They are well stocked with MBAs, VCRs and BMWs. But they feel SAD.
Many of the most successful baby boomers find their jobs long on salary but short on satisfaction, a situation some psychologists say can lead to serious emotional problems. Their Victorian houses may be stuffed with antiques and high-tech gadgetry, but the owners feel empty inside.
A highly educated, pampered group, their numbers are small but their impact is great, says Douglas LaBier, a Washington psychologist who has studied the problem of yuppie angst and written about it in a book called “Modern Madness: The Emotional Fallout of Success” (Addison-Wesley: $16.95).
“They’re extremely important in terms of the impact they have on the development of our society and our economy,” he says. “They are shaping the direction our culture is taking, so it’s a very serious situation.”
To relieve the stress that has accompanied their success, the boomers have embraced everything from aerobics to Zen. But many find they still have the feeling that something is missing. Could it be a beach house? A breast lift?
Going for record spending won’t help, says LaBier. He suggests successful careerists stop trying to bury their feelings in an avalanche of exercise, job promotions, purchases and drugs, and look instead to its cause.
In many cases, professional success and the means to achieve it conflict with human values, he says. Based on his seven-year study of the problem, LaBier--a 42-year-old business and government consultant and faculty member of the Washington School of Psychiatry--has concluded that this unhappiness is “a very widespread situation” and a reaction to a corporate job structure that stifles creativity, individualism and idealism.
“I’d say the people who are normal (no psychiatric problems) but are suffering conflicts, what I call the working wounded, are well over 60% (of the total career force). The other people who are very sick but are adapted to their work--that’s what I call surface sanity--are no more than 25%,” said LaBier in an interview.
That adds up to a startling 85% of professionals who are “disturbed in some way in relation to their work, suffering conflicts,” he said.
“There’s a pervasive depression and sense of helplessness in the career culture and it’s not because people have messed up brain chemicals or miserable childhoods. There’s something in our culture that generates depression as a by-product.”
Some mental health specialists agree there is a problem but question whether it’s as serious and widespread as LaBier suggests.
Dr. Daniel X. Freedman, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and editor of the Archives of General Psychiatry, said he would be “enormously skeptical” of the notion that 85% of the professional work force suffers serious emotional problems.
“Success always brings with it the question, ‘Is this really what you wanted?’ I don’t find a disease which these people can claim exclusive ownership of,” Freedman said.
“One understands what he (LaBier) is saying, that we are a more rootless society and it is harder to see the consequences of our work. That is just the nature of modern jobs and life and adapting to it, in order to find meaning. I really don’t see it as a mass mental illness.”
Psychologist Mark L. Held of Englewood, Colo., treats many successful people in Denver’s high-tech area and thinks the problem is as old as work itself.
“I see it as the nature of the human condition,” Held said. “Mankind has struggled with this for a long time. Basically people are trying to balance satisfaction with success and it’s rare to find people who are successful and also very satisfied at the same time.”
Psychologist Marilyn Machlowitz of New York City, a consultant in management training and development, said, “I think some of this is a predictable response, what we used to think of as mid-life re-examination but occurring at an earlier stage. Even the most exalted jobs in our society have an element of drudgery. Maybe the first bloom is off and they’re doing more things (at work) for the second and third time.”
LaBier talked about one woman he counseled, a “typical example.” She is a 39-year-old lawyer “working enormously long hours on excruciatingly boring and meaningless activity, but earning a lot of money. She went to the guy above her,” and complained about it, seeking more meaningful work.
“The guy, who is in his 50s, looked at her in a puzzled way,” LaBier said. “He said, ‘You don’t understand, do you? The very nature of our work is that it’s boring, it’s meaningless, it has no social usefulness, and for that we are handsomely rewarded.’
“Now she’s in a great deal of panic,” LaBier said. “She wants to do work that has some meaning.”
If that were the only problem, she could quit practicing law and work in a shelter for the homeless. But the catch is: She still wants success--she just wants it to feel better.
Twin Motives at Work
“Most people don’t want to drop out or do anything radical,” he said. “The younger careerist is really driven by twin motives: to be successful, competent and respected, and at the same time, a desire for more fulfillment, meaning and pleasure.”
This is what differentiates them from previous generations who have not liked their jobs, LaBier theorizes. This generation of young and middle-aged American adults, the most highly educated and pampered people in history, have come to expect more out of life.
“The yuppies are descendants of the hippies,” he said. “The new breed absorbed the legacies of the ‘60s, the positive side of the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements.
“People have always been dissatisfied with work. That’s human. No one has the ideal job or an ideal environment. But in the ‘50s, careerists wanted to quell those feelings. Having come through the ‘60s, the younger careerists come into careers expecting, wanting more opportunities for fulfillment and development. There’s a lot of latent idealism. Unlike their older counterparts who were able to put up with it (unfulfilling jobs), younger people don’t want to put up with it.”
LaBier said it’s not difficult to identify the problem. “The key is, is there a feeling something is missing, despite overt success? One guy said his steaks started to taste like cardboard.”
A Range of Symptoms
Colorado psychologist Held said symptoms can range from depression to sexual impotency. Troubled careerists may also turn to cocaine, obsessive spending and extra-marital affairs for relief, LaBier said, while the more deeply troubled may have dreams or fantasies of cannibalism, dismemberment, sadism and narcissism.
The problem, Held said, is “part of a mid-life crisis type of thing, and small changes go a long way with this. If you’re the president of the company, you don’t have to go out and become a shoeshine boy, but if you work on relationships and take some of the drivenness out of your life, a small change will go a long way.”
LaBier believes that people who go to analysts to solve these problems undergo needless, exhaustive examinations of their childhoods, when what’s defective is the corporate system.
“Overall,” he said, “organizations are slow to restructure work to bring out the positive side of people. That would mean decentralization, more teamwork, flexible opportunities for real participation.”
The psychologists agreed that most people can help themselves by examining their values and making changes that would make them feel more fulfilled, changes that may involve some sacrifice and risk.
Changes Can Help
One of LaBier’s clients was helped by switching from contract law to telecommunications law, a field that interested him more. Another found the missing joy by taking up singing and joining an opera group. A third got out of his business and opened a center for personal growth through art and literature.
Some change jobs and fields entirely, but that is not necessary in all cases.
“They have to look in other directions,” Held said. “The problem is a narrowness. Their lives are not in balance. They need to learn to relax, get pleasure, develop relationships, leave competitiveness behind.”
LaBier said that fixing the problem may require “developing a critique of the culture, as opposed to embracing the culture.”