Stages of Grief and Recovery During a Midlife Career Transition

How many stages are there? Why does it feel like I’m going in circles? How do I know when I’ve recovered?

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There is a lot of discussion during times of crisis about “stages of grief.” The five general general categories of grief are usually denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but anyone who has been through the grieving process knows that these stages don’t always happen in that order and each stage can have a lot of sub-stages such as shock, withdrawal, emotional release, pain, guilt, isolation, physical illness, panic, anxiety, relapse and recovery.

Because I’m going through a career transition and finding a lot of camaraderie among my fellow GenX cohorts, I’ve put together a list of stages of grief (and recovery) during a midlife career transition that I have either experienced or observed. How many of these can you relate to?

It’s only 20 more years.

Among corporate employees, this stage usually happens around age 45. Maybe we’ve achieved a certain amount of career success, attained a level of seniority, and accumulated a respectable pension, 401K, and accrued PTO. We may or may not like what we’re doing, but we’re good at it. We look at that projected retirement date (somewhere between age 62 and 67), and think sure, I can do this! This stage might resemble “denial.”

I can’t live like this for 20 more years!

Suddenly realizing that we won’t be able to afford to retire for another 20 years makes us start counting the weeks, days, hours…MINUTES that we’re having to live a life that we’ve outgrown. There may be parts of our current jobs that we like and we may or may not like the people we’re working with. We may or may not have ideas about what we’d rather be doing, but the one thing we know for sure is that there is NO WAY we’re going to survive another TWENTY YEARS doing THIS. This stage might resemble “anger.”

I’ll just get a side-hustle.

A second job or volunteer activity can be a great way to achieve personal fulfillment in an unfulfilling career and/or prepare us for earning an income during retirement. So, we tell ourselves that this side-hustle will make this next 20 years more bearable. The problem is that maintaining a side-hustle takes A LOT of time and energy, and we’re starting to realize that age is NOT just a number – it’s a significant stage of life when we simply don’t have the energy we had when having a “side hustle” would have sounded cool. Before long, we realize that maintaining a full-time job along with all of our family responsibilities and healthy social lives AND this “side-hustle” is really a bit much. This stage might resemble “bargaining.” 

Seriously, I can’t live like this for 20 more years!

So now we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ve started to realize that our long-term well-being is dependent on finding a career option that better suits our current stage of life. We also realize that the long-term financial plans we made with that financial planner a few years ago are about to go kaput. We’re trying to figure out how to explain this to our family, friends, and co-workers, and there are no easy answers. Our life experience has taught us that there is probably a light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel has a bend in it and things are still pretty dark. We’re starting to realize why our parents went through a mid-life crisis, and we’re starting to feel ours coming on. This stage might resemble “depression.”

It’s time to bounce.

This stage looks a bit different for everyone. Some find a way to stay in their jobs but carve out a new niche. Some are involuntarily forced into a career transition through layoff or separation. Some turn in their notice and launch their new careers. By the time this happens, we’ve already cycled through the traditional stages of grief at least once, and we’re just ready to get on with the rest of our lives. This stage might resemble “acceptance.” 


So we’re done with the grieving stages, right? There’s nothing like that first Sunday night at home when you realize you don’t have to get up to go to the old job on Monday. There will be no rush hour drive, no lunch to pack, no dreading what’s waiting on the office voice mail. There’s a sense of relief, calm, hope, and excitement for what the future holds. I can do anything! The sky’s the limit! Woo-hoo!

Oh, no, what have I done?!

Then Monday morning hits. We start looking at our budget and the bills, and the fact that a good chunk of our income is coming to an end. Everyone else is off to their familiar jobs, and not at all sympathetic to our plight. There’s not even anyone to joke with about it. Here’s where we start realize that these “stages” may be more of a whirlwind rather than a path to recovery.

I’m so tired I can’t move.

We’re experiencing a significant let-down effect and symptoms associated with withdrawals. We’re feeling disoriented and off-our-game. All of those plans to “hit the ground running,” are crashing in a spectacular way. We’re just now finding that we’re going back through some or all of those stages of grief as we cope with the end of one set of dreams and attempt to embark on another. We might be surprised at how much unresolved anger we have toward the past, or how much fear we have about the future. This can be very overwhelming mentally and emotionally, and we need to allow ourselves time to go through it.

It’s been three months, and I’ve already lost interest in the “new career.”

At this point, many of us become acutely aware that the exit plans we made when we left our old job were just that – exit plans. Now that we’ve had some time to take a beat and think and reflect, we have no interest in following that plan any further. This can feel like yet another failure while we struggle to find a way to make an income without falling back into that old trap of being in a job or career that we need to escape.

I’m just going to call this “semi-retirement.”

By now about six months or so has gone by. Hopefully we’ve managed to “un-clench” and feel the peace that comes with having some control over our day-to-day routine. Since most of us are pretty resourceful, we’ve probably also figured out how to patch together income from more than one place – perhaps an early pension and one or more part-time jobs that allow us some flexibility. We’re exploring opportunities. We might be enrolling in courses to learn new skills or add certifications and credentials to our repertoire. We’re learning to make peace with the fact that our former career – regardless of how it ended – was just a stepping stone to this stage of our lives.

Ohhh…I know what I should do!

Finally, we have a eureka! moment, and realize what we can do that will incorporate our knowledge, skills and experience, and earn us a decent living in the process. We finally find that energy that comes with having a new project to work on. It would be lovely to believe that this is a one-time event, but the truth for a lot of us is that we cycle through these last few stages more than once. Adjustments and need to be made and plans need to be re-worked, perhaps for the rest of our lives, but it’s okay. This is the stage when we’re ready to turn around and help someone else get through this, and tell them yes, it really does get better!


Additional Resources

Many thanks to Jenn Pike of Jen X Journal for reposting this on her blog. Jenn Pike is a fellow GenX-er who lives in Los Angeles, CA, USA, and London, England, and writes for the midlife chic. Be sure to go check out her blog at

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