I've joked that life goes like this: In your twenties you worry about whether you'll ever have a career; in your thirties you worry about keeping it; in your forties you wonder if you've made anything of it; in your fifties you begin to muse upon things that have nothing to do with your career; and then you hit sixty and you decide that those other things are really what's important and you stop giving a damn about your career. It turns out my comedy routine is pretty much on the money!
Does the name Barbara Bradley Hagerty ring any bells? You might recognize her as a former stalwart of National Public Radio. After 30 years in journalism and more than 20 with NPR she suffered from what is often tritely labeled "burnout," literally lost her voice, and resigned. She has a new book titled Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife in which she discusses some of the details, but the essence is this: Ms. Hagerty reached a point where she couldn't keep calm and carry on; she needed a change. As she reports in an Atlantic article, she is among the great majority of workers who stopped finding meaning and joy in her work. According to her research, just 1/3 of Baby Boomer or Gen Xers experience those things in their jobs. But here's the cool part–you can quit and move on. Her research shows that making a change is good for your health, your sanity, and all the things that really matter (friendships, family, physical robustness, happiness, warding off Alzheimer's…).
Hagerty doesn't suggest a dreamy Flower Child do-your-own-thing solution, nor does she advocate jumping into the dark regardless of money. What finds, though, is that there is tremendous benefit in recognizing when you've reached your growth potential in your current post. At such a point, a change is needed, and it doesn't have to be a radical one. In fact, most people end up making lateral moves, not dramatic ones–it's the change of scenery that reactivates creativity and satisfaction quotients, not the task itself. Hagerty shifted into writing, hardly a radical departure from radio journalism. As she notes, radical reinventions are very rare and there's not much evidence they induce any more happiness than small shifts. Two things stand out: you have to disengage your auto pilot and your next job needs to be challenging in ways the one you want to chuck isn't.
In my view, there are factors Hagerty hasn't considered or soft sells. She doesn't look at the structure of power and work. There's nothing new in her findings–alienation studies were a staple of 1960s/70s sociology. Moreover, American society needs to hold accountable the ruinous economics polices of free marketers, bean counters, and ideologues that have created toxic workplaces. Burnout is pretty easy to explain when you consider that many jobs now done by one person used to be done by three. And we simply need to stop worshiping amoral CEOs and investors who use workers as play toys, whipping posts, and lackeys. (A resurgence in unionism would be a useful first step, as would a workers' bill of rights, tighter business regulations, oversight of investment practices, and the construction of significant obstacles on movable capital.)
So maybe Hagerty isn't the keenest sociologist out there–but she's still right: there comes a time in which the healthiest thing you can do is change. It's a palpable moment–the realization that you've reached the end of what you can do where you are. Too many of us hang on thinking that either the job or we will change. The first is seldom true. It's a basic axiom of sociology: people change faster than institutions. Is your job too small for your soul? Move on.
One of Hagerty's sunniest findings is her finding that as we get near 60, happiness tends to increase. Got that? We get happier when we stop caring about work! I've been lucky–I adored my life as a high school teacher in my 20s and 30s, a researcher in my 30s, and as an academic in my 40s into my 60s. I even dare to imagine that I've been pretty good at these things. But here's the deal: my hearing is failing in ways that make the classroom harder. Can I continue, or is it time to leave? I don't care! I no longer think that Western civilization needs my research or, more accurately, I realize I've made a few contributions of which I'm pleased to have made, but Western civ never did need these to survive. Moreover, the academy has changed in many ways I find distasteful. I still love my students, but they too can carry on without me and I won't miss grading their papers. I'm starting to feel like this whole work thing just isn't needed for the next phase of my life. Retirement? I don't know what that means other than it's a change from what I have been doing. I don't fear or dread it; career simply doesn't matter as much as it used to. I'd like to think I've become wise, but self-importance is among the things I've jettisoned. So let me quote someone who truly was wise, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: " There is nothing permanent except change."