The Experience of Vocational Alignment in Midlife

Research Article

Austin J Bus Adm Manage. 2017; 1(3): 1012.

The Experience of Vocational Alignment in Midlife

Nathanson C*

Department of Management, San Francisco State University, USA

*Corresponding author: Craig Nathanson, Department of Management, San Francisco State University, USA

Received: June 23, 2017; Accepted: July 24, 2017; Published: July 31, 2017


This research was conducted to investigate the experiences of those adults who in their midlife identified and followed a new vocational path which better aligned their work with their passions, interests, and abilities. The data collection process followed the Interpretative Phenomenological Approach in-depth personal interviews. Eight adults between the ages of 40 and 55 (four men and four women) participated.

The phenomenological analysis is based on building a series of sub-themes and master themes from the analysis of each of the eight interviews. Five major themes were identified. The themes were: 1) the experience of “treadmill” of life and work; 2) internal and external triggers pushed the need for change; 3) time for reflection, self-awareness, and self-care; 4) change was difficult; and 5) new beginning. The analysis suggests that midlife work change is difficult but necessary when the current work situation is not satisfying or meaningful for a person anymore.

Keywords: Midlife and work; Work transition; Career switch; Finding vocation; Meaning and work; Mid-life change; Self-reflection in midlife; Joy; Fulfillment; Happiness at work


This research aims to investigate the experiences of adults who in their midlife identified and followed a new vocational path which better aligned their work with their passions, interests, and abilities. This research explores the path that people went through to find greater fulfillment and meaning in their work.

The research question that frames this study is: What is the described experience of midlife adults who change their vocational path to work which has more meaning for them?


This research has potential benefits for people in midlife who found themselves burned out, in transition, laid off, or unsatisfied in what they currently do. Midlife is a time of anxiety and inner turmoil for many adults. Since work takes up a significant amount of people’s daily activities, in many cases adults start asking themselves questions about the work they do and it’s meaning. Therefore, this study contributes to the research on seeking fulfilling work in mid-life.

Literature review

Midlife and its relationship to work: Midlife stages and the relationship to work have been gaining interest in recent years. Researchers have coined different terms for this stage such as “the third age,” or “third chapter” [1]. In this third chapter, new possibilities are imagined and turned into opportunities. The notion of staying engaged longer opens up a new stage of life for pursuing new interests and passions. Others have described this period as “Act IV”, or “a five-act course” [2]. This new Act IV lacks social benchmarks about what should be done and how with regard to work, sex, and relationships. In our modern era the mid-life career and the issue of having meaning in the workplace becomes more important. According to the Department of Health and Human Services [3] the average age of older population grows and expected to grow 19% by 2030. In the next 20 years, one out of four Americans will be over age 65.

Mid-life crisis: Midlife feels like a crisis to many [4-6]. Much of the phenomenon suggests that for some individuals the sense of crisis is greater than for others [7]. Some people face a crisis or wait for the crisis to come [8]. For others, midlife is the greatest period of life full of greater happiness, productivity, community involvement as well as increased feelings of well-being [9]. In fact, the upheaval may be an exception rather than the rule.

Levinson [10] said that midlife is a period when one starts questioning what was accomplished. Individuals in midlife start to question their contributions to society measured against society expectations and their own expectations for this period in their lives. Some individuals deal with the disparity between where they are and where they dreamed they would be. As a result, many people in midlife take stock of reappraising their life and restructuring some of these areas [11].

Midlife drives a sudden need to transition to something else [12-14]. Many adults in midlife have similar patterns of deceleration and disengagement with present situations, which causes a shift in thinking and sense of being in mental transition. As a result, some people may suddenly feel burnt-out, depressed, and constricted on the job [15]. Mid-life transition is a time of both growth and confusion. It may also be a time to repair wounds of the soul, our inner life [8].

Ignoring inner needs in midlife: I have observed that people tend to avoid activities which prevent them from dealing with the deeper issues about their work in midlife. Sometimes people are reluctant about sharing the things which matter most. Some adults in midlife carry around the symbols of their self-worth in their consciousness [16]. The symbols like a big house, fancy car, or expensive clothes can give them an artificial sense of self-worth. Many adults in midlife, however, feel competent and satisfied in their work [17]. While they may not feel contented, they are challenged enough so that they are not driven to change by negative thoughts and emotions.

Once individuals experience failure in reaching their personal goals it is easy to have their self-worth damaged. If the fear of this failure is greater than change itself, it is possible that those individuals will not be able to make the required changes in midlife that are required for renewal and growth [18].

Theories of career development: Career theory in its development has focused on systematic methods to help people identify their vocational paths. Historical patterns helped contributing to modern day thinking about work in both positive and negative terms. Thus, it is important to examine what the major career influencing models were. Multiple views and perspectives drive present career theory. The most influential theories are Trait and Factor theory, Life Stage theory, Social Cognitive theory, Decision Making theory, developmental theories, and organizationally based theories. Trait and Factor theory [19-23] focuses on individual measurable traits, e.g. interests and abilities and matching them with similar occupation. Trait and Factor theory, similar to other career development process models, emerged from an early emphasis on multiple steps: analysis, syntheses, diagnosis, prognosis, and counseling.

Trait and Factor theory researchers suggested that each person had unique patterns and traits and therefore by closely matching them with vocations, productivity growth could be increased. They focused more on individual outputs vs. general happiness, fulfillment and greater meaning within the work environment. Many researchers thought that Trait and Factor theory was too rigid and no longer as viable as originally thought [20,22].

The lack of meaning at work: Many organizations confuse motivation with meaning and believe if their workers are motivated, then their work must have meaning [24]. Many workers are afraid of failure and continue to work harder at jobs which have no meaning [25]. This overemphasis on productivity and sense of doing things which are not personally rewarding contributes towards inner conflict [26-30]. Organizational life has been criticized for its failure to find ways to restore meaning and better align workers to their capabilities and individual needs and desires [18,31]. Cochrane [32] has defined work not as a means but as an end itself like an autotelic activity. A person can leave interesting work for another job, but one cannot leave the world of work without a radical change in personhood. Some of this thinking can be traced back to the turn of the century management practices [33] and other HR practices [34] which are in conflict with values like independent work, creativity, and joy for workers.

Enjoyment of work: What are the factors that cause some people to enjoy their work and others simply to accept what they do? It was argued that scientific management principles from the turn of the century and even recent human resource techniques which are focused on efficiency and short term results are in conflict with values that consider dignity, creativity, and joy in the workplace [34]. HR practices which carry out performance appraisals rarely ask managers to be concerned about enjoyment and values for their workers as they do about competence [25]. Managers tend to reinforce these HR policies by focusing in a person’s capacity to do a job. For some people, rarely, the attention is paid to will whether a person will enjoy and/ or be proud of what he or she does [25]. Only through deep reflection where the individual who asks, “Is this job worth doing and will I enjoy it” vs. the inexperienced person who simply asks “Can I do it?” Many HR measurements of people success do not recognize positive enjoyment of one’s job as a company might measure production or a health professional might measure calorie intake.

Fulfillment and meaning in midlife: When work is inner directed, vocation can become something one can spend your life doing [35]. Many authors suggested that work begins when one does not like what one is doing, and this suffering is the start to finding some greater meaning in one’s work [36,37]. Still, some people often end up trading their authenticity for what we perceive as survival, terrified to swap security for what we truly desire [38]. As a result, the corrosive effects of avoidance also exact their toll on our emotional and physical lives. Other researchers have gone further to suggest that life is meaning making itself of which freedom is a key to meaningful work [39].

The new era of retirement and redefinition: The research suggests that there is a need to shift views of retirement in midlife and beyond to a new set of terms. Bateson (2010) described “Adulthood II” as the primary child-rearing and career building period. After this period of life follows a time of reflection and movement toward what a person would rather do, which usually is different from what he or she was doing before. There was once a well-known truism suggesting that in life there are no second acts [40]. This way of thinking is changing now as midlife adults pursue new activities after reflection.

In many ways, the idea of retirement is a new idea in American history as in the past people worked until they dropped [41]. While most have become familiar with the mid-life crisis as a point in life for re-examination, it’s the time for punctuation, and a fresh new start [42].

Design and Methodology

Methodology-overview: This research utilized a qualitative process called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). IPA approach enables a deeper look at the experience and how people make sense of their life experiences [43]. In the IPA, the sample size is generally quite small to enable rich data to emerge which then can be compared and contrasted between a few similar cases. This study focused on the intense interpretative collaboration between participant and researcher with personal verbal material and observational reflection. The interviews with four men and four women took place and were recorded and described below in the sample section.

Candidates were recruited through a variety of ways including inquiries from posting on Internet bulletin boards, Craig’s List, relevant baby boomer’s sites, and referrals. Through the analysis of the interviews, I made an attempt to bring coherence and meaning to the research. As a result of this analysis, I gained an understanding and insight about the experiences of the participants and described common patterns of experiences which the participants went through as well as possible differences.


The participants

Names used as pseudonyms.

Cate, 45 year old white middle class female, lives in the Pacific Northwest, and transitioned from working for large organizations in human resources for twenty years to her new work as a non-profit executive in the health industry.

Kevin, a 55 year old white middle class male, lives in Northern California, and spent a long career working in sales roles in large organizations before getting laid off. Now he works as a college instructor.

Ana, a 55 year old white middle class female, lives in Midwest, and spent many years in an administrative job after raising her children. Today, she describes her work as the owner of her own marketing and writing Internet business.

Hilton, a 46 year old, Hispanic middle class male, lives in Northern California, and spent many years as a manager in the banking system in the East Coast before getting laid off. Now he is an entrepreneur.

Anu, a 43year old Indian middle class female, lives in Northern California, and spent many years in the High Tech industry as a Ph.D. engineer and then decided to leave. Today, she describes her work as a technical consultant and a teacher in the healing arts, teaching physics to healers.

Craig, a 50 year old white middle class male, lives in the Southwest, and spent many years in sales before his divorce lead him to a new work. He owns a real estate investment company now.

Mark, a 55 year old white middle class male, lives in the Southwest, and after many years working as a cosmetic dentist quit after his father died. Today, he works as a writer, healer, teacher and speaker.

Suzanne, a 55 year old white middle class female, lives in the Pacific Northwest, and spent many years as a hair dresser and stay at home mom. Today, she works as an advisor helping people to make money from home, and she runs her own Internet business.

Analysis of the group sub-themes and major master themes

This Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of the transcribed data produced 5 Major Master Themes and 16 Group Sub-themes showing the participants’ experience of work and life transition (as presented in the Table 1). These descriptions told the experience of feeling stuck at work, the triggers which brought change, the need for self-reflection, the challenges in changing and the more satisfied new beginning which followed later.

Citation: Nathanson C. The Experience of Vocational Alignment in Midlife. Austin J Bus Adm Manage. 2017; 1(3): 1012.