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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide