Psychiatric Annals

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Change of Vocations in Midlife

K Batul Chinoy, MD

Abstract

"To be or not to be." It is the question that confronts us at many developmental phases of life. It is, indeed, one of the crucial choices one must make in adolescence. Courage to "be" something does not come, however, without paying some price. During adolescence, childhood conflicts, if not previously resolved, will be reintegrated, and a new identity will emerge following an identity crisis.

The proposition I want to advance in this article is that midlife crisis is a recapitulation of the missed adolescence. People who have not achieved the resolution of childhood conflicts during adolescence do it in midlife. For this reason, I call it a midolescence. Change of vocation in midlife can require the defining of one's identity, a definition delayed in earlier life because of several factors.

There are at least 10 reasons why people change vocation in midlife, as shown in the accompanying box.

Regarding the first, traumatic experiences, especially in the first six years of childhood, can have a profound effect on the choice of a vocation later on. The death oí a parent, the divorce of one's father and mother, enforced separation from them, a move resulting in loss of friends and familiar environment, the loss or change of parents' work - all are crises that may provoke anxiety in the child. Years later, in midlife, many persons decide on a change in vocation precisely because they have mastered unconsciously the fears and anxieties stemming from this childhood trauma - fears and anxieties that influenced their initial choice of a vocation.

Fantasies of running away during childhood - the fourth reason listed in the box - may be due to conflict with parents or siblings. Or they may simply be a manifestation of the child's love of adventure. Similarly, conflict in the choice of original vocation may be occasioned by a conflict with one's parents during adolescence. The original choice of vocation may also have been made somewhat against the person's will, because of loyalty to his parents' wishes that he embark on a particular vocation or because of external circumstances.

The sixth reason, a conscious dream or vision that cannot be realized at the time the original vocational choice must be made, may be due to a number of factors - external circumstances, social prohibitions, or an inner lack of readiness on the part of the person to change because of his immaturity. In the latter case, of course, there will be a gap between conscious and unconscious goals.

"Midolescence," the eighth reason, is, noted above, a state reached by many people who have not achieved the resolution of childhood conflicts earlier in life. During midlife, the person can take full inventory of his life and try once again to define his identity, to revise his adolescent dream, or to find a new identity.

STRESSES INCURRED IN VOCATIONAL CHANGES

A number of stresses will be felt by the person making a vocational change in midlife because of his decision. As in some other major life events, these may include a crisis in identity, feelings of loss and mourning, confusion over role reversal, feelings of isolation, problems in adusting to the new role, and mixed feelings over the realization that his values have changed.

Identity crisis. Any adult who has achieved one identity is likely to experience an identity crisis if he chooses a new vocation that calls for him to assume the role of a student once again. The crisis will be heightened if his decision calls for him to change cultures as he changes vocation - e.g., from rural to urban…

"To be or not to be." It is the question that confronts us at many developmental phases of life. It is, indeed, one of the crucial choices one must make in adolescence. Courage to "be" something does not come, however, without paying some price. During adolescence, childhood conflicts, if not previously resolved, will be reintegrated, and a new identity will emerge following an identity crisis.

The proposition I want to advance in this article is that midlife crisis is a recapitulation of the missed adolescence. People who have not achieved the resolution of childhood conflicts during adolescence do it in midlife. For this reason, I call it a midolescence. Change of vocation in midlife can require the defining of one's identity, a definition delayed in earlier life because of several factors.

There are at least 10 reasons why people change vocation in midlife, as shown in the accompanying box.

Regarding the first, traumatic experiences, especially in the first six years of childhood, can have a profound effect on the choice of a vocation later on. The death oí a parent, the divorce of one's father and mother, enforced separation from them, a move resulting in loss of friends and familiar environment, the loss or change of parents' work - all are crises that may provoke anxiety in the child. Years later, in midlife, many persons decide on a change in vocation precisely because they have mastered unconsciously the fears and anxieties stemming from this childhood trauma - fears and anxieties that influenced their initial choice of a vocation.

Fantasies of running away during childhood - the fourth reason listed in the box - may be due to conflict with parents or siblings. Or they may simply be a manifestation of the child's love of adventure. Similarly, conflict in the choice of original vocation may be occasioned by a conflict with one's parents during adolescence. The original choice of vocation may also have been made somewhat against the person's will, because of loyalty to his parents' wishes that he embark on a particular vocation or because of external circumstances.

The sixth reason, a conscious dream or vision that cannot be realized at the time the original vocational choice must be made, may be due to a number of factors - external circumstances, social prohibitions, or an inner lack of readiness on the part of the person to change because of his immaturity. In the latter case, of course, there will be a gap between conscious and unconscious goals.

"Midolescence," the eighth reason, is, noted above, a state reached by many people who have not achieved the resolution of childhood conflicts earlier in life. During midlife, the person can take full inventory of his life and try once again to define his identity, to revise his adolescent dream, or to find a new identity.

STRESSES INCURRED IN VOCATIONAL CHANGES

A number of stresses will be felt by the person making a vocational change in midlife because of his decision. As in some other major life events, these may include a crisis in identity, feelings of loss and mourning, confusion over role reversal, feelings of isolation, problems in adusting to the new role, and mixed feelings over the realization that his values have changed.

Identity crisis. Any adult who has achieved one identity is likely to experience an identity crisis if he chooses a new vocation that calls for him to assume the role of a student once again. The crisis will be heightened if his decision calls for him to change cultures as he changes vocation - e.g., from rural to urban or from that of one country to that of another. Bisexual and authority diffusion may both be associated with this crisis.1-3

Loss and mourning. The person changing vocations in midlife will feel an initial excitement in doing something he has always wanted to do. This will last up to six months, to be followed by feelings of loss and mourning for his previous status and previous psychic and professional identity - all leading to frustration, if one has changed cultures as well, there will be additional losses of familiar cultural features and old friends. The person usually experiences depression and anger, which may last from two to four years before his new identity is achieved.

Role reversal. By midlife, the adult usually has become proficient in his work; assuming a student role once again requires the learning of new skills in which he is not proficient. Competence is replaced by incompetence, independence by dependence. This role reversal may result in regression.

Isolation. Here I am referring not to social isolation but, rather, to emotional isolation, which can result from several factors. There is a maturity gap when one is older than one's fellow students, who may be seeking to find their identities for the first time. The middle-aged student may also find himself in the minority because of his age, sex, or cultural differenees. The person may find that his fellow students envy or resent his earlier successful identity and his courage in attempting to change vocations. On the other hand, the converse is true: the person making the change may envy his fellow students and younger teachers for their youth and achievements - achievements apparently made without any of the struggles he is now going through.

Feelings of isolation will also be experienced because, as one grows older, one takes longer to make friends; investment is greater. And differences in values because of differences in age, maturity, and culture can add to the emotional isolation of the person making the change.

Adjustment problems. The adult making a vocational change may have difficulty in accepting work he considers beneath his talents. This difficulty may be related to the fact that he does not have much time at hand to waste. It also is a reflection that he has had previous experience, maturity, and - presumably - self-knowledge to a greater degree than younger students.

When the change of vocation entails assuming e role of a student once again, the person may we adustment problems precisely because he has ;veloped the courage to be assertive and utilizes iis skill in teacher-student situations, where it is ot always appreciated. The older student is likely ) view relationships with authority - faculty memers, professors, and other teachers - as peer relaonships, because of his maturity and age, rather ian as faculty-student relationships.

There are many other pressures that can cause roblems in adjustment. Financial pressures may be reat. There may be family pressures as well. If the iecision to change vocations has been made without adequate consultation with one's spouse or jgainsr his or her wishes, the unavailability of the »ew student because of the pressures of school or )art-time work may exacerbate the family crisis to he point of separation or divorce. If both partners .veather the crisis, however, their relationship may iecome closer and mutually more satisfying.

When the person making the vocational change s not married, there are likely to be comparable stresses. A single woman, for example, will have to depend on her own emotional resources; she may find social interaction difficult if most people around her are married. In some cases, the wives of fellow students may resent or envy her.

Increased awareness of values. The adult changing vocations is likely to have a heightened sense oí the value of some things. One values time more highly, for example, and how it is spent becomes more important to him. He becomes more selective in his choice of friends because his investment is greater. And one is increasingly aware of the desirability of making life meaningful; frustration is greater if these expectations are not met.

REWARDS

Not everything relating to a change of vocations is a stress, of course; otherwise very few would consider such changes. When the change is made successfully in midlife, work becomes like play - pleasurable and fulfilling. One has the feeling he has acted with integrity and has had the courage to follow his convictions.

VALIDATING THE HYPOTHESIS

What is written above is largely the result of my own experiences. After graduation from medical school in India, I completed my postgraduate studies in gynecology and obstetrics in London. In midlife, I came to the United States to pursue a different vocation as a psychiatrist, as I became increasingly aware of emotional and psychological problems of women in my field. As indicated in the literature, there are others whose studies support at least some of the conclusions I have reached. In order to better validate the hypothesis outlined above, however, I planned a research project while a student at the Menninger School of Psychiatry.

Table

TABLE 1CHANGING VOCATION IN MIDLIFE: AGE AND SIBLING POSITION

TABLE 1

CHANGING VOCATION IN MIDLIFE: AGE AND SIBLING POSITION

I advertised in the Menninger weekly paper, TPR, for volunteers and selected as subjects 34 persons who had achieved a previous work identity and then decided to change it. The sample contained psychiatrists, psychologists, university professors, administrators, social workers, a publicrelations worker, members of the nursing staff, and others. Twenty-eight were men (23 married, five single), and six were women (three married, three single). The average age of the participants was 45.5, although they ranged from 27 to 64 (Table 1 ). Age at the time of the change of vocation varied from 25 to 48, the average being 36.5 years.

Two questionnaires and an hour-long interview with each subject were used to gather data.

The results verified my hypothesis that childhood traumas, the change of vocation by the parents, fantasies of running away, conflicts in the original choice of vocation, and crises preceding change of vocation were important factors in inducing one to consider a change of vocation in midlife. Late-ma* turing talents and the need to adapt to a new culture were not significant factors in the lives of the subjects I sampled.

Of my subjects, 94 percent had had three or more childhood traumas (Table 2), with a move to a new neighborhood or city being the most common (79 percent of those sampled). There was a history of change of vocation in the nuclear family in 27 cases (the father in 19 cases, the mother in seven, a sister in one - that is, in four out of five of the subjects I studied, an incidence significantly different from what could be expected by chance.*

Table

TABLE 2CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS AFFECTING MIDLIFE CHANGE

TABLE 2

CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS AFFECTING MIDLIFE CHANGE

Nearly half - 16 of the 34 - had consciously envisioned in adolescence that they would achieve the role they in fact did achieve after changing their vocation in midlife. More than 80 percent (28 of the 34) had had fantasies of running away during adolescence, either because of conflict with parents (19 cases) or with siblings (two cases) or because of dreams of adventure (seven cases).

In 82 percent of the cases there had been a conflict during adolescence over the choice of vocation, with the subject eventually choosing his first vocation, for reasons other than personal preference. In 24 cases (70 percent), there were external circumstances, such as economic factors or divorce, that made the personal choice impossible; in another 14 cases (41 percent), loyalty to the wishes of parents or the need to take care of a parent because of the death of one or the other was a factor.

My hypothesis in regard to emotional isolation was well borne out by the subjects, with 30 of the 34 experiencing some isolation for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the isolation was of an internal type. (As one of the midlife students told me, "I had already experienced what my fellow students are now experiencing for the first time.")

Nearly all the students (28, or 82 percent) experi enced adjustment problems, and five of the 26 mar riages ended in divorce or separation. Most spouse: of persons changing vocation in midlife felt tensior because their spouses were often unavailable tc them owing to class schedules, studies, etc. Some resolved this crisis by seeking psychotherapy, defining a new identity for themselves, and getting a job The fact that one spouse became a student did noi always cause problems; in two instances the spouse: found that their marital partners were more avail able to them than previously precisely because they had become students. 1 believe, however, that the reaction of spouses to a change of vocation by their mates needs further exploration than I was able to give it, including individual interviews with the spouses.

CONCLUSIONS

The results of my study showed that 97 percent of the persons who changed vocation in midlife (33 out of 34) felt rewarded following their decision. Twenty-nine (85 percent) had no doubts at all about the wisdom of their decision to make a change. Of the remaining five, four had mixed feelings; three had been forced to change vocations because of personal illness, and one had made the change in expectation of better prospects, which had not materialized. In the fifth case, the subject remains unemployed despite his decision to choose a new vocation after 19 years in his first vocation.

Childhood trauma is a significant factor in the adult's decision to change vocation in midlife. The mean age at which one decided to make a vocational change (36.5) was apparently not significant. The majority of those making a change selected a new vocation in accordance with the original choice they had wanted to make during adolescence.

Table

TABLE 3INITIAL AND SUBSEQUENT RESPONSE TO MIDLIFE VOCATION CHANGE

TABLE 3

INITIAL AND SUBSEQUENT RESPONSE TO MIDLIFE VOCATION CHANGE

Another interesting finding was that 24 of the 31 (70 percent) had "crises" listed in their own histories as events that preceded their decision to change vocations. Of this number, nine reported growth experience following personal psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Among the crises listed were dissatisfaction with and loss of jobs due to conflicts with their own values, illnesses, and an increasing awareness of their own value as human beings, which made continuance in their previous jobs untenable.

While 82 percent of these subjects experienced an identity crisis during the change of vocations, 18 percent did not. The latter group, in fact, felt relieved to be able to give up their previous identity and have something better to go to. Similarly, while the hypothesis about loss and mourning was true of most (Table 3 ), it was not true of all, and two oí the subjects (5.8 percent) had no reaction at all of either excitement or loss during the vocational change.

In regard to the reasons for the feeling of loss, 23 (67.6 percent) felt a loss of status, 17 (50 percent) experienced a loss of their previous identity, and 18 (52.9 percent) felt the loss of culture and friends, whether their change was from one country to another or from a big city to a small city, or vice versa.

The words of the person who remained unemployed after his decision to change his vocation throws light on the satisfactions that can be gained from the decision even when original expectations are not fulfilled. "In my previous vocation, I was successful in the eyes of others," he said during our interview. "But I felt I had dug a deep hole for myself. I did nor have the guts to do anything about it because I was too concerned about how other people thought of me. My present disgruntled feeling goes back to when I was 18 years old. Í took any job I could get - an awful way to select a vocation. I stayed with it and finally now have enough guts to get out of it. Money and status do not lget it' for me. Accomplishing something is more important."

Work consists of one-third or more of one's life. The creativity of a person is at its best when he feels fulfilled in his work. Freud, who himself changed his interest from medicine to psychiatry, stressed the significance of work: "No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work, for his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community."4

Menninger5 has commented at length on the psychological meaning of work - which, along with play, is among the highest forms of sublimation. There are very few people, however, who experience fulfillment in their work, as Studs Terkel has demonstrated in a remarkable series of interviews.6 Despite lack of fulfillment, most people continue to work for a variety of reasons.

Change of vocation can be achieved after a struggle and with much pain. It is a stage of positive disintegration7 and a third individuation of "midolescence" that can bring rewards of immense value. There is need for a study of this subject on a larger scale, preferably with a control group.

REFERENCES

1. Erikscm. E. H. On the sense of inner identity. In McKnigbt, R. P., and Friedman, C. R. (eds.). Psyhoanatytu Psychiatry and Psychology: Chemical and Theoretical Papers. Vol. 1. New York: Imematianai Universities Press. 1954, pp.35 1-364.

2. Erikson.E. H.Chthlhood and Society New York: Vi'. VC. Nunon Sc Company, 1950, pp. 247-325.

3. Erikson. E . H. Identity and the Life Cycle: Selected Papers. (Psychological Issues Monograph: Vol. 1, No. I.. Monogr. I). New York: International Universities Cress, 1959, pp. 50-164.

4. Freud, S. Standa-d Edition ol the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Prend. Vol. 21: Cnilization and Its Disiontents. I ondon: Hogarth Press. 1959. p. 80.

5. Menninger, K. A. Psychological factors m the choice ol medicine as a profession. Bull. Menninger Clin 21 ? I9.S7J, 5I-SK. 99-106.

6. Terkel, S. Working. Ness York: Pantheon Rooks, 1974. pp. 102-118.

7. Dabrowski, K. Personality Shaping Through Posture Disintegration. Boston: I itele, Brown and < omp.inx. 1967.

GENERAL REFERENCES

Garra-Guerro. C. Culture shock: its mourning and (he vicissitudes ol identity. J Am. Psychuanal. Assoc. 22 1974, 40X-429.

Glaser, B. ('.Organizational Careers, Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968, pp. 17-53.

Could, R. Aduli lite stages. Psychology today 8,9 (1975), 74. 76-78.

Jacques. K. Work. Creativity, and Social Justice. Ness York: Interna liona! Universities Press, 1970.

Kerman, C. and Levinson, D. Becoming rhe director. Psychiatry 32 (1969), 41 1-427.

Levinson, D.. and Klerman, G. The clinician executive. Psychiatry 30 (1967), 3.15

Levinson. D. The normal crisis ol the middle years, lecture given at Hunter College, New York, 1973.

Maas, H., and Kuyper, J. From Thirty to Seventy San Francisco: losses-Bass. 1974.

Pruyser, P. W. Aging, downward, upward, or torward. Pastoral Psychology 24 (1975), 229.

Wheelis. A. How people change. Commentary 47: 5 (1969], 56-57.

TABLE 1

CHANGING VOCATION IN MIDLIFE: AGE AND SIBLING POSITION

TABLE 2

CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS AFFECTING MIDLIFE CHANGE

TABLE 3

INITIAL AND SUBSEQUENT RESPONSE TO MIDLIFE VOCATION CHANGE

10.3928/0048-5713-19810301-11

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