Amazon, Dell, Baidu, JD, Huawei… We imagine employees at these established companies are winners of life. They may have to work overtime but they have decent salaries and a successful career to be proud of.
But as many others in their late 40s and 50s, they can also be victims of midlife crises which for most of the time, come in the format of crises in their career. What’s different is that midlife crises seem to strike earlier and harder in tech companies.
In this article, we share people’s real worries and stories.
This is Part2 of a 3-Part Series. Link to the Part 1 and Part 3.
What are we talking about when we talk about midlife crises?
Zhang Chong, head of risk control at JD Finance, experienced a mid-life crisis for the first time before he turned 35. At that point, he had already worked at a bank for 9 years and was promoted 1.5 levels. He noticed that most companies would hire people only up to 35 years old. After this age, his competitiveness for certain positions would reduce. He contemplated leaving the bank and find work at an Internet company, but was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to adopt a new job outside of “the system”.
He knew that the pace of work in other industries was much faster. Prior to working at the bank, Zhang Chong worked at Huawei for 2 years. He remembers on his first day, an older employee brought him to a convenience store to buy a foldable cot, the kind you’d use to do sit-ups as a kid and can be stashed under your desk for late nights at work. Zhang Chong was six feet tall and his legs would protrude over the edge.
After the downturn in the IT industry, Zhang Sihong jumped ship from Dell to Amazon, where he became a VP of Amazon (China) in charge of the customer relationship. This was the peak of his career at a foreign company. However, he soon discovered that foreign companies like Amazon were having difficulties adapting to the Chinese market, especially with the constant attacks from domestic companies.
Zhang Sihong believes the reason for foreign companies’ inability to adapt was that they didn’t have enough faith in the local staff to hand over the required authority. Even if someone was the CEO of greater China, they would only be a cog in the sales machine. “These kinds of companies only become successful because they have a good system, not due to individual talent,” Zhang Sihong said. On the other hand, he also thinks that high-profile foreign companies are unable to compete in China’s complex Internet world.
Before LeEco went bust, the 46-year-old Zhang Sihong jumped ship from Amazon to LeEco. At that time, Amazon’s e-commerce market share in China had dropped to 1%. He didn’t think foreign companies could make it, so he was keen to try his hand at a private Chinese enterprise.
Meanwhile, Zhang Chong started his new career in JD Finance. Some industries were sinking, while others catapulted and became new leaders. He was fortunate to be in the latter. During the two years when he was contemplating finding a new job, artificial intelligence and big data exploded. Overnight, his skills as a data analyst researcher became the foundation the entire internet industry was attempting to build. People like Zhang Chong was lifted by the tide and became popular for head-hunters.
Without a doubt, changing careers brings excitement and vitality to one’s life.
After joining JD, Zhang Chong felt himself entering the golden age of his career. He was managing a team of 12, with schedule full of meetings every day. However, he felt a bit unaccustomed of his new management role. “It felt like I was in meetings all day,” said Zhang.
Compared to working at the bank, Zhang Chong thinks that competition among Internet companies is much fiercer. At banks, employees usually got along peacefully. However, as soon as an opportunity for a promotion came along, everyone would fight for it. At Internet companies, on the other hand, there are more opportunities, even though colleagues may seem to be much more competitive with more conflicts occurring.
The day before Alipay launched its facial recognition function, JD Finance took the lead in releasing a similar product. This product was developed internally by many different teams. Healthy internal competition is common in Chinese Internet companies. Different product teams would develop the same product simultaneously and the winner would get to launch their product to the public. “From the company’s perspective, if we had 3 to 5 teams develop the same product simultaneously, even if all this effort resulted in advancing the release date by one day, it would still be worth it. Ultimately, it puts us ahead of the competition,” Zhang Chong said.
Of course, this leads to sacrifices in terms of efficiency. One time, a team led by Zhang Chong was developing a user portrait function, but another team beat them to the finish line. He wasn’t aware that another team was working on the same feature, and believes the other team was unaware as well. But because they were faster, all the work Zhang’s team put into the project were wasted.
However, entering the Internet industry or a local enterprise does not mean an end to anxiety nor does it equate to a happy ending.
An HR from Alibaba once told a story in an open class about an exemplar Alibaba employee. After Alibaba went public, he cashed out his stock options and achieved financial freedom. Afterwards, his motivation and work performance dropped and he developed a carefree attitude towards work. Even after having conversations with HR and being transferred, his attitude did not improve.
This is the most common problem among the mid-level employees in the Internet industry: what could possibly motivate middle-aged employees after they achieve financial freedom, or at least home and car ownership?
The burned out feeling that a people experience at middle-age may all be similar. Zhang Sihong had a mid-life crisis at 35 and went to see a psychiatrist every week for six months. Eventually, the doctor advised him not to come back anymore. “It was making him feel depressed too,” Zhang said.
There was nothing special that set it off. He went from being a sales manager at Coca-Cola sales to being Dell’s Asia Pacific sales operation director. Then out of nowhere, work no longer gave him a sense of accomplishment and pay raises became only a game of numbers.
“You climb up a mountain, almost reach the top, and then you look back and realize that you’ve forgotten why you started the climb in the first place,” Zhang said.
He reminisced about his childhood, where he once stole and ate all the candies from a candy jar at home. He finished them all in one afternoon. From then on, he always felt like belching when he saw candy. At the age of 35, Zhang Sihong felt the same sickness towards work.
However, today’s companies have little tolerance for employees who feel burned out.
In the end, that carefree mid-level manager at Alibaba who achieved financial freedom was dismissed.
In the first half of this year, Huawei was questioned for firing employees above 34 years old. To Zhang Chong, many people misinterpreted Huawei’s cutthroat culture. Even though working overtime was difficult, Huawei had a slogan at that time that said: “buy a house in 3 years, buy a car in 5 years”. That was around the year 2000 when property prices were not astronomical. He bought his house whilst working at Huawei, and lived frugally to cover the basic down payment.
When he left Huawei at 26, he agreed with Ren Zhengfei, Huawei founder and president, that many old employees were resting on their laurels. The staff ratio should be always be adjusted to give young people a chance.
After joining JD Finance, Zhang Chong’s anxiety towards expanding his skills and knowledge worsened.
When he was at Huawei, an older high-level employee who possessed both management and technical qualifications once told Zhang Chong to always keep your skills and knowledge sharp and up-to-date. As a manager, you can be replaced, but those with good skills will never have to worry about a way out. Zhang Chong’s career dream is to be a top manager.
But now, Zhang Chong is worried about staying relevant. Since he graduated 10 years ago, he came across over 10 new computer languages. When he was 20, he was able to learn a new language each week. But now his memory isn’t as good as it used to be, and he no longer has the motivation or ability to learning new programming languages. “What’s the point? I think all these new languages will just end up obsolete one day like the previous languages I’ve learned.”
‘Learn from young people,’ said Meituan’s CEO, Wang Xin, at a talk he gave at his alma mater where he offered life advice to his juniors.”
The rapid pace of technological development also makes Zhang Chong feel anxious. Not too long ago, he designed an intelligent data analysis tool that automated what previously required half a day’s worth of tedious manual calculations. The tool has reduced the workload of analysts and his subordinates were pleased about that. However, Zhang Chong did not inform them that this tool is like the wolf chasing after them. If they can’t run fast enough, they would be eaten up.
These days, a lot of positions are consumed by technology, Zhang Chong says. Internet banking has consumed brick and mortar banks, and e-commerce has consumed shopping malls. Recently, JD developed a driverless delivery vehicle, which has been turned into reality, albeit in a closed environment. According to the calculations, these vehicles reduce JD’s delivery costs by 25%. And now, the new financial products JD is developing is replacing the jobs of analysts. Zhang Chong couldn’t help but wonder whether one day they would all be replaced by their own technology.