Friday, 2024 June 14

In Tech Companies, Midlife Crisis Seems to Strike Earlier and Harder

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. Believe it or not, it hurts.

In this article, we share people’s real worries and stories.

This is Part 1 of a 3-Part Series. Link to the Part2 and Part 3

Seeing Middle-Aged Manhood as Burden, Not Asset

“We can take over a team, but it is not possible to take over a leader,” the person in charge of the new department told Fang Yong frankly.

Fang Yong was in charge of a business unit providing digital maps in AutoNavi, China’s second largest navigation app. A year ago, he was called to the meeting room by the new senior executive of AutoNavi; there he was told that due to the structural reorganization of the company, the team currently under his management would merge with another department. In euphemism, he was also told that he could move together with the team but the person in charge of the new department would not be very pleased with him.

He was being passed off by both sides, but the reality of the situation was, he was no longer needed. His ex-subordinates still sat around him but they no longer reported to him. At the same time, he was hesitant to initiate any interaction with them. As a mature professional, he thought it would be best if kept his distance, otherwise, the new manager might question the loyalty of the team. “A good leader never sabotoges the careers of his subordinates,” Fang Yong told KrASIA.

Fang Yong became a lone ranger, and after muddling for a month he resigned.

He became a frustrated middle-aged man in the workplace. He was just 39 years old.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.


It is dumbfounding. Five years ago, Fang Yong had it all. When he was 34, his boss Cheng Congwu had a few drinks at the company’s annual party and ambitiously raised his glass to all and declared “our competitor is not NavInfo (the largest digital map provider according to NaviInfo), but Baidu. We will destroy Baidu!” That was the time when the mobile internet was on a rapid rise. AutoNavi’s traditional GPS navigation was slowly being replaced by mobile phones and Cheng had his sights set on the mobile phone map market.

A mobile maps war quickly broke out between Baidu and AutoNavi. Both companies tried to steal talent from the other and skilled professionals like Fang Yong benefited from this war. Headhunters kept calling him with higher wages and higher positions in what was a tug of war between the two companies. Fang Yong’s rank and remuneration soared.

In 2014, during AutoNavi’s start-of-year strategy meeting, Cheng suddenly left the meeting room mid-sentence to answer an urgent call. When he returned to the meeting room, he announced: “We have been acquired by Alibaba”.

“Everyone in the room was overjoyed. Alibaba was a top player in the Internet industry. Everyone felt great to be a part of them,” recalled Fang Yong. He too tasted the rewards of this acquisition. AutoNavi’s stock price on NASDAQ was around 15.16 USD per share when Alibaba acquired it at 21 USD per share. Those in management who held AutoNavi’s shares gained immense personal wealth from delisting and becoming acquired privately.

However, the excitement of this acquisition did not last long before departmental integration triggered turmoil in AutoNavi’s personnel.

Four months after acquiring AutoNavi, Alibaba acquired mobile browser UC as the war on the mobile Internet battlefront raged on. After this, Cheng stepped back and served as a special advisor. In March 2015, ex-CEO of Alibaba Lu Zhao Xi ‘abdicated’ his position to the initial UC CEO Yu Yong Fu. Fang Yong could still recall from the day of the handover, Cheng said that he will be withdrawing soon too, as Yu stood aside, looking energetic in his big shorts.

After Yu took the reigns of AutoNavi, he began implementing a drastic internal overhaul. Alibaba had no profit demands from AutoNavi so some traditional business departments were either dismissed or merged with other departments. Each department was facing compression and when there wasn’t sufficient work, they were downsized.

Fang Yong thought that with his qualifications, leaving AutoNavi for another company would be a piece of cake. However, he remained unemployed for 8 months.

Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash,


During this period, Fang received calls about some director-level positions available but he didn’t want to walk into a demotion and a significant pay cut, increasing the difficulty of him find a job. On the one hand, he had already passed his prime and on the other hand, higher positions also mean scarcer opportunities.

This is the awkwardness situation faced by middle-aged people when they decide to switch jobs.

“These people (middle aged) are the first to be cleared out; the value you provide relative to your pay is decreasing,” recalls Dell Asia Pacific region ex-sales director Zhang Sihong to KrAsia.

One year before he left Dell, the IT industry was starting to look bleak under the pressure brought by the Internet industry. Local internet brands were rising and were starting to gain market share at the expense of larger foreign rivals. This double whammy contributed to Dell going downhill in the Chinese market. In order to control management costs, they had to organize a massive layoff.

Most of the layoffs were middle-aged employees, each leading teams of various sizes. Their energy levels and capabilities were no longer competitive compared to the younger generation, but they were the most expensive to employ.

A man in his 40s, who had worked at Dell for 8 years enquired, about his severance pay with a straight face after he was notified of his lay off. For his ego’s sake, he put on a show to remain calm. In the end, he still could not help but asked Zhang Sihong, “what you did today, don’t you fear might happen to you one day”

“I understand how he feels, but I also think it’s a shame that he still hasn’t learned how this game is played,” Zhang said. Zhang was ordered to lay off 5% of employees. Among everyone in all the department, he was the oldest and had the highest salary besides the managers.

“It was a difficult choice to make but if it wasn’t him, it would have been me,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s believes that when most people hit middle age, they are in a middle management position at their companies and are unable to keep up with the rapid changes in the industry. So when things start to go south, they are usually the first to go.

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.


Compared to 10 years ago, the middle-aged employees of Dell still face the same problem. The only difference today is that industries are developing and hot trends are changing at even faster rates.

Fang Yong is starting to regret his decision of turning down Didi when they offered him a decent position and salary back in 2015. “Back then, I had no reason to leave – we were doing great! Why would I leave? But now, I’m in a really bad position,” said Fang.

Fang Yong sometimes feels that fate has pulled a prank on him. After he left AutoNavi, he was having in-depth discussions with both LeEco Automotive and Wanda’s Commercial Properties division. However, LeEco suddenly when bust and Wanda had to sell off 60 billion RMB worth of commercial properties in July of 2017.

In today’s world, one’s career will grow depending on the demand for new companies, new industries, and new services. However, things are also changing at unprecedented rates, and before you know it, winter has come, the company you’re working for has merged and services have transformed.

So even if everything seems good for you right now, deep down inside do you not feel at least a little anxious?

Writer: Wang Hailu

Editor: Yang Xuan

Link to the Part 2 and Part 3

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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