Surviving the Career Doldrums
By Susan Imel

An accountant in her 40s is rising in her field and her career is thriving. She has, however, lost her enthusiasm. According to her, "I have success in my profession by all standards you can measure. I'm highly compensated. But a lot of days, I don't enjoy going to work." (Grannon 1999, p. 1E). In the process of examining their lives, a couple in midlife reevaluate their careers. Over the years, he has been promoted and is now near the top of his company but no longer feels challenged by his work. Although she is in a satisfying career, she wishes for more time for family and community work. (Hudson 1996)

After rising to the top of her company's domestic marketing division, a woman is named to head the marketing of the company's newly created international area. When that position turns "sour," for the first time ever, she finds herself to be "dissatisfied professionally, shaken personally and facing a future that [is] disturbingly unclear." (Clarke 1996, p. 72)

When terms such as stalled, plateaued, or dissatisfied can be used to describe individuals' careers, they may be suffering from the career doldrums (Grannon 1999; Hudson 1996). Having to drag oneself to work in the morning, leaving work feeling vaguely dissatisfied, and experiencing loss of enthusiasm, crankiness, tension, and boredom are all symptoms of the career doldrums.

They can occur for a number of reasons, including doing work that is not a good fit, undergoing a long period of career stabilization with no new challenges, and experiencing a change in personal goals (Grannon 1999; Hudson 1996; Kidd 1998). After describing the career doldrums in more detail, this Brief provides suggestions for addressing them.

What Are the Career Doldrums?

The notion of the career doldrums is not a new one. Individuals have suffered from the symptoms associated with this concept for as long as jobs and careers have existed. What is new is the more open acknowledgment of the phenomenon. Judith Waterman, a career counselor in San Mateo, California, has seen her client base change significantly during the last 20 years. After beginning with reentry women in the 1970s, Waterman reports that "during the 1980s, [she] was seeing high achievers who were thinking, 'How did I get here and why am I not happy?' but they were keeping it under wraps." By the mid-1990s, however, she reports that it had become more acceptable to admit career dissatisfaction (Hornaday 1995, online).

Betsy Collard, another career specialist, believes that part of this trend is related to "how personally knowledge workers view their work and the meaning of it," but that it is also related to changes in the economy. "In times of change, everybody turns inward to get clear about what's important to them, who they are, and what they want out of this" (ibid.).

The career doldrums may also be associated with certain career stages. Careers are like lives in that they go through stages that frequently include transitions into new phases. One framework (Nicholson cited in Kidd 1998) for analyzing work transitions includes the following stages:

  1. The preparation stage that occurs prior to assuming a work role.
  2. The encounter stage that covers the early days of a career experience in which individuals begin to make sense of the chosen career. This stage may include shock, rejection, and regret.
  3. The adjustment stage that involves the period in which individuals learn to do their work and make the adjustments necessary to reduce any dissonance between career choice and personal traits.
  4. The stabilization stage in which job performance is the main focus. In this stage, failure, boredom, and stagnation are not uncommon.

The symptoms associated with the career doldrums are most closely aligned with the stabilization stage. Individuals are not likely to become bored with or dissatisfied with their careers until they have had an opportunity to experience them for a while. Individuals who are in careers that are not a good fit may begin experiencing symptoms in the adjustment stage as they accommodate their careers to their personal traits and aptitudes.

In nearly every career, it is not unusual to suffer some of the symptoms associated with the career doldrums. Although many people may experience boredom or dissatisfaction with their careers, it takes courage to make changes and fear, uncertainty, and lack of momentum may hold them back (Clarke 1996). A number of strategies exist for addressing the periods when a career has become monotonous or dissatisfying.

Strategies for Addressing Career Doldrums

Individual careers are multifaceted and no single solution can be applied to those periods of dissatisfaction and boredom. What works for one person may not be possible for another. Some suggestions for dealing with the career doldrums follow.

Seek Career Counseling

For those individuals whose careers are not working out as expected or who feel that they are stuck on a plateau, career counseling can provide helpful insights about what to do. Most individuals seek career counseling so that they can engage in clarifying what they feel is important, satisfying, and worthwhile and then match that to what they do. This process of values clarification helps to focus internally on what's important to them as an individual rather than on external factors related to the benefits of particular jobs (i.e., salary, opportunities for promotion, and so forth) (Hornaday 1995). Matching belief systems to a new or existing career and or organization is more important than matching skills (Lieber 1999).

Although most people wait until they are experiencing some type of career-related pain to seek career counseling, career counseling should be thought of as a strategy to promote career wellness and used as a method for developing a plan for "career fitness" (Hornaday 1995, online). Engaging in career fitness on a regular basis can help keep the symptoms of the career doldrums at bay.

Make a Career Move

Making a career move can be as simple as making a change within the same organization or as radical as shifting into a completely different career field. A career move generally involves one of the following choices (Grannon 1999; Hudson 1996; Lieber 1999):

  • Moving up. One solution to the career doldrums may be to seek a position with greater responsibility. If it is not possible to do this within the current organization, then leaving may be the only option.
  • Making a lateral move. Another option is to "move sideways" or make a lateral move (Hudson 1996, p. 265). By investigating options within the current organization, it may be possible to find work that will provide greater satisfaction. However, as in moving up, it might mean a change to another company or changing the work emphasis.
  • Downshifting. Changing to a job with less responsibilities may be a possible option. Although the conventional wisdom advises against taking a demotion, sometimes this type of move can be a catalyst for career advancement (Dahle 1998). In addition, downshifting may be a solution for someone who is ready to give greater priority to other areas such as family, leisure, or volunteer work.
  • Changing careers. A complete change of careers may be the only option. This strategy may be the most radical because it may mean retraining as well as "starting over." It may, however, lead to greater career satisfaction as was the case for Judith Willis (1999) who left her career as a neurologist to become an elementary school teacher.

Adjust the Current Situation

Making adaptations in a current career situation is also an option. Although similar in nature to making a lateral move, in this instance, an individual stays in the same position. Labeled "enriching the status quo" (Hudson 1996, p. 265), this strategy involves staying put and making adjustments that will lead to a more satisfactory work life such as tinkering with a job in subtle but significant ways (Grannon 1999).

Develop Outside Interests

Many people cope with the career doldrums by finding fulfillment in interests outside of their jobs. For example, through aptitude testing the accountant who was suffering a career slump found that she had unused mechanical skills. To address this need, she purchased a home that was under construction and oversaw the completion of the remaining work. She also shifted the focus of her work into another area. In combination, these strategies eased the dissatisfaction she felt with her career (Grannon 1999).

Apply the Happenstance Theory

Since careers do not follow a logical and straightforward path, being open to the role chance plays in a career is another strategy. Planned happenstance is a theory that helps individuals develop skills to recognize, create, and use chance in career opportunities. Following the theory requires individuals to exercise curiosity to explore new learning opportunities, to persist despite setbacks, to meet changing attitudes and circumstances with flexibility, to optimistically view new opportunities as possible and attainable, and to take risks by being proactive in the face of uncertain outcomes (Mitchell, Levin, and Krumboltz 1999). Adopting the planned happenstance model can help create a context for making some of the changes necessary to combat career doldrums because it encourages a willingness to capitalize on the chance that is part of every career.

Asking the Right Questions

"One size fits all" is not the solution to selecting a strategy or strategies to address the career doldrums. Hudson (1996) poses a series of questions for surviving a midlife career plateau transition that are also applicable to other types of situations when career satisfaction is low (p. 263):How can a career be developed in relation to other vital concerns?

  • What has to be done to sustain balance in life and pacing in schedule?
  • How can a career become a vital instrument for making a life dynamic?
  • How can proven skills and abilities be used in new ways?
  • How can career direction be repackaged within the flow of new jobs and openings?
  • How can an existing portfolio of skills be revised to ensure it is in sync with current job openings available at this time?

Responding to these questions may provide some insights into the type of strategies that will be most helpful in curbing the career doldrums.

References

  • Clarke, Caroline V. "Be All You Can Be!" Black Enterprise 26, no. 7 (February 1996): 72-80.
  • Dahle, Cheryl. "Twice the Career in Half the Time." Fast Company no. 19 (November 1998)f.
  • Grannon, Caroline. "Ho-Hum Inc.: We Can Make Positive Changes to Combat Career Doldrums." Columbus Dispatch, September 6, 1999, p. 1E.
  • Hornaday, Ann. "How Do You Know When It's Time to Go?" Fast Company no. 1 (November 1995).
  • Hudson, Frederic M. "Career Plateau Transitions in Midlife, and How to Manage Them." In Career Development in Turbulent Times. Exploring Work, Learning and Careers, edited by R. Feller and G.
  • Walz. Alexandria, VA: National Career Development Association; Greensboro: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1996. (ED 398 519)
  • Kidd, Jennifer M. "Emotion: An Absent Presence in Career Theory." Journal of Vocational Behavior 52, no. 3 (June 1998): 275-288.
  • Lieber, Ron. "Reinvent Yourself." Fast Company no. 29 (November 1999).
  • Mitchell, Kathleen E.; Levin, Al S.; and Krumboltz, John D. "Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities." Journal of Counseling and Development 77, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 115-124.
  • Willis, Judith A. "What's a Neurologist Doing in Grade School?" Medical Economics 76, no. 12 (June 21, 1999): 122-124.

Developed with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR93002001.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education

Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position or policies of OERI or the Department.

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