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Managing Middlescence

The Idea in Brief

Burned out. Bottlenecked. Bored. That's the
current lot of many midcareer employees—those 35 to 54
years of age. Thirty percent of these
middlescents work 50+ hours per week, while
only 33% feel energized by their jobs. And many lament
that their workplace offers few opportunities to try new

If your company's like most, midcareer managers
and employees make up half your workforce. Neglect their
discontent, and you risk losing valued performers who
seek exciting work elsewhere. This is a dangerous
development—considering the brain drain that'll soon hit
when the vanguard of baby boomers retires. Disaffected
middlescents who stay because they need the money take
an even worse toll: Their lack of energy, innovation,
and focus erodes your firm's productivity.

How to avoid these losses? Tap into your
middlescents' hunger for renewal by helping them launch
into new, more productive, more meaningful roles and
careers. Fresh assignments enable middlescents to
acquire new skills. Job changes help them develop new
specialties. And training expands their business
knowledge and stokes their desire to learn more.

You're probably already using such simple and
inexpensive career revitalization techniques on your
stars. Extend them to all your
midcareer employees: They'll reward you with renewed
commitment and productivity, as well as reduced
replacement costs—immediately.

The Idea in Practice

Use these strategies to revitalize middlescents'

Fresh Assignments

Offer new assignments in different locations or
parts of your organization to leverage middlescents'
existing skills and contacts while helping them acquire
new ones.

General Electric taps experienced managers to integrate
new acquisitions—giving them a change of scene and bringing to
bear their extensive organizational know-how.

Career Changes

Provide attractive internal career changes to
help middlescents develop new specialties.

Early in his 30+ years with Pitney Bowes, Dave Nassef
served as a factory personnel manager and then marketer. When
the company centralized HR, he was one of the few HR managers
with manufacturing and marketing experience. At 40, he took on
HR responsibility for half the company. Nassef's additional
careers within Pitney Bowes include corporate ombudsman and
company representative in Washington.


Encourage middlescents to mentor less-seasoned
employees. Your midcareer managers will relish giving
back to their organization and making new social
connections in the workplace.

At Intel, a companywide employee database tracks skills
attained and needed and matches employees with mentors—even if
they're in a different country. Both mentors and protégés take
classes to learn ways to maximize the mutual benefit of their

Fresh Training

Don't assume your middlescents don't need
training. Provide brief introductions to new business
areas to expand their perspectives and trigger their
interest in learning more. Use refresher courses and
in-depth education to help them strengthen or develop
their skills.

The U.K.'s National Health Service is responding to a
chronic nursing shortage by training seasoned aides to become


Provide paid sabbaticals: They cost less than
replacing disaffected middlescents, and most people
return from sabbaticals more committed than

At Wells Fargo, employees with five or more years of
service and qualifying performance ratings can work in community
service settings of their choosing for up to four months while
receiving full pay and benefits. One employee traveled to
Armenia to help women establish businesses. The company reaped
good publicity, and the employee returned to work highly
energized and recommitted.

Leadership Development

Just because midcareer workers are older doesn't
mean they don't aspire to higher roles. Give them access
to leadership development programs to rejuvenate them
and stock your leadership

Health insurer Independence Blue Cross has put one-third
of its top 600 people—most of them middlescents—through a
leadership program. It includes a weeklong session at the
Wharton School, individual coaching and career planning, and
work on important business projects.

Copyright 2006 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


It's Time to Retire Retirement

Harvard Business Review

March 2004

by Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson, and Bob

A key to combating the malaise of
middlescence is to keep midcareer employees engaged
well beyond traditional retirement age. This is
crucial—considering the labor shortage that will
strike as boomers retire during the coming decades.
The authors explain how to replace the traditional
notion of retirement—whereby people stop working at
a certain age—with a more flexible one that
encourages people to become lifelong contributors to
your company. Strategies include enabling retired
employees to return on a part-time basis as
independent contractors; offering flexible work
arrangements such as job sharing and telecommuting;
and creating a culture that honors experience—for
instance, by highlighting older workers'
achievements in company newsletters.

Job Sculpting: The Art of Retaining Your Best People

Harvard Business Review

September–October 1999

by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop

Here's another way to keep your middlescents
engaged: give them work that appeals to their
deepest life interests. Most people possess one to
three of eight basic interests—which include theory
development and conceptual thinking, counseling and
mentoring, application of technology, quantitative
analysis, creative production, and influence through
language and ideas. Uncover middlescents' life
interests by asking them for their views on career
satisfaction and observing them at work. Then enable
them to express their deeply embedded life
interests—by adding new responsibilities, providing
a change in assignment, or even facilitating a
transfer to another department or function in the


The War for Talent

Harvard Business School Press


by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth

If you lose your midcareer employees to
disaffection, you'll soon fall behind rival
companies in the approaching war for talent. The
authors examine the implications of the
war—especially the shortage of managerial talent
that all too many companies will face. Drawing on
their own research, which includes surveys of 13,000
executives and case studies of 27 companies, the
authors map out five bold imperatives for
attracting, developing, and retaining top-notch
managerial talent. Examples include crafting a
winning employee value proposition, rebuilding your
recruiting strategy, and weaving development into
your organization. Apply these strategies, the
authors maintain, and you'll see a noticeable impact
within a year.