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.

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.