Middle years: Earnings are at their peak but so too are levels of distress (iStock.com/Brandon Woyshnis)
Popular media has always painted the midlife crisis in amusing ways, with men in their fifties buying flashy cars, investing heavily in their physical appearances, or abruptly engaging in thrill-seeking activities.
To scientifically assess whether the midlife crisis actually exists, I, along with Osea Giuntella of the University of Pittsburgh, Sally McManus of City University of London, Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick’s Economics department, Nattavudh Powdthavee of Nanyang Technological University, and Ahmed Tohamy of the University of Oxford, conducted one of the first in-depth studies on this topic that uses both objective and subjective markers of psychological distress.
To study the human aging process properly, researchers would naturally and ideally want to follow the same people throughout their lifespan.
So we analysed longitudinal data related to approximately half a million men and women of all ages and backgrounds, residing in the some of the world’s richest nations including the UK, US, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany, among others.
Our findings show that the midlife crisis is a real phenomenon, affecting both men and women between the ages of 45 and 50. Around this age, people tend to experience a peak in a range of indicators of severe distress. This is a troubling paradox.
More precisely, we find that midlife is a time when people suffer a litany of distressing symptoms. They disproportionately more take their own lives, have trouble sleeping, are clinically depressed, spend time thinking about suicide, feel life is not worth living, find it hard to concentrate, forget things, feel overwhelmed in their workplace, suffer from disabling headaches, and become dependent on alcohol.
A baffling trend
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our findings is that, for many people in developed countries, the midlife is a time marked by peak life-time earnings and professional achievements. In their late 40s and early 50s, people are generally at the top of their career and have achieved financial stability.
Moreover, the individuals from our analysed datasets reside in some of the richest societies around the world, which are also known to be considerably safe in terms of crime and more medically equipped. So, one would also expect people living in these countries to be generally more satisfied, yet this does not appear to be true for those at the midpoint in their lives.
We controlled for many different factors in our research that might impact how one feels around midlife, such as having dependent children, getting a divorce, changing jobs, being unemployed, becoming bankrupt, and having a large mortgage. Yet the peak levels of distress we observed around midlife still held, irrespective of differences in all these demographic and socioeconomic factors.
Other possible explanations for the paradox we observed could be that at midlife people start to ponder on what they have achieved in their life and struggle with unmet expectations, or that they are struggling to come to terms with ageing or their mortality.
An earlier study on a sample of great apes, however, observed a similar change in mood in around the middle of their life, highlighting the possibility that the midlife crisis could simply be a natural phenomenon.
What we can learn from these results
The findings challenge some of the basic assumptions that have guided and still guide the work of many policymakers, businesses, and employers in affluent countries.
For instance, we previously assumed that young students, graduates, and inexperienced employees were more likely to feel overwhelmed in the workplace or experience mental distress than older workers, yet the opposite appears to be true.
Being mindful about the issues that employees in their 40s and 50s might be experiencing and offering adequate support is thus of crucial importance. This could entail providing employees in their midlife more time off as well as personal mentors, so that they feel supported and able to share any difficulties they might be experiencing inside or outside the workplace.
Mentors could also help to ensure that employees are psychologically ready to take on senior roles that involve greater stress and responsibilities, potentially implementing changes in their workload to reduce their stress levels.
Supporting employees in their midlife could also mean offering them more days off from work, flexible working options, and other incentives designed to improve their wellbeing.
Research in the social sciences shows a positive link between human happiness and human performance, so that when workers are happier, their productivity tends to improve. Thus, adequately supporting employees in their midlife also has notable business advantages, in addition to boosting their psychological wellbeing.
Overall, our study unveiled a troubling social paradox within some of the richest countries around the world, showing that people experience a midlife crisis irrespective of their economic prosperity and personal circumstances.
While we are yet to identify the reasons underpinning this paradox, being aware of its presence is perhaps an important first step for political and organisational leaders in modern society.
Redzo Mujcic is an Associate Professor of Behavioural Science, teaching Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Executive MBA and Distance Learning MBA as well as teaching on the Executive Diploma in Behavioural Science. His research is primarily in applied economics and quantitative social science, which currently includes work on the empirical study of human feelings in the workplace.
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