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Elliott Jaques, 86; Made Map of ‘Midlife Crisis’

Times Staff Writer

Elliott Jaques, a psychoanalyst and management consultant whose studies led to controversial ideas about work and theories about midlife crisis, died March 8 in Gloucester, Mass. He was 86.

The cause was an infection that damaged his heart, said his wife, Kathryn Cason.

Jaques, a Toronto native and Massachusetts resident, had an unusual career: Trained by Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who pioneered the psychoanalysis of children, he practiced for many years in London before developing an interest in industrial organizations.

As an early member of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, a British research organization founded in the 1940s, he conducted intensive interviews with factory workers that led him to develop unorthodox notions about the meaning of work and fair pay. He became a maverick in the management field who spent the rest of his life championing a method for evaluating the capabilities of workers that was largely ignored or dismissed by the corporate world.

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In the early 1960s, he began to study the careers of artistic geniuses such as Dante and Gauguin. This focus led to his discovery of a common pattern of midlife turmoil, which he described in “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” published in 1965 in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.

Considered a classic in psychology and required reading in many college courses, the paper was a major influence on the writers who popularized the term “midlife crisis” more than a decade later.

Gail Sheehy liberally borrowed from Jaques’ paper for her 1976 bestseller “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.” She said that not only did Jaques’ study provide “the most startling evidence” of a midlife crossroads but that he probably coined the term “midlife crisis.”

The late Yale psychologist Daniel J. Levinson, in his best-selling 1978 book “The Seasons of a Man’s Life,” credited Jaques as an important originator of the idea that normal adult development often includes an intense emotional struggle -- manifested in such events as sexual flings, divorce and face-lifts -- in the middle years of life.

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Jaques “suggests that the experience of one’s mortality is at the core of the midlife crisis. Though we prefer the word ‘transition’ in naming this period,” Levinson, principal author of the book produced by a team of researchers, wrote, “our view of it owes much to his.”

Little is known about Jaques’ early life because he preferred to keep personal details private, his wife said. The son of Eastern European immigrants who died when he was a young man, he was gifted enough to graduate from the University of Toronto in 1935 when he was only 18. In 1939, at age 23, he earned a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. Later he received a doctorate in social relations, which combined psychology, sociology and anthropology, from Harvard.

In 1946, after his World War II service as a major in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, he joined the Tavistock Institute, which specialized in using behavior science to address social issues. With Britain’s lagging postwar economy a major concern, Jaques chose as his project the Glacier Metal Co., where productivity was hindered by acrimonious relations between workers and management.

He worked mornings as a psychoanalyst and afternoons at Glacier interviewing the factory workers. During the course of meetings with employees, he was asked why low-level workers’ salaries were described in hourly or weekly terms while top executives’ pay was described in annual amounts.

The question was “the finest gift I’ve ever been given,” Jaques told the New York Times in 1985. “It was absolutely, bloody brilliant. That’s when I started examining the significance of time.”

The result of his investigations was a complex theory that changed the culture of the Glacier factory.

Jaques believed that all jobs fall into one of seven categories or levels, and that at each level of the hierarchy the time span needed to complete the work should increase along with the pay. He asserted that most of the labor pool is not capable of a job that requires more than a three-month window for completion. Conversely, only a tiny fraction is capable of the top executive jobs that require long-range planning over many years.

Over the years, one of his most grateful clients would be the U.S. Army, which honored him for his contributions to military leadership theory. Others included the Church of England and one of Australia’s largest mining companies. Fortune magazine in 1985 recognized him as one of a handful of “path-breaking behavioral scientists” in the management field.

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But Jaques’ theory was not easy to digest; critics dismissed it as authoritarian in its prescriptiveness. To his great disappointment, no more than 100 businesses and other organizations around the world have tried to put his ideas into practice.

“He had an idiosyncratic way of looking at things,” said Edward Lawler, director of USC’s Center for Effective Organizations. “He argued that pay level ought to reflect how much time span there was in your job. The greater the time span, the greater the pay. Then he argued that ... some people would never be able to handle more than a few seconds of discretion. And some thought that sounded like the English aristocracy justifying their position at the top of the heap. It made him unpopular.”

Jaques, who explained his theory in a 1951 book called “The Changing Culture of a Factory,” was dogmatic in his belief that a management system would be dysfunctional if it did not recognize the inherent abilities of its workers. That was not the prevailing view at Tavistock, so he left the institute that same year. But he continued to study the conditions at Glacier through the late 1970s in what became one of the longest-running research projects ever done on a corporation.

In the late 1950s, as Jaques entered his 40s, his outlook on life darkened; he no longer felt invincible, Cason said. This experience, combined with a deep interest in artists, led to his examination of the midlife crisis.

Jaques, who enjoyed classical music and collected sculptures by Henry Moore, delved into the careers of artistic giants of the Western world. He found that many of them entered their mid-30s preoccupied with mortality.

Their dwelling on death had varying effects. Some artists, such as Gauguin, began their creative life at this juncture. Others quit or, like Michelangelo, entered long periods of artistic silence. Many -- including Mozart, Raphael and Chopin -- died.

Citing case histories from his own psychoanalytic practice, Jaques went on to assert that the midlife crisis “manifests itself in some form in everyone.”

“The compulsive attempts, in many men and women reaching middle age, to remain young, the hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance, the emergence of sexual promiscuity in order to prove youth and potency, the hollowness and lack of genuine enjoyment of life ... are familiar patterns,” he wrote. “They are attempts at a race against time.”

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Psychologist Roger Gould, whose 1978 book “Transformations: Growth and Change in Adult Life,” also probed midlife crisis, said Jaques “wrote a brilliant paper, but he didn’t follow through or do a lot of promotion.”

It stirred little attention in psychological circles at the time, but it would become a landmark in the history of the adult psychology field.

“He was one of the first in psychoanalysis to talk about middle age and later life as life stages.... That was a fairly revolutionary concept -- that new development could take place in ‘old age,’ ” said David Gutmann, an authority on the psychology of older adulthood at Northwestern University.

Jaques, who is also survived by three children and three grandchildren, spent his last years exploring the development of adults between the ages of 63 and 85. He termed this “the third stage of adulthood,” after the young adulthood of 18 to 40 and the mature adulthood of 41 to 62.

Citing evidence from his research on a group of older adults he had been following for 40 years, he startled a Washington, D.C., conference a few years ago with news of intellectual growth continuing beyond the 80s.

“You can count on reaching your peak somewhere between 90 and 120,” said Jaques, who was then 83, “and I don’t mean that as a joke.”


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