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Elliott Jaques, 86; Made Map of 'Midlife Crisis'

March 23, 2003|Elaine Woo | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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