Research Paper By Susanne Buetikofer
(Transformational Coach and Career Coach, SWITZERLAND)
The person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it. Chinese Proverb
As per Kochmer (2005), I am at the peak of my life with 48 – the sky is the limit – I can do whatever I want – that’s what I read in many papers. Nevertheless, that is not how I felt a year ago. The first aging spots appeared mystically overnight, menopause hit in and weight loss was suddenly impossible. People around me started to ask how many years I had until retirement. Then, I realized that it was time to get help to get my life back.
A friend of mine, an ICA graduate, suggested that coaching could help me. The following 3 months I worked on myself, discovered my values, strengths, energies, aspirations in life, and finally realized that I wanted to become a coach myself. This new journey I undertook in April a year ago, whole-heartedly, and I do not regret it a minute. As I was able to find an appetite for my next 40 years, I would like to help others in these matters as well. As an HR specialist, I would like to combine my passion for career development with career changes and development for people in their mid-life.
Explanation of Midlife Transition:
Stein (2015) describes that human life can be divided into “The Two Halves of Life – the first half entitled “Achievement of Conventionality” and the second half “Development of Individuality”. After having lived through traditional social roles, ranging from undertaking the first career, bearing children and bringing them up and fitting in nicely into society – the second half, in contrast, talks about stepping out of the boundaries and finding sense in a second career, hobby, husband, wife or any other personal development. Stein talks about taking a step into the unknown and transforming into true oneself.
Also, Taoists believe that life has different stages and talk about three important parts:
- the first part of life is about blending in with society.
- the second third of life talks about retaking the reins of one’s life into its hands again – a midlife crisis or transformation is the beginning of this second part.
- the last part of life focuses on one’s spiritual discovery and one’s legacy
When talking about midlife transition people often also start telling me about their midlife crisis and the problems they are facing when they are in the middle of a substantial transformation.
The medical definition of a midlife crisis is defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as such: a period of emotional turmoil in middle age caused by the realization that one is no longer young and characterized especially by a strong desire for change.
Stein (2015) sees midlife as a deeply transformational moment for all human beings, sometimes as a dramatic change but many times as an indistinct transition of oneself. He quotes French anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep (1960) who explained the transformation as a process starting as a separation, then transition, and finally reincorporation. An interesting view which can be compared easily to myself and other concerned midlifers. First, one has to shed and get rid of current issues – this can entail feelings of grief, loss, and profound sadness. Secondly, one has to be patient, tolerant, and forgiving during the transformation from an old self to a new one. The last step requests motivation to gain a new way of identity.
Another way of looking into a midlife transformation is looking at a caterpillar transforming slowly into a butterfly – what a beautiful analogy! The caterpillar spins a cocoon and lets go of its former self and turns after some time into a butterfly, which will adapt to its new way of being. Once a butterfly, the world looks different, limitless compared to before. There are different obstacles and chances to be looked at – but as the transformation takes time they are well thought through and can be addressed when needed.
Exploration of Midlife Career Change:
The fact put forward by Gratton & Scott (2016) in their book “100-year life – living and working in an age of longevity”, is clear that our society has to deal more and more with older people in the work environment. The three-stage view of education, career, and finally retirement will change and will eventually move into an era of multi-stage lives with different careers and with transitions and some breaks. Like this, the longer life we have now available can be fulfilling. It is, therefore, necessary that companies, governments, and societies adopt and change to these new demands.
Only these last years’ empirical research regarding career change came up. Before research was mostly targeted at adolescent career guidance and only superficially at a midlife career change. The literature available talks about 2 main questions: “Is the midlife career crisis an unavoidable development stage or a very personal experience?” or “What is the motivation for a career change in connection with midlife career problems?” (Lachman & Boone James, 1997).
Cherrstom (2015) enumerates, based on their experiences from participants of their study, three overarching strategies to manage the career transitions process: create community, apply prior career skills, and practice productivity. Another emerging topic is about women and their careers. A good example of the heightened interest in the topic of career changes comes from Hansen (1997 cited in Kobus & Di Fabio). She introduced her Integrative Life Planning ILP theory which promotes social justice in women’s careers. Due to social injustice, women many times do not have the same chances as men and her model with the 6 tasks to develop take into account this imbalance:
- Finding work that needs to be done,
- Attending to physical and emotional health,
- Connecting family and work and exploring gender roles,
- Valuing plurality and inclusivity,
- Exploring matters of spirituality, meaning, and life purpose
- Empowering individuals to manage personal and organizational changes.
By exploring these 6 tasks clients will be helped to look beyond gender career stereotypes and will help gain social justice in women’s careers.
Bradley Hagerty (2016) argues that career transformation was in general easier if the change is not too dramatic. Many times, successful job changes were the ones where the current job was adjusted or changed but the person remained inside the organization. Other success stories were the ones where the person changed “within the boundaries of their innate traits and talents”. Their change remained realistic and therefore feasible. Dramatic changes – the doctor who turns into a chef – is more likely to fail and should be prepared very carefully.
To coach clients being stuck in their midlife and being clueless about how to go on, seems appealing to me. Having gone through 5th career changes and worked in several industries and lastly having 16 years of experience in corporate human resources departments have helped me built up a certain knowledge of career transformation. Clients looking for a change in their midlife can be helped with the following three steps:
Pit-stop: Pause and reflect on the current situation
Deep dive: Analyze what is out there, where do I want to go?
Kick-start: Action plans, reality testing, how to reach the defined goal
The model can also be used for career development in a corporate setting. They’re the same steps that can be discussed, pondered over, and looked at.
Example of a Successful Transformation:
One of my first clients faced similar issues to many others: until a year back, Elsa was a stay-at-home mother of twins and married to a successful architect. After many years of regular family life, the twins went their way, the husband unexpectedly left her and she had to realize that her current life was over. Suddenly, she had to find a job to make enough money to support herself and the children. Elsa became more and more depressed and had the feeling that she would never be happy again. When we started coaching the first part of the aforementioned model, it took several sessions exploring Elsa’s current situation and her several areas of discontent. During the second step “Deep dive” we analyzed the different dreams and wishes Elsa had. Especially, an eventual career change was explored at length. Typically, for a middle-aged woman, who was the main caregiver in the family and without a fulfilling career, Elsa was afraid to make a career switch and eventually look for a new job. Her self-confidence was low and she wasn’t feeling ready to convince an eventual employer of her skillset. Throughout, the second stage I applied blended coaching and acted after our regular coaching session as a career coach/strategist (I am a human resources specialist and recruiting and career development in my field of expertise). It seemed important to show Elsa how careers in a corporate world could look like and what was requested at current times. The different other areas of her life were thought through and discussed. We talked about her financial situation and if an eventual pay-cut would be feasible. What were the sacrifices she and her surrounding would have to make? Then, we talked about her skills, abilities, and areas of interest. Once Elsa had a clearer outlook of her desired new career and ultimately life, we started talking about the third step of my model “Kick-start”. Action steps, ideas on how to get a new career, and living set-up were brainstormed and defined. As a blended coaching add-on, we did a workshop on how to write applications and CVs and we developed an action plan on how to go forward in the quest for a new job/career. When the first job interview came up, we did role-play, talked about verbal and non-verbal communication and I gave her many insights about the recruiting process. Elsa was over the moon when she was offered a well-paid job in her desired field. A virtuous cycle started unrolling for Elsa; her new career gave her the much-needed new confidence, she was more assertive towards her ex-husband and more patient and well balanced towards her twins. Her family and friends noticed her improved wellbeing and the fragile living set-up was slowly getting more consolidated and strengthened.
Elsa’s example is one of the many I heard and was involved in. Midlife can be challenging but can most definitely bring lots of contentment and joy.
The challenge of a midlife transformation is among others to break the belief that the traditional retirement age is not a limiting factor but a new opportunity to a different path or a moment to pause and think if the current career should be continued as such or changed. A coach can help to break up such beliefs by challenging the client. A perspective of growing old by waiting for death can be changed ultimately by letting such beliefs go.
Useful questions can be: “what if…your belief wasn’t true?” or “what’s holding you back to go back to university?”. If the coach can help the clients to accept that not retirement but the sky is the limit – new ideas, wishes, and dreams can emerge and be discussed. The clients get excited by new plans and can shift their perspective from a limiting belief of being old to opening up new possibilities of an eventual change of career, family set-up, or environment. That the coach also challenges the client and enquires about the obstacles and feasibility of the new plans. They need to be reality tested to become true and don’t remain pipe dreams.
As Taoist belief states the second part of life is about taking the reins of one’s life into the hands again and start guiding life into the desired direction. I like the analogy of changing from being directed by others to repossessing the guidance of one’s life.
What Kochmer states make sense, the second third of life takes 40 years and should be treasured and embraced. There is room for change, exploration, exercise, healthy living, and at last the moment to become truly happy.
Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still. Chinese Proverb
Bradley Hagerty B., 2016, Quit your job, The Atlantic, April 2016, Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/quit-your-job/471501/ [Accessed 04th March 2020]
Cherrstrom C.A., 2015, Career transition to the professoriate: midlife women’s process, challenges, supports, and strategies, Adult Education Research Conference, Available at https://newprairiepress.org/aerc/2015/papers/11/[Accessed 15th March 2020]
Gratton L. & Scott A., 2016, The 100-year life, living and working in an age of longevity, Bloomsbury, UK
Kobus, M. & Di Fabio, A., 2015, Exploring new horizons in career counseling; turning challenges into opportunities, Sense Publishers, The Netherlands
Kochmer C. 2005-2019, Available at https://personaltao.com/midlife-crisis/[Accessed 12th March 2020]
Lachman, M.E. & Boone James, J.,1997 Multiple paths of midlife development, University of Chicago Press, USA
Stein M., 2015, Midway on our life’s journey”: On Psychological Transformation at Midlife, Available at:http://www.murraystein.com/midway.shtml [Accessed 10th February 2020]
Van Gennep A., 1960, Rites of passage, Routledge Library Editions, UK