Wednesday, 2024 June 19

In Tech Companies, Midlife Crisis Seems to Strike Earlier and Harder (Part 3)

Editor’s note: 

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 Part 3 of a 3-Part Series. Link to the Part 1 and Part 2.

Health, family, and life – you can’t have it all

Zhang Sihong stayed at LeEco for only 5 months before returning to Amazon. As someone who worked for foreign companies for so long, he found that the sales tactics of LeEco employed, the cult of Jia Yueting, and the credibility of the entire company to be unacceptable. In 2016, one day prior to LeEco’s 919 Big Promotion, a rumor about an acquisition of Amazon China made the rounds. Zhang believed this was the company’s trick to build momentum for the mid-year promotions and a deliberate way of provoking Amazon.

‘Returning in low spirits following a defeat,’ he concluded his feeling towards LeEco: “‘Before I joined LeEco, I was really worried if my bottom line would be lowered. As soon as I joined, I realized, I actually have my own standards. I thought I was experienced in the marketplace. Later, I realized I am incredibly naive,” Zhang recounted to KrASIA.

Photo by on Unsplash

Linkedin China CEO, Shen Bo Yang, also resigned this year. When recounting his experience, he said: “I’ve seen it all and I don’t believe that a multi-national Internet company can succeed in China. Now, I’ve found my calling, I do some import-export business – it’s not a bad life actually.” Then, he suggested: “If you have the ability and find the right opportunity to start your own business, become your own boss,  the sky’s your limit!’

Nevertheless, being a startup owner is a double-edged sword.

Zhang Lei tried to start his own business three times in 8 years. He did not feel burned out or threatened by the younger generation and he had no regrets. That is, until this year, at age 39.

His third startup was a platform for trading virtual items from games. He started the ICO process in July this year. The ICO market was rather crazy until September 4th, when China’s central bank and seven other ministries jointly issued a notice holding ICOs as illegal forms of financing.

That day, Zhang Lei and his three partners stayed in the meeting room for the entire day. They didn’t eat; they just argued with each other. When they finally calmed down, they apologize to each other and started discussing solutions. In the end, they decided to issue refunds and never engage with ICO again.

The meeting ended at about 3-4am. Zhang Lei took out a sleeping bag and laid down in the meeting room for several hours.

The next day, his company Basic World began issuing refunds and notices. Over a dozen investor groups erupted complaints. Customer service was overwhelmed and Zhang Lei personally came to ease investors. At one point, he had to reply to 2000 messages in one hour.


Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Due to overwork and excessive stress, Zhang Lei experienced dizziness and had an irregular heartbeat. He went to the medical center and discovered that his thyroid hormones were 19 times higher than what’s normal and that his heartbeat and blood pressure were high as well. He wanted to take his IV drip to the office so that he could continue to work, but the doctors would not let him go. “I’ll call security if you try to leave,” the doctors said.

Zhang Lei was given a bed to lay on and was pumped with 14 IV bags of various types of fluids. The doctor on duty came to him at midnight and asked rhetorically, “are you trying to kill yourself?” At that time, for the first time in his life, Zhang Lei, lying in bed in the hospital, regretted becoming an entrepreneur.

At age 30, Zhang Lei found starting his own business was fun and exhilarating, “it was a struggle against fate, fight against other people, and especially against myself,” said Zhang.

Having experienced this crisis, he came to the conclusion that starting a business was a game for young people. When he started his first business, his entire family advised him against it. His daughter is now 5 and he has never fulfilled his duty to her as a father. Now, sick in the hospital, he dares not inform his wife about his hospitalization. “My family might be on the verge of firing me,” said Zhang.

‘It was hard on my family and myself, and I could have even lost my life. If I were to start again, I would have definitely chosen against being a startup entrepreneur,” Zhang Lei said.

After spending 12 hours at the hospital, Zhang Lei completed his IV treatment and returned to his office. There were still a to be done. In addition, his interview with KrASIA was scheduled for that day as well. Just about half an hour before the journalist arrived, Zhang Lei said, he fell asleep on the table. In the end, he was awoken by a phone call.

Before his 39th birthday, Zhang Lei visited the Yonghe Lama Temple. His parents were old and their health slowly deteriorates. Money can’t cure this. What’s worse is that he did not even have spare time to spend with them. He constantly blames himself for this but also there was nothing he could do. “If money can’t solve it, prayer becomes my last hope; now I’m really starting to feel old,” Zhang Lei remarked.

After shutting down Basic World, Zhang Lei said that what he wants most right now is to go home and have a good night’s sleep and then watch a movie with his wife. He has not been home for two weeks.


Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash

There are many similar middle-aged couples like Zhang Lei whose marriages are dysfunctional due to a lack of communication. Such a cases are especially accentuated for middle-aged entrepreneurs. “You quarrel when you make money, you quarrel when you lose money, you quarrel over the time, over the kids, you quarrel over anything and everything,” said Zhang Lei.

Such a strained relationship sustained over a long period of time can lead to one party having an affair. An abnormal relationship can continue for a few months, at most 2 to 3 years, before money is used to resolve it. On some level, Zhang Lei feels that this is a way for some middle-aged individuals to deal with their mid-life crises, despite the fact that the affair itself brings problems of its own. “After getting your problems solved, things will go back to normal,” said Zhang Lei.

No doubt money is still the root of anxiety for a lot of middle-aged individuals. Zhang Lei has once seen a father kneel before the principal of a primary school, hoping that he will accept his child’s enrollment. “This father must not have used money to solve his problems,” Zhang Lei thought in his mind, “life is tough for poor middle-aged men”.

The difference between today and the past is that when people from the rural and suburban areas move into metropolitan cities due to urbanization, they have no property, close relatives, or friends to help them. They must rely on themselves. In big cities, nothing comes cheap and things like property and education are often expensive.

As one reaches middle-age, their burden grows to the next level.

One year before Fang Yong’s resignation from China’s second largest digital map company AutoNavi, he bought a property primarily for its school district. It was a small and derelict house priced at $70,000 per square meter and cost him his entire savings along with 20,000 yuan of monthly mortgage repayments. After he tendered his resignation, the mortgage payments became an issue. Fang Yong that this is a typical hardship faced by the middle class of China. He says, “the minute something changes, you drop to the lowest class immediately.”

Fang Yong recently celebrated his 40th birthday. His parents-in-law cooked up a feast and everyone in the family had a birthday dinner for him together. This did not manage to boost Fang Yong’s spirits because he knew that his competitiveness was decreasing by the year, and he knew that the situation didn’t just affect himself but the whole family. “Being unemployed isn’t a personal issue. You can afford to lose your job in your twenties by resorting to your parents for support, but in your forties, the roles are reversed. The elderly require your support,” said Fang Yong.


Photo by Olga DeLawrence on Unsplash

Fortunately, he still has some Alibaba shares. At the time he was leaving AutoNavi, Alibaba’s share prices were plunging. Fang waited for the price to at increase a bit before he finally sold them all. As of today, those shares are 170% of book value when he bought them.

“At this point, you would have to accept your fate,” said Fang Yong to KrASIA.

In the end, Fang Yong accepted a decreased salary. Eight months after leaving AutoNavi, he found a new job. The new employer was once a client of Fang Yong but offered only half of AutoNavi’s pay.

Fang Yong accepted the job because he desperately needed the money and some financial security. However, compared to not doing anything at home, accepting this job came with a different anxiety, “you have accepted that your career has stopped growing, you have accepted a demotion, and you have realized that you have gone over the hill of your career and that everything here on out is a steady descent downhill. This is truly frightening.”

“I wish that I could forever be on an uphill and die the next day right after reaching the peak.”

The first year he came to Beijing, Fang Yong recalled, that it snowed heavily that winter unlike any snowstorm Beijing has witnessed in a while. The city’s traffic was paralyzed and highways were closed. He got off the bus on the side of the road and found a small motel nearby, spending the night in the basement for 40 yuan. Today, it was as if his life has been hit by a blizzard.” I cannot be stuck in this situation forever, I still need to move upwards,” said Fang Yong.

Not long ago, a midsized team approached him and asked him if he could build a team in Beijing from scratch. They offered a similar salary to when he was with AutoNavi. Fang Yong thought to himself that this could be on the rise again.

How important are money and salary to a middle-aged person? Why are such things so important in this era? Could it be that the dramatic change of society and industry has brought a great sense of insecurity which then turns into anxiety towards money and career prospects?

Zhang Sihong probably was taking a much calmer approach towards his problems. He had been working as a substitute lecturer for the MBA programs of various universities for over ten years since he was 35. He published an article which compared LeEco to Amazon, which gained him much popularity online and since then more people have invited him to share his opinions.

Zhang Sihong moved from Beijing to Xiamen and became MBA guest lecturer in several universities. At the same time, he was also counseling and publishing articles to be shared around the country. In the first half of the year, Zhang went on more than 140 business trips – more frequent than when he was working at Amazon.

The income he earns as a lecturer is reasonable but it is hardly comparable to what he made at Amazon. “You got to have a mature attitude towards this. Choosing this kind of lifestyle also means that you have to make certain sacrifices.”

After 46 years of life experience, Zhang concluded that the biggest lie in the workplace is financial freedom. “You must rebut this point in your article,” he reminded me.

“You will never be satisfied with the money you have because your desire increases with it.” When anxiety is accompanied by desire, your mid-life crisis will never be resolved.

From entrepreneur Zhang Lei’s perspective, the mid-life crisis faced by this generation is entirely different from the generation before them. Previous generations faced crisis mainly in terms of lack of material substances. For this generation, the crisis is failing to achieve self-worth. “This is a very difficult task to achieve. Most people would choose to remain silent and hold it in instead. This will accumulate and eventually lead to a nervous breakdown” said Zhang Lei.

This generation has great expectations for themselves under the drastic growth of economic wealth in China. Many come from small towns to big cities, away from the emotional support of family and friends. They will feel their crisis much more intensely compared to others, maybe even doubled in severity. This also explains why depression has become such an epidemic in this era.

The only way out is to accustom yourself. You could try switching jobs, try to start up a business, seek help or try to ease yourself. Frankly, there are no alternatives.

Writer: Wang Hailu

Editor: Yang Xuan

This is Part 3 of a 3-Part Series. Link to the Part 1 and Part 2.

36Kr Global Writers
36Kr Global Writers
The tech ecosystem is roaring. Unicorns valued at billions of dollars have emerged worldwide, while venture capital and strategic investors are constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. 36Kr Global is committed to establishing ties between global stakeholders and providing the most vital information about China’s tech scene and capital markets.

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