Op-Ed: How COVID Caused a Universal Midlife Crisis

The post-pandemic horizon is coming into focus. Even with the rise of new Omicron subvariants hot on our heels, fear is being replaced by cautious optimism. But we are not going back to pre-pandemic normalcy. In fact, over the past two COVID-19 years, many people have chosen to fundamentally change their pre-pandemic path. More than 30 million US workers quit their jobs in the second half of 2021, the equivalent of the entire population of Texas.

Virtually everyone at every level of the workforce has been forced by the pandemic to reconsider their workplace. Almost a third of US workers under the age of 40 said they had considered a career change since the pandemic began. And it affects both blue-collar and white-collar industries.

But when researchers pull back the shifts, the picture emerges that there’s more to the “big layoff” than just salary dissatisfaction. Many who left their jobs were looking for more respect and meaning, a trend that continues. These are the elements of what psychologists commonly recognize as contributing to a “midlife crisis.” As it turns out, the Great Resignation is actually the Great Midlife Crisis.

Disrupting our lives and transporting us to a profoundly unknown world while confronting our own mortality, COVID-19 has created a universal tipping point. Indeed, this is a standard feature of the identity crisis typically associated with middle age. As old age approaches, people begin to question their identity (who am I?) and career (where am I going?). The pandemic has created conditions for a similar type of identity crisis for people of all ages.

Three lines of research we’ve conducted over the past two decades offer insights into the causes of the Great Resignation and what employers could learn from it.

First, the pandemic has made people acutely aware of their own mortality, with more than 6 million deaths worldwide. When people think about the possibility of their own death, it gives them a broader perspective on their lives and leads them to think about their legacy. For example, in a study where we asked people to think about an existential crisis like global warming, they were more likely to express a desire to create a lasting positive legacy.

Second, the pandemic activated what psychologists call counterfactual thinking, or “if only” thinking. These thoughts of “what could have been” are triggered by breaks in routine as people consider alternate realities. For example, an accident following a different route home from work triggers if only thinking (“If only I had taken my usual route, this would not have happened!”). Counterfactual reasoning is often triggered by rare episodes in which rapid, intense, and marked changes occur, e.g. B. a novel pandemic.

Counterfactual thinking helps people connect the dots in their lives. It can sharply emphasize meaning—or its absence. And finding meaning is how people can turn something traumatic into the seed of growth. The tipping point of the pandemic has caused many people to reflect on where they were two years ago, where they are today and where they are going.

Finally, the dramatic changes brought about by the pandemic have changed people’s contexts and routines, and thus their perspectives. People who had long commutes to the office suddenly stopped commuting altogether and started working from a new location (home). This sudden change in the workplace — where many people spend 35 to 55 hours a week — can be like being in a foreign country.

Our research shows that experiences abroad can give people more clarity about who they really are. We found that people who have lived abroad are more likely to agree with the statement “I have a clear idea of ​​who I am and what I am” than people who plan to go abroad in the future. These experiences create self-clarity because they encourage a counterfactual mindset that helps people see what behaviors are a product of their environment rather than intrinsic. The change in environment and routine brought about by the pandemic has similarly caused many people to value what really makes them who they are, as opposed to what has been dictated by their daily environment.

The combination of mortality, counterfactual reflection, and alien experiences — like the proverbial midlife crisis — has got people thinking about where they are going and where they want to go want walk.

For many, that meant saying, “I’m quitting.” It’s not surprising, then, that a toxic work culture is a stronger predictor of layoffs during the pandemic than a desire for higher pay. This will likely continue to apply to workers even as the pandemic recedes.

The organizations that will win the post-pandemic competition for workers will be those that can demonstrate that they emerged from the pandemic with positive changes in their work culture. Pulling employees out of their pandemic midlife crisis requires the promise—or at least the likelihood—that their jobs can provide a more meaningful path forward.

Adam Galinsky is a professor at Columbia Business School. He is co-author of Friend & Foe. Laura Kray is a professor in the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and faculty director of the school’s Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership.

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