Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Peter Cappelli on Midlife Crisis

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Interview with Peter Cappelli on Midlife Crisis
February 2009 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli, the George W Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School and Director of Whartonís Centre for Human Resources.

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  • What is Midlife Crisis? What are the unique behavioral characteristics of a person going through midlife crisis?
    I'm no expert on this, but I think the general idea of a midlife crisis with respect to work is that people sometimes question their career trajectory in mid-career: They arenít advancing at the rate they wanted or doing the kind of work they wanted.

  • Should midlife be always a crisis or can it also be an opportunity Ė an opportunity for second life? A new beginning? Professor, from your varied experience of teaching, researching, and working with executives, can you share with us your perspectives on this?

    The crisis part comes when one has aspirations and interests that cannot be achieved, or at least not without great costs. It is very difficult at midcareer to start over or change directions and have to begin at the bottom of a different occupation.

  • What is your assessment of the possible impact of the US financial crisis on the midlife careers of millions of employees across the globe, let alone US? Do you think that the financial crisis would have advanced all the unpleasant experiences that would normally have come at a later stage?
    It will be brutal, especially for people in the financial industry as many jobs there will probably go away and not return. So those people have no choice but to start over, often at the bottom. I donít think the crisis simply sped up problems that individuals would have experienced anyway. Retirement is the logical way out of a career one doesnít want to continue, but the people who lost their jobs will be too young to retire, and in the US where retirement income is largely in investments, they will not be able to retire.

  • What is your advice to all such people going through such traumatic times? What are the few things that they should keep a tab on and keep working on so that life, if not as it was, at least does not deteriorate? What is the role of leadership in managingmidlife change effectively?
    If you mean by traumatic times the current economic crisis, I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that layoffs and declining opportunities are not your fault. In many countries, especially in the US, we tend to blame ourselves where we lose jobs and opportunities. But there isnít anything the average person could have done to head off these problems.

  • Business school professors are no exceptions to midlife crisis. What was your experience? What are the symptoms for any business school professor to recognize that he/she is getting into midlife (apart from the age of 36-58?)
    The symptomof being inmidcareer is that you have a trajectory that will continue if you donít change it: Youíre known for something, you do a particular kind of work, and you can look out a few years and see things in place that will continue that pattern. It might be fine if you like that trajectory. My own changes in direction came relatively early: I spent the first five years or so of my career studying union issues, but those issues soon dropped so sharply in importance in the US that few people found them interesting anymore. I canít say that I developed any clear plan and path, but I was open to opportunities when they came available. I tried most everything and took up most opportunities. Many, perhaps most, never work out, but it is difficult to know what will be interesting unless one tries.

  • What advice would you like to offer to a business school faculty for managing his/her midlife change effectively?
    Iíd say the big challenge is to stop and think about where you want to be and what you want to work on, no matter what your field is. It may not be possible to pursue the path one most prefers, but at least it is important to make that decision consciously rather than recognize too late that the moment has passed.

1. The Birla Family Crisis Case Study
2. ICMR Case Collection
3. Case Study Volumes

The interview was conducted by Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary, Consulting Editor, Effective Executive and Dean, IBSCDC, Hyderabad.

This interview was originally published in Effective Executive, IUP, February 2009.

Copyright © February 2009, IBSCDC No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced or distributed, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or medium Ė electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise Ė without the permission of IBSCDC.

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