Elliott Jaques

Dr Elliott Jaques was born in 1917 in Toronto, Canada. A creative thinker and something of a polymath, Jaques trained in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and sociology, and was analysed by Melanie Klein as part of his psychoanalytic training. In a 1965 paper – drawing on key Kleinian ideas – about great creative and intellectual figures undergoing radical shifts in their work, he coined the now ubiquitous term, ‘midlife crisis’. After spending half his life in the UK, Jaques eventually moved back to North America. He died in Massachusetts in 2003, at the age of 86.

Education and career

After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, Jaques moved the US to attend Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Although he had no ambition to practise medicine, he was from early on full of curiosity about the human body and brain; about the physiological and psychological processes that enable, shape – and sometimes disturb – human health and development. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to Harvard, where he studied psychology for a year before embarking upon a PhD in the Department of Social Relations.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Jaques was made a Major in the Canadian medical corps in London, where he worked for the War Office Selection Board. This was set up in the early stages of the war as a means of selecting army officers based on their psychological suitability, not only their physical readiness. He was among several prominent psychoanalysts and psychologists working for the Board, including John Bowlby, Jock Sutherland (later director of the Tavistock Clinic), Isabel Menzies Lyth, and Wilfred Bion (appointed Board Psychiatrist).

After the war Jaques decided to remain in London, where he forged links with numerous doctors, psychoanalysts and psychological researchers, including the director of the Tavistock Clinic at the time, J. R. Rees, as well as John Rickman, Bion and Bowlby. His connections to the Tavistock deepened and, in 1946, he became a founding member of the clinic’s Institute of Human Relations. At the same time, he began training as a psychoanalyst in the British Psychoanalytical Society (BPAS). Melanie Klein was his training analyst, while Paula Heimann and Marion Milner supervised his training in child analysis. In 1964 he established and became head of the Social Sciences Department at Brunel University, where he worked until 1980.

Jacques helped in the editing of Klein’s work, including her 1957 paper, ‘Envy and Gratitude’. He also worked closely with Klein, over several years, on editing and preparing the manuscript of one of her most important works, Narrative of a Child Analysis (published posthumously in 1961). In his foreword to the book, he describes the Narrative as, ‘an insight into how her mind worked… a fitting monument of her creativity’.

After more than four decades in England, in 1991 Jaques decided to move to the US, making a new home in Arlington, Virginia, and subsequently in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was appointed Professor in Management Science at George Washington University, Washington DC. In 1999, he created the Requisite Organization International Institute in Massachusetts, which continues to carry out research and promote his ideas about corporate organisation.

Over the course of a long career, he wrote more than twenty books and many articles. His thinking delved into, and drew upon, a wide range of topics and disciplines, including psychoanalysis, economics, philosophy, art, anthropology, human capability, management theory and practice, sociology and biology. Each strand of his work constituted part of a lifelong project to understand the individual human being in and through its relation to wider society.

The ‘midlife crisis’

After reading about hundreds creative geniuses who underwent a significant shift in their work – and life – in their mid to late thirties, Jaques developed what would become a famous description of the phenomenon: the midlife crisis. In a 1965 paper called ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis’, he traces this dramatic change in the internal lives and external creations of painters, writers and composers throughout history, noticing that their creative output becomes markedly different in both style and process at the bridge between early and mature adulthood. He calls this a ‘crisis’, though he posits three possible manifestations of it: creative and emotional breakdown, or death; the first expression of previously dormant creativity; or a substantial change in aesthetic and approach. He conceptualises this crisis in terms of Klein’s depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions, and draws a parallel between it and adolescence:

‘It will have become manifest that the crisis is a depressive crisis, in contrast to the adolescent crisis, which tends to be a paranoid-schizoid one. In adolescence, the predominant outcome of serious breakdown is schizophrenic illness; in mid-life the predominant outcome is depression, or the consequences of defence against depressive anxiety as reflected in manic defences, hypochondriasis, obsessional mechanisms, or superficiality and character deterioration.’

Jaques contrasts the ‘hot-from-the-fire creativity’ of late adolescence and early adulthood with the ‘sculpted creativity’ from the late thirties onward. The first is defined by quick, explosive inspiration, and the latter by slower development, reworking, and more consciously externalising process to create the work.

He describes the coming of the middle of life as requiring a re-working-through of the depressive position. The extent of the individual’s ability – or inability – to do this will determine whether he or she collapses in breakdown; stunts ongoing development through resorting to denial and manic defences; or makes the difficult journey to a place of greater integration of love and hate, acceptance of death, and a new phase of creativity and serenity.

Management and organisational structure

After founding the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in 1946, along with Bion, J. R. Rees and others, Jaques ran a significant part of its industrial arm in post-war reconstruction. His landmark work, The Changing Culture of a Factory (1951), signalled the first use of the organisational concept of ‘culture’ as ‘the way we do things around here’, extending beyond the standard anthropological meaning of the term. In 1952 Jaques began a close professional association with the Glacier Metal Company, which lasted until 1977. This became a major component of his career: the analysis of and consultation on the management structure of corporations. Alongside maintaining a part-time psychoanalytic practice, he worked for the US Army, the Church of England, the UK Civil Service, and Oakland Police Department in California, among various other organisations. He found the combination of individual analytic clinical work and organisational consultation fascinating, these different spheres proving mutually illuminating.

Working with Klein’s ideas about primitive hate and love – and the depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions that she conceptualised to describe the infant’s emotional development – Jaques posited two types of organisation:

‘Paranoiagenic institutions: structures and processes that stir any deeper-lying feelings of suspicion and mistrust, and intensify selfishness, greed, destructive competitiveness, and bad working relationships.

Philogenic institutions: structures and processes that reinforce our deeper-lying impulses of love, trust, kinship and friendship, and release affection, creative co-operation and innovation.’

Requisite Organisation, 1989

Uninterested in the ever-changing fashions and fads of corporate management, Jaques applied his deep understanding of Kleinian psychoanalysis to examining the nature of the arrangement of work and the workplace. He impressed upon his corporate clients the crucial importance of employees’ unconscious impulses and phantasies to the success of the organisation as a whole. He exhorted them to:

At your peril overlook the power of destructive anxiety generated by anti-requisite organisation to reduce your corporate effectiveness.

And by the same token, keep in full view the human potential which can be released by requisite organisation because of its support for constructive unconscious processes in individuals.

Requisite Organisation, 1989

Jaques always maintained his interest in and use of a psychoanalytic perspective, although it was far from being his only standpoint. For Jaques, psychoanalysis always meshed with sociology and social structure, yet was never reducible to it. His wide-roaming interests and synthesising intelligence, combined with a strong conviction in the truth of Freud and Klein’s psychoanalytic discoveries, came through in all of his writing, and made a significant mark in the realm of organisational management. His innovative approach continues to influence researchers, consultants and employers today.

Eleanor Sawbridge Burton, 2020

Photograph reproduced courtesy of the Elliott Jaques Trust.

Key publications

1951 Jaques, E. The Changing Culture of a Factory: A Study of Authority and Participation in an Industrial Setting. Tavistock.

1965 Jaques, E. ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis‘. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.

1970 Jaques, E. Work, Creativity, and Social Justice. London: Heinemann Educational.

1956 Jaques, E. Measurement of Responsibility: A Study of Work, Payment and Individual Capacity. Tavistock.

1976 Jaques, E. A General Theory of Bureaucracy. Heinemann.

1990 Jaques, E. ‘In Praise of Hierarchy‘. Harvard Business Review.

1990 Jaqus, E. Creativity and Work. International Universities Press.

1997 Jaques, E. Requisite Organization: Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. London: Gower.

2002, Jaques, E. Social Power and the CEO: Leadership and Trust in a Sustainable Free Enterprise System. Quorum Books.

2002 Jaques, E. The Life and Behavior of Living Organisms: A General Theory. Greenwood.