When you first graduate from college and enter the workforce, the future seems to hold nothing but promise. If for no other reason than because after four years of scrounging for beer money and living in squalor, you have finally have a steady paycheck — one that affords you enough money to go out (to real bars!) and live in an apartment that doesn’t reek of human grease.
But in time, the drudgery of adult life wears you down, and by your mid-30s, you find yourself channeling Peter Gibbons — jaded, pessimistic and liable to turn every workday into a full-blown existential crisis.
The midlife professional crisis has been a staple of post-industrial America. From Revolutionary Road to Office Space to Wakefield, the plight of the disgruntled, middle-aged office drone has been a frequent subject of pop-culture fascination, and those depictions are largely rooted in truth.
More specifically, by the time workers hit their mid-30s, the average level of job dissatisfaction has doubled, according to a new study conducted by the British human resource firm Robert Half.
The firm surveyed more than 2,000 British employees, and found that one in six workers over the age of 35 is unhappy with their work — more than double the number of unhappy workers between the ages of 18 and 34. The one glimmer of hope? After 35, unhappiness plateaus — i.e., workers older than 55 report just slightly higher levels of unhappiness than those who are 35 to 54.
The study suggests that there’s something about 35 — and the particular confluence of life events that occur at that age — that heightens our disillusionment with work. The question then becomes what is it about your mid-30s that makes work so much more detestable?
The answer, according to psychologists and human resource experts, is that it’s due to three main things — a change in priorities; the always-on nature of modern work; and feeling like a relative failure.
Family Takes Precedence
The obvious explanation to the mid-30s career blues is that it’s the age when people are raising families of their own, and they resent work infringing on their parental obligations.
“If it was something like a midlife crisis, you’d expect to see a dip in happiness, and then for it to go back up again,” says Ben Waber, founder and CEO of HR consultancy Humanyze. But workers don’t expect an uptick in job happiness once they’re on the other side of middle age, suggesting family now forever comes first, and work is seen as a necessary evil.
“People like to spend time with their kids,” Waber adds. “While work obviously helps you provide for them, it also takes you away from them.”
Always On, Always Unhappy
Unhappiness may also stem from the nature of the modern workplace, where smartphones have blurred the line between work and personal time to an unrecognizable degree. “Recently, I’ve had clients express job dissatisfaction over the expectation to be ‘on call’ 24/7,” says Alan Cavaiola, professor in the psychological counseling department at Monmouth University and author of Toxic Coworkers. “This often results in workers feeling exploited.”
Similarly, never taking a break can leave people burned out by the time they hit their peak earnings years. “I’ve had many clients find themselves being in golden handcuff types of jobs where the pay is good but the sense of fulfillment is low or soul-crushing,” he says.
You Feel Like a Failure
The simplest answer may be that a person’s 30s is when they first begin to experience workplace envy and a corresponding sense of failure, according to Waber. It’s human nature to compare yourself to others, but those comparisons are negligible for the first third of your career. After all, most workers tend to follow the same trajectory during their 20s, with few of them becoming significantly more successful than others.
But in that fourth decade of life, careers diverge, and the gap between moderately and hyper-successful workers widens. A select few are vaulted to the ranks of upper management, while the rest have to accept their fate as meaningless worker bees, which obviously isn’t a great feeling.
“If you’ve been very successful, you feel good about it,” Waber says. “But the vast majority of the people at that age aren’t running Fortune 500 companies. And so, if you compare yourself to those who have, you’re going to feel bad.”
It’s a psychological phenomenon called social comparison theory, and it regularly plays out on social media, where staring at the well-curated lives of others can make us question our self-worth. The dismal news is the gap between the successful and the merely adequate only increases with time.
Cavaiola’s suggestion: Seek therapy. It might not make someone more successful, but it will help them cope better. Saving that, he recommends people view work as just that, and to take up an outside hobby that fulfills them in a way work never will.
“I had one client who took up ballroom dancing, another the cello and yet another sailboat racing,” he says.
It’ll take a least a decade or two before you realize that maybe ballroom dancing isn’t your thing, either.