50 or more hours per week.

Yet only 43 per cent are passionate about their jobs, just 33 per cent feel energised by their work, 36 per cent say they feel that they are in dead-end jobs, and more than 40 per cent report feelings of burnout.

Mid-career employees are the least likely to say their workplace is congenial and fun or that it offers ample opportunity to try new things. As a group, they have the lowest satisfaction rates with their immediate managers and the least confidence in top executives.

Only one in three agrees that top management displays integrity or commitment to employee development, and one in four often disagrees with the organisation's policies on important employee matters. A fifth are seeking opportunities in other organisations, and a similar percentage are looking for a major career change. But 85 per cent believe career changes are very difficult these days.

Family and financial pressures outside work make them conservative in their career choices, and many cannot afford moves that would involve cuts in pay or benefits.

Other research has yielded similar findings: According to a 2005 Conference Board survey, the largest decline in job satisfaction over the past 10 years occurred among workers between the ages of 35 and 44, and the second largest decline was among those aged 45 to 54. In short, far too many mid-career employees are working more, enjoying it less, and looking for alternatives.

Increased longevity

Middlescent restlessness isn't new, but it plays out differently in different generations. It seems to be hitting today's mid-career workers harder than it hit their predecessors.

Increased longevity, delayed (and multiple) marriages, and large numbers of two-career households have altered family patterns such that middlescents are often sandwiched at home between raising children and caring for aging parents precisely at the time when their job responsibilities are peaking.

Increased longevity also means the average 50 year old today could be looking forward to 30 years or more of healthy, active life. That can be a blessing time enough to learn new skills, start another career, build an entrepreneurial business, or shift priorities to give back to society.

Or it can be a curse for those without the financial resources to chart their own course, who instead face the prospect of having to work indefinitely at a job they don't really enjoy.

Either way, it's a problem for their current employers.

Generationally, most of today's (and all of the older) mid-career employees are baby boomers, their values forged in the midst of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the civil rights and women's rights movements. In middlescence many are asking themselves: Have I had the impact I expected to have? How can I make the next phase of my life as meaningful as possible?

Earlier generations looked to their work for security and material success; the way to combat restlessness was usually to hunker down and focus on one's current job. Many of today's idealistic yet frustrated boomers have different goals. They'd be willing to trade some of their current success for greater significance in their lives and work, even if that means doing something altogether different.

Companies are ill-prepared to manage middlescence because it is so pervasive, largely invisible, and culturally uncharted. Many mid-career men and women may crave a fresh start but don't tell their bosses how they feel. Employers view these people as solid corporate citizens, bank on their loyalty and commitment, and assume they're doing fine.

That neglect is bad for business: Many companies risk losing some of their best people, who may opt for early retirement or seek more exciting work elsewhere. Firms are too often blindsided when valuable people up and quit.

In the years ahead, both tangible talent shortages and growing disengagement from work will present unprecedented challenges to business productivity and growth.

You may not be able to offer everybody more money or a prestigious title, but you can give just about anybody a fresh challenge or a new start. As many of our examples show, the most successful careers are the ones that stay in motion.

You must, however, take two preliminary steps to prepare the ground. First, you need to remove the barriers to occupational mobility. Such barriers take many forms. Policies (formal or tacit) regarding required time in role between job changes may be too strict.

Your organisation may have a job-posting system but still fill most openings through under-the-table recruiting that bypasses official channels. Your company may be tacitly unwilling, or even unconsciously disinclined, to invest in extensive training for employees over a certain age.

Second, be sure to find the keepers. If you can identify high potentials through your performance management system, then surely you can also identify the next tier down. You want to go beyond the stars (who are probably getting special attention already) to find the other valuable contributors, the B players, people who will probably never make it to the executive suite but whose skills and experience you need to retain.

These are the people you'd like to see eventually moving into flex retirement, not full retirement.

Once you've identified them, pay special attention not only to their potential, performance, and progress but also to any warning signs of middlescent disillusionment and stagnation.

Keeping the keepers

To help you keep those keepers, we've identified six fundamental tools.

Fresh assignments: A fresh assignment, often in a different geographical location or part of the organisation, lets you take advantage of a person's existing skills, experience, and contacts while letting him or her develop new ones. The best assignments are often lateral moves that mix roughly equal parts old and new responsibilities.

During our interviews, for example, we met with Jeff Kimpan, a long-time HR executive at General Motors. He worked in Mexico during the mid-1980s, a period of explosive growth there. Then he joined the executive ranks, most recently running HR for worldwide manufacturing operations. In the spring of 2005, the HR director for the company's fast-growing China operation quit, and Jeff volunteered for the job.

It was actually a step down in corporate status and scope, and his colleagues were shocked that he'd accept what seemed a less than lateral move. He acknowledges that he had to check his ego, but he was ready for a change, and he knew that he could apply what he'd learned 20 years earlier in Mexico. His children were grown, and he was excited about getting away from restructurings and downsizings to work in a growing business.

It isn't an easy job. The China operation hopes to double its sales in two years and redouble in four, so the unit was already facing shortages of experienced technical and professional people when Jeff arrived. But he's having fun. "I can't wait to get to work each day," he says. "I come home just as tired as I did in Detroit. It's just a better kind of tired. This place is like a lab: Solutions aren't known, and they have to be invented every day. You'd have to be dead not to have fun in this job."

Hewlett-Packard's Cathy Lyons has had a half-dozen very different assignments within the company over the past 12 years, from running a manufacturing operation in Italy to managing the US toner supplies business to her most recent assignment as chief marketing officer at corporate headquarters. She believes three or four years is long enough to be in any one position. "When you've stopped learning, it's time to move on or step aside."

Career changes: Middlescents often dream of and in some cases end up pursuing something fundamentally new. Yet jumping the corporate ship is risky, so an employer that can offer an attractive internal career change has a chance to retain valuable talent. An employee may develop a new specialty, assume an altogether different job, or sometimes return from a management track to an individual contributor role.

Before joining Prudential Financial's Prudential Relocation business, Jim Russo spent 13 years with a major competitor in a customer relations role that kept him on the road. Looking for less travel and more time with his young family, Jim joined Prudential Relocation's new Phoenix office in 2000 as director of service delivery, managing a team of 21.

The move was good for work-life balance, but after a while Jim became disenchanted: "The job wasn't my strength or my passion. I didn't feel as motivated, I missed working directly with customers, and I felt I was just getting the job done." By all measures, he was doing a good job, but he knew the situation wasn't right.

Jim liked the company and networked with a variety of managers to learn what kinds of opportunities there might be. He landed a position in field sales, a role for which he had no direct experience but which seemed to play to his strengths. The results for Jim and the company were beyond excellent. As sales director for the West Coast, he went up against his former employer.

"I'm competitive by nature, and the job really fit," he says. "It gave me new life, more passion, more confidence, and company-wide recognition I know I'm a more important part of the company, and that really matters." In his first year, Jim was one of the top two salespeople; in his second, he tripled his sales target. His advice to others: "You've got to have passion for the job to add value every day. If you find yourself just going through the motions, do something different perhaps very different. We all have strengths; find yours and play to them."

Mentoring colleagues: Putting experienc-ed employees into mentoring, teaching, and other knowledge-sharing roles has the dual benefit of re-engaging the mid-career worker and boosting the expertise and organisational know-how of less-experienced employees.

For middlescents, serving as a mentor is a personally fulfilling way to share a lifetime of experience, give back to the organisation, and make a fresh set of social connections in the workplace. Mentor relationships are often stereotyped as one-way transfers from old to young for the purposes of youthful personal development and career advancement. In fact, they should be viewed as a two-way pairing of knowledge to gain with knowledge to share.

That's how mentoring works at Intel, where the partner may outrank the mentor. The program began in a chip-making factory in New Mexico in 1997, when Intel was growing, and many of the factory's managers and technical experts were being transferred to new locations. New experts needed to be developed in a variety of fields.

So the factory's top managers started matching partners with mentors who had the needed skills and knowledge. Today, a companywide employee database, which tracks skills attained and desired, helps match partners with mentors, who (thanks to the internet) may be in another country.

Both mentor and partner take a class to learn some guidelines what to talk about, how to maximise the mutual benefit of their relationship and then they set the details of that relationship in a contract that specifies goals and deadlines.

Fresh training: Corporate training today is disproportionately aimed at the young (especially new employees who need to learn the basics) and at the high potentials. The tacit assumptions are that mid-career people have been trained already, and what little additional training they might need they get on the job. These assumptions are, at best, only partly true.

Many of today's mid-career workers are well educated and have retained their love of learning. They know that increasing their skills will raise their chances for personal and professional advancement.

However, many find themselves too busy for extensive education and training; personal development time comes at the sacrifice of other responsibilities, both on the job and off. And some people, especially those who have reached positions of authority, stop seeking development opportunities because they hesitate to take risks or don't want to admit that they have things to learn.

Meanwhile, too many organisations foster a silent conspiracy against education: They cut the training and development budget first in lean times. They stand silent when managers discourage employees from seeking training on the grounds that it will interfere with getting the work done. And they fail to require managers to set career development plans for all their employees.

As a result, many mid-career workers are overdue for a serious infusion of training which can include refresher courses, in-depth education to develop new skills, and brief introductions to new ideas or areas of business that expand their perspectives and trigger their interest in learning more.

Fresh training is, of course, often integral to career changes as well as to employee retention. In some Japanese manufacturers, assembly-line workers regularly train to become product service technicians. After years on the line, such employees literally know the products inside and out, and probably want a change of work. And the UK's National Health Service is responding to chronic nursing shortages by training aides to become nurses - a shift to a very different career path.

Sabbaticals: One of the best ways to rejuvenate, personally and professionally, is simply to get away from the routine of the job for a significant amount of time. A common feature of academic employment relationships, sabbaticals remain rare and underused in the business world. One manager in the media industry said her company had made an apparently generous offer of an eight-week paid sabbatical every few years.

But, she added, she knew of not a single person who had taken advantage of the benefit. It was universally assumed that when you returned, you'd find your desk out in the hall. You might not be fired, exactly, but the general opinion was that you'd be displaced.

This perception is unfortunate because people tend to return from sabbaticals more committed than ever. They've had a chance to recharge, to do something different, and they're appreciative of their companies for giving them the opportunity.

Expanding leadership development: Many of the executives we spoke with in our research cited shortages in their leadership succession pipelines. On the face of it, this is surprising because, in terms of raw numbers, there are plenty of mid-career workers eager to move up the ladder and fill senior management slots. But corporate restructuring and flattening organisations have eroded the old career paths, and people can't accumulate the needed set of leadership skills on the job.

The situation is sadly ironic mid-career managers are frustrated by the lack of promotion opportunities, and corporate executives are concerned with a lack of candidates with the right experience. The solution is to widen access to leadership development programs to both rejuvenate mid-career managers and refill the leadership pipeline.

Participation in leadership development programs is a form of recognition of an employee's value and potential, and workers graduate from them with a renewed comm

Rekindle now

If your organisation wants to control its fate (and costs) when the boomer retirement wave and associated brain drain hit with full force, start today to systematically retain and recruit people with the skills and capabilities you will want to keep on hand for the long run.

The techniques we've recommended are not exclusively for mid-career workers, of course, but they will have the greatest impact on this cohort. They should prove neither expensive nor difficult to practice, and the payback - renewed commitment and productivity on the one hand, reduced replacement cost on the other - hits right away.

The actions we recommend are largely a matter of paying closer attention to the often silent majority the mid-career employees who form the heart and backbone of your workforce.

Harvard Business Review

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