Purpose, meaning and career identity in middle age

Photo by  Eddy Lackmann  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eddy Lackmann on Unsplash

There is plenty written about the ubiquity of ageism inside the workplace; it's been a theme of many discussions with clients and colleagues, and I've been quick to shape attack and defence strategies to support people to navigate around it. But an article I read, related to and now recommend gave me pause.

'The Narcissistic Injury of Modern Age' skirts an area commonly experienced by employees approaching, or in, their middle-age*. It's around the time when we look at the landscape and notice that our manager, colleagues and clients are all younger than us. 

There is a creeping sense of condescension. Younger people seem to assert more knowledge or authority over our lives. Our political representatives, ASX 200 CEO's, start-up billionaires, artists, people who have the power to influence their lives all seem (rightly or wrongly) younger than us. Joseph Burgo writes:

Although we build self-esteem by living up to our own personal values and standards, we also rely upon the regard of others to feel good about ourselves.
The primary definition of the word "regard" is "a feeling of respect or admiration for someone" ... (and) throughout our lives, when other people look upon us with respect or admiration, it supports our sense of self-worth.

When I was in the early stages of my career, my cohort didn't view our middle-aged colleagues and managers as having innate wisdom. We responded appropriately to experience, judgment and positional authority and (as was the case of our generation) may have been more overtly respectful because of their age - however, we didn't see them as wise**, because (I believe) they weren't. To be honest, in many cases, my career moved on right past them. 

It's my cohort's turn to be the older colleagues, and what is being felt (that a growing unease of not being recognised as especially important) is not necessarily ageism - it's just the order of things with younger people are getting on with their careers. Like us somewhat focused and determined and striving for more, and not particularly interested in what older people are doing, unless it impacts them directly. Burgo writes:

it's no longer about us, not in the same way. As we pass our prime ... younger people coming after us haven't yet reached their peak.

During the process of career transition, clients experience a shift: more often than not it's modest, though, for many, it's significant. For those in middle age, it tends to be around professional identity. As they let go of outward appearances, their desire moves to doing work that brings pleasure to their working day, and how work fits into their lives (rather than vice versa). A shift from managing extrinsic perceptions towards finding a role that has intrinsic meaning.

For those not able to do this, who cling to an identity no-one else recognises:

... (they) may become increasingly narcissistic in the unhealthy sense of the word ... they will ape the behaviours, clothing and attitudes of the young ... socially they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the centre of attention.

I don't think that what Burgo warns against is widespread, but a sad sense of it will ring true for people as they journey through the phase of letting go, in and move towards what has a more relevant purpose and meaning.

The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age is much broader than what this post suggests, and I found it a fascinating observation (though if you aren't making plans, probably not uplifting).

To finish off, and vaguely related if you make a couple of leaps: in an interview with Oprah, Joel Osteen said 'whatever follows (the words) "I am", will determine what your experience will be'.

Here's how Osteen's advice could play out:

Version 1:
I am not going to find a job that suits my qualifications and experience because of ageism (or I'm too old).

Version 2:
I am doing work that has a purpose, inside a life that I love.


* I define middle age as 45-60 though respect you may have a different sense of what this age is.

** controversial, but I feel wisdom has become an overused term and age and experience does not make someone profound.

What is an above average income?