It's easy to side-eye Big Tech leaders who go off on unexpected tangents. From Elon Musk's 'Boring Company' to Mark Zuckerberg's market-altering craze for the metaverse, to Jeff Bezos' space trip in a cowboy hat in tandem with his divorce and stepping down as Amazon's CEO – they've been amplified in the media and sniggered at online (or in Zuckerberg's case, cautiously lauded for what looks like a serious attempt to turn 1990s science fiction into reality).
The apparent mid-life crises of these very well-known leaders draw attention to something that's less often acknowledged, though: success, status, and wealth don't always mean a person feels fulfilled by their life. And while taking off in a completely new direction may be entertaining – to observers – it also carries risks that, for those in positions of leadership and authority, may not be very palatable to stakeholders.
“Mid-life is a transitional stage in life, where an individual might choose to go all out to fulfill their unmet dreams or let them go. This choice decides the next course of direction towards old age for the senior executive, and there is a high chance that it may be drastically different from the expectations of their professional role or the organisation,” explains Vinti Mittal, Clinical Director at Singapore-based SACAC Counselling.
Mittal works extensively with senior corporate executives including expatriates, and People Matters asked her for insights into why some leaders might experience an existential crisis at what should be a stable point in their career, and what the signs of their unhappiness look like.
The 'most turbulent and demanding phase of their lives'
The nature of mid-life crisis is considered subjective among mental health professionals. In general though, it tends to affect men between their 40s and 60s. Some psychologists believe that most men go through it to some degree as they have to deal with what is a ‘time of transition’ and adjust to a ‘new perspective on life'.
Among senior executives, this transition may be exacerbated by the heavy demands of their role. Mittal says that senior management have described mid-life (broadly defined as the 40s to 60s) as the 'most turbulent and demanding phase of their lives', with existing age-related anxiety made worse by work stress.
“As it is, the mid-life stage already brings crisis, decrease in life satisfaction, happiness, and worthwhileness, and stress,” she told People Matters. “What more if the individual is working as a senior corporate executive? The senior executives are burdened by different pressures to keep their jobs and teams performing.”
“It is clear that they are not exempted from experiencing mid-life adjustments despite holding high positions, having financial stability, and material possessions.”
For most men, she points out, mid-life is a time to reflect on their achievements, and the data suggests that the majority would be more or less satisfied – but some aren't.
“For a certain proportion of men, the passage has not been smooth at all. The crisis is more for men who upon re-evaluation feel they haven’t achieved their goals upon reaching mid-life.”
How do you know someone's going through a mid-life crisis?
On the surface, there are plenty of signs, including behaviours that have been commonly depicted in the media. The person might become distanced from spouse and family, sometimes to the point of seeking out a new romantic interest at the cost of their loved ones. They might make impetuous decisions about money and career, make drastic changes to their lifestyle and/or become very concerned about their appearance. They may begin drinking too much or otherwise start substance abuse. Some may display signs of depression.
Internally, these behaviours arise from distress around the demands of their life stage. A 2021 paper on mid-life challenges faced by executives identifies three contributing factors: a sense of the impermanence of their roles, relationships, and physical health; inner conflict over their own selfhood and unfulfilled desires and goals; and loneliness and distress from not having strong interpersonal relationships to support them. They may be bored with life, worried about the aging process, questioning their past decisions, feeling lonely and unsupported by their family and social circle.
“Men are better educated, healthier, and likely to live longer when they enter mid-life than at any time in the past. This can lead to a greater degree of reflection, and often, introspection, on what has happened during the first part of life and what the future holds,” says Mittal.
“By middle age, men may have achieved most of their realistic goals and be unclear about their future direction. Relationships may also change and are often adversely affected, especially when children leave the parental home.”
The mental and emotional health aspect
“If stress from a mid-life crisis is not properly managed, it could become chronic,” Mittal warns. She listed the changes in emotional health that can result, which can be real causes for concern:
- Intense, often debilitating feelings of sadness
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- Lack of interest or enjoyment in previously fun activities (anhedonia)
- Anxiety and depression
- Feelings of mental and emotional fatigue
- Feelings of insecurity about the future
How can people get past this phase of their life in a safe and healthy manner? Not everyone has a good interpersonal support network, or is easily able to reconcile their past, present, and future dreams.
A way to channel their discontent is to redefine midlife as a stage of transition rather than crisis, Mittal suggests. “By transition we mean its a time for growth and progress towards their goals. Growth and progress can be made by redefining goals either by themselves or with the support of a trained professional like a coach, counsellor or a psychologist.”
The process is different for each person. Some may come to terms with where they are in life; others may decide to step up their career goals, or alternatively step back from their career to pursue personal ideals. Some may decide that their families are the real goal.
And of course some, who have the means, may decide to fulfil a childhood dream of going to space in a rocket.