It may not come in the form a full-blown mid-life crisis, but somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50 many professionals feel the need to re-evaluate things. Perhaps the feeling came on so gradually that they can’t even pinpoint when it started. Or perhaps they had a sudden flash of recognition that something feels different than it used to. In either case, the feeling is new and uncomfortable. If you’re feeling this way, chances are you can’t put your finger on exactly why. You probably have a good job and a loving family, and no identifiable crisis other than the normal antics of pre-teen kids. So what has changed? Why don’t things feel as positive as they used to? Above all, what should you do about it?
Our experience with planning for mid-career individuals and couples can perhaps shed a bit of light on the matter – or at least give you a few things to consider for yourself.
Movin’ Up On Maslow
When we talk with clients in their 20s and 30s about what they want from their careers and their lives, their responses are typically clear-cut, unambiguous – and fairly predictable. This is the time of life when most of us actually do want what we’re “supposed” to want: to finish school and get a good job, to get raises, get married, buy a house, start a family, begin to build wealth, etc., or at least a variation on that theme. These are all good things. It’s not bad for us to want them, and it is fairly predictable that we do. Providing for our basic needs and achieving a measure of physical and financial security are what psychologist Abraham Maslow would call fundamental needs. They take first priority in our lives. And because they are basic, they are fairly universal.
What’s more, our parents, friends, and relatives all understand and approve of our wanting them. So we get a lot of encouragement to work on achieving these goals and big kudos when we do. As a result, our inner (intrinsic) drives are largely in sync with our outer (extrinsic) environment, and so our world is in harmony.
What Do I Really Want?
By mid-career, however, many things change. Clearly articulating mid-life goals – as well as achieving them – gets vastly more complicated for several reasons. First, as we reach higher levels of achievement and fulfillment, our next steps aren’t nearly as well-defined as they once were. They are no longer about basic, universal, human needs. As we target self-actualization, our goals must reflect our deepest, and truest, selves. They will therefore be unique to each of us. For most people, figuring ourselves out turns out to be quite difficult. Not only does it take a different set of emotional and intellectual skills than many of us have used before, but the possibilities are vast, and therefore much more difficult to identify and evaluate.
If that weren’t enough, there’s also the fact that all of a sudden our family and friends may think what we want is crazy. Think about the individual who wants to leave a well-paying corporate job for a life that offers more adventure, or a better spiritual fit, or simply less stress. While it’s difficult for each of us to re-acquaint ourselves with ourselves, it may be even more difficult for those who know and love us to see us in a different light. Simply by changing we are bound to disappoint others who have come to count on us as we currently are in their own lives. So we get pushback, or even hostility. Our world falls out of the easy harmony of our youth.
Personal Cost and Value Are Hard to Measure
Another reason that mid-career re-evaluations are so difficult is that issues of cost and value no longer feel self-evident. Take time, for example. In our 20s, we feel like we have all the time in the world. We throw ourselves into school or career without reservation. We work crazy hours and ignore all kinds of possibilities (and people) in order to concentrate on our early-life goals of career achievement and financial stability. It doesn’t even feel like a tradeoff.
But of course it is a tradeoff. By our 40s it begins to dawn on us that our time is not unlimited. In fact, it goes from being a ‘cheap’ resource to being a precious one. Health, emotional well-being, and personal satisfaction similarly begin to figure differently in our calculus. And thus the tradeoffs that used to be simple take on a much more kaleidoscopic character.
What’s Money Got to Do with It?
We make many early-life decisions on the basis of simple economic utility. What’s a better job? The one that pays better, of course. Should we take time off to focus on family or continue to work when our children are small? It may simply depend on the size of our mortgage.
In time, however, the role that money plays in our decisions becomes a more complex one. Yes, we still need money, and we still need to manage our wealth well. But those other life elements – time, health, personal happiness – assume different roles. Moreover, we begin to realize that sometimes we can achieve quite similar results for vastly different costs. If we crave adventure, for example, we can take a $30,000 luxury trip, or we can take six months and spend $10,000 traveling light and inexpensively in simpler accommodations. Some would even say that the second choice is more likely to be an adventure than the first. It all depends.
The fact is that “making our money work for our lives” doesn’t necessarily get easier when we achieve a decent measure of financial success and security early on. The value and role of money literally changes for us over time. As a result, we need to change how we think about it and integrate that thinking back into our lives.
So if you’re mid-career professional and are currently feeling betwixt and between, that’s probably normal. Even if it feels a bit unsettling, think of this as a golden opportunity to re-consider your priorities and explore new vistas in your life. If you’d like to talk to financial advisors who have been there and done that with other mid-career professionals, feel free to give us a call.