Is the midlife crisis a real thing?

He goes out and buys a porsche, she goes to India to find herself. We are all familiar with the midlife crisis clichés, but does the midlife crisis really exist, and what is driving it?

It’s a hoary old chestnut: the man who, on turning 40, dons a leather jacket and buys a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. The woman who hits her mid 30s and takes an Eat Pray Love-style journey to Asia to find herself. But there’s more to the midlife crisis than worn out stereotypes. The evidence shows that we do indeed suffer more between the ages of 35 and 55. Explaining why is more difficult.

In the well-being report we’ve looked at well-being in children, teenagers and adults and found that there are three critical time points in life when well-being dips: mid-teens, midlife and in oldest old age. The first phase can be explained by personal, social and economic circumstances, but the latter two episodes cannot.

Puberty blues

As children go through secondary school their well-being progressively declines. Between the ages of 11 and 15, the proportion with low levels of subjective well-being increases by more than two-thirds from 14% to 24%. This is in line with recent findings from a Children’s Society’s inquiry, which found child well-being reached its lowest ebb among 14-15 year olds.

Puberty is, of course, a critical stage in the life course, when there are many physical, emotional and social adjustments to be made. It would be easy to dismiss the dip in well-being as the inevitable consequence of hormones and physical change. But importantly, we found this is the result of social context and so could be responsive to changes in circumstances.

For example, disruptive behaviour at school and being bullied were both linked to low subjective well-being, while feeling supported and sharing meals together as a family were critical to positive well-being among secondary school aged children. After controlling for these and other factors, the association between age and well-being was no longer significant.

Stuck in the middle

But what about the next dip – the midlife crisis?

Confirming a widely reported “U-curve” in subjective well-being – we also found that adult well-being was particularly low from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. However, unlike for children we did not find this dip was entirely explained by circumstances. Age remains a statistically significant predictor of well-being even when we statistically accounted for other factors.


Wellbeing has been measured using the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale.


We found this midlife drop in wellbeing was evident when looking at two different surveys that captured somewhat different aspects of life. The midlife crisis was apparent both when looking at all adults together and when analysing men and women separately. We used Understanding Society, a survey of 40,000 UK households, to focus in on the social aspects of life, looking in detail at relationships inside and outside the home with family and neighbours. We also used Health Survey for England data to look at predictors of well-being among men and women separately and including more detail on health.

The latter analysis showed that the lowest dip occurred earlier among men, at the 35-44 mark. Among women, the lowest midlife dip was in the 45-54 age group and women’s well-being also drops off again in later life.




Wellbeing has been measured using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale


No answers

The evidence is clear then, the midlife crisis is real. But what could be the reason for it; is it physiological or psychological? The short answer is we do not know what is driving it.

There seems to be something in particular about the midlife crisis (and the old age crisis for women) that makes it less amenable to differences in circumstances than the troubled mid-teen years. Our analysis showed that the midlife crisis is not because it coincides with the children in the household being moody teenagers. Nor is it because of the quality of the relationship between partners, or indeed whether one has a partner at all. Neither is it explained by feeling unable to cope with the demands of work, being unsatisfied with work, leisure or income or even poor mental health. Midlife remained stubbornly linked with lower well-being when we controlled for all these and a whole bunch of other characteristics.

Other research has suggested that the midlife crisis occurs due to unmet expectations; the realisation that one’s youthful aspirations have not and will not be achieved, and that as people adjust their expectations in later life wellbeing improves.

That may be at least part of the explanation but we need more research to better understand this stage in life. We can’t stop the passage of time or the ageing process but we can try to understand what factors predict the onset of, and recovery from, the midlife crisis. The midlife crisis is not inevitable, and not everyone will experience a substantial drop in their wellbeing between the age of 35 and 54. But until we know more about the factors – other than age – associated with this drop, we cannot make any recommendations for how people might be able to reduce the risk of them experiencing it.

Jenny Chanfreau does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Some research suggests the dip in wellbeing is down to unmet expectations - a porsche seems like a quick fix. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jenny Chanfreau is a Senior Researcher (Analyst) at NatCen whose main research and policy interests relate to parents' labour market participation and work-life balance.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How we got here

The story of Britain's finances in six charts. 

Today George Osborne did two things. He gave his annual ‘Autumn Statement’, in which he’ll detailed how his estimates for growth, debt and the deficit have changed since the Budget in July, and he laid out the Spending Review, which detailed exactly how much government departments will spend over the parliament.

We’ll have coverage of today’s decisions shortly, but first, how did we get here? After five years of austerity, why is the government still cutting so much?

As we all know, in 2008 the party stopped. In the same way that the Paris attacks are a product of 9/11, today’s Spending Review can trace its origins to the fateful crash of the global financial system seven years ago.

So let’s return to 2008 and remember that government debt is any Chancellor’s greatest fear. If your debt gets too high you will become bankrupt: global markets will not lend you the money you need to keep running your government.

For 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, government debt was not a great worry. Gordon Brown was able to spend his decade as Chancellor doling out the fat of the land. Debt never rose high than 41 per cent of GDP, and was only 37 per cent in spring 2008, not much higher than it had been in 1993.

Then the financial crisis happened.


In seven years the government’s debt has doubled, from 41 to 80 per cent. The Tories spent five years very successfully blaming the last Labour government for causing this spike by overspending from 1997-2008, but, as this chart suggests, the greatest cause was the global crisis, not Labour profligacy.

Regardless of who was responsible, the debt is now at a historic high. If we rewind our chart back to 1975 we can see that today’s debt levels are even higher than those Thatcher railed against in the 1980s, when she, like today’s Tories, also cut spending heavily upon entering office.

But while she succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

But while Thatcher succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

So now the UK must endure another five years of cuts if we are to run the surplus Osborne is targeting and which he recommitted himself to today. If we don’t run a surplus our debt levels will continue to slowly creep up towards 100 per cent of our GDP.

According to Eurostat, who measure things slightly different to the Office of National Statistics, our debt is close to 90 per cent and is among the highest in Europe. 

We are still just below the level of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), those countries whose debts ballooned after the financial crisis and who have gone through a succession of governments as austerity has been imposed by international markets.

But most of those countries have now started to cut spending severely, as for instance in Greece, whereas the UK is still running a relatively high budget deficit (nearly 6 per cent of GDP according to Eurostat). If we continue to do so we will keep adding to our debt, and could approach the level at which markets will no longer lend to us.

That, at least, is the Tories’ line of argument. So we are set for another five years of cuts. And everything is also dependent on growth. The figures I’ve quoted for debt and the deficit are all expressed as a percentage of GDP. A country’s total levels of debt don’t matter; what matters is how great they are compared to the size of your economy.

The cuts Osborne announced today will only succeed in cutting the deficit if growth is as high as he hopes it will be (as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out on the Today programme this morning).

How likely is that? Well, the estimates he gave in 2010 seemed over-optimistic in 2012, when the economy was flat-lining and Osborne was at his political nadir, but eventually seemed just in 2014, when the economy recovered.

Osborne’s political future will thrive or dive depending on growth over the next five years. Many economists have argued, including Robert Skidelsky and Simon Wren-Lewis in these pages, that Osborne’s focus on austerity in 2010 caused growth to stall in 2012. If he continues to cut, growth could stall yet again in 2017 or 2018.

The cuts over the next five years are going to be more severe than those from 2010-2015, and are greater than those any other major economy is planning. If they cripple growth, Osborne’s plan will need readjusting once again if both he and the UK are to survive. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.