When life goes U-shaped

Around the world, happiness dips in mid-life. But how Canadian boomers experience it may be very different.


When life goes U-shaped

Daniel Rousselot/Corbis


Everybody knows the stereotype: a person hits age 40 and trades in the minivan for a red convertible. Maybe they quit a high-paying job, leave a long-term spouse for a younger partner or obtain an unusual piercing. They’re the classic signs of a mid-life crisis, and the punchline for countless jokes.

But jokes and stereotypes aside, there’s some truth to the notion that our middle years can be tough ones: studies have found that happiness levels dip down at mid-life, and it seems to be affecting baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1965) more than previous generations. In Canada and the U.S., the boomer experience can be starkly different: one survey found that, while middle-aged Canadians felt relatively in control of their lives, Americans were close to panic. There, boomers have contributed to a startling rise in the suicide rate. Still, a number of studies show that, after age 50, happiness levels begin to climb, a period many boomers are now entering. In the third and final instalment of a series examining the well-being of baby boomers, Maclean’s takes a look at the “mid-life crisis,” and how baby boomers—who make up nearly one-third of our population—may well redefine it.

The term “mid-life crisis” was coined about 40 years ago by Toronto-born psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, and still holds true today. Last year, a team of American and British researchers published a study showing that well-being follows a U-shaped curve: we’re happiest near the beginning and end of our lives, and relatively depressed in the middle. “We don’t know why it happens, although it happens with remarkable regularity,” says co-author Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick. They looked at two million people in 72 countries (including Canada) and while there were some small differences—the chance of developing depression peaked at age 44 for men and women in the U.K., for example, but in the U.S., it was at 50 for men and 40 for women—the pattern was strangely consistent.

We might not be able to explain it, but there are some theories. At middle age, people are often sandwiched between kids and aging parents, while juggling work responsibilities and trying to save up for retirement.
Health begins to deteriorate, a shock for boomers who—thanks to antibiotics and vaccines—were, as children, the healthiest generation ever. Fearing their best years are behind them, mid-lifers struggle with feelings of regret and self-doubt (which helps explain stereotypes about convertibles and skydiving lessons). “In your twenties and early thirties, you think you’ll conquer the world,” Oswald says. “By the end of your forties, you’ve started to come to terms with disappointments.”

Factors like work and education might influence well-being overall—moving that entire U-shape up or down—but “don’t change the shape of it,” Oswald says. In middle years, happiness appears to dip regardless of gender, marital status, income or whether one has children. “Some people have hypothesized it’s biological” because the U-shape pattern is so strong, Oswald says. It’s almost like we’re hard-wired for middle-aged misery.

For boomers, this seems to be especially true. The Pew Research Center dubbed them the “gloomiest generation” after a 2008 survey showed that they rated their quality of life lower than older or younger adults. “In middle age, it’s not unusual for there to be a bit of a valley in life satisfaction,” acknowledges Pew’s Paul Taylor. “But this valley seems to be a bit steeper for boomers.” While it’s not totally clear why, Taylor wonders if, for them, that feeling of middle-aged regret might be especially acute. “More so than any other generation, they became famous when they were young,” he says. “It was an idealistic generation that believed society needed to be remade, and they’d be at the vanguard of remaking it. And then, life happens.”

In Canada and the U.S., though, the mid-life experience isn’t exactly the same. Since 2008, when the recession hit, sociologist Susan McDaniel, Prentice research chair in global population at the University of Lethbridge, has been working on a comparative study on the overall well-being, including financial, of Americans and Canadians aged 45 to 64 (she’s not specifically focused on boomers). Middle-aged Canadians, she’s found, are less worried about the future than their U.S. counterparts, who “were almost in a state of complete panic, and I’m exaggerating only a tiny bit,” she says. Americans were fearful about their retirement, health insurance, homes and jobs. Canadians shared some of these worries, but felt that, “in the big picture, life could be worse,” she says. They also reported feeling more content about later years, in part thanks to publicly funded health care here.

Another study, published in late September, found a disturbing trend: in the U.S., boomers seem to be contributing to a sharp rise in the suicide rate among middle-aged people. Those aged 40 to 59 have had a moderate suicide rate for years, but by 2000, when most people in that age range were baby boomers, the numbers began to climb. Researchers found increases of more than two per cent per year for men, and more than three per cent for women, from 1999 to 2005. (Canadian data isn’t entirely comparable, but there’s no indication of a major increase in suicide rates among that age group here.)

If it’s true that everybody experiences a dip in happiness at middle age, how that dip is perceived—and handled—might make a difference. Carlo Strenger, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, believes we need to stop thinking of mid-life as a “crisis,” and call it a “transition” instead. Most middle-aged people used to think about the long, slow decline into old age, Strenger says, but he thinks that’s changing. Back when Jaques coined the term, he “placed ‘mid-life’ at age 35, because life expectancy was around 70,” Strenger says. Times have changed. “Nowadays, we wouldn’t even consider 35 as mid-life.” (In Canada, men can expect to live to age 78, and women to 83.) Today, “they’re beginning to realize how many years they have ahead,” potentially healthy, productive years, too. One sign of this: a growing number of middle-agers say they plan to delay retirement, picking up freelance or consulting work as they choose. They’ll likely be better off for it. People who keep working in temporary or part-time jobs experience fewer diseases than those who retire altogether, studies have shown.

Other changes are also reshaping middle age. Today, our notions of work and family life are more fluid than ever, Strenger says. Divorce is no longer frowned upon, and “very few people expect to work in the same company, or even the same profession, for their whole lives,” he says. According to him, this shift means the traditional definition of a mid-life crisis—suddenly waking up and feeling trapped in an unfulfilling job, or a loveless marriage—no longer applies like it used to. Today, Strenger says, mid-life can become a time of fine-tuning, in which people plot out the second part of their adult life based on lessons learned in the first.

And studies overwhelmingly show that the middle-age slump doesn’t last forever. As we enter our senior years, happiness climbs significantly (the right side of that U-shape Oswald identified). One new report, published in May, shows that after age 50, people seem to keep getting happier, and stress and worry decline. These changes weren’t associated with having a partner, kids, or employment status. Nobody really knows why people seem to get happier as they get older, but “there are some general theories,” says lead author Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University. Younger people are focused on “maximizing their achievements,” he notes, but “when you get older, and the end is in sight, maybe you start making decisions that maximize your well-being instead.” Like choosing time with friends and family over a gruelling training program, or longer hours at work.

Even better news, maybe, is that you’re only as old as you feel. Markus Schafer, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, has studied how old people feel, compared to how old they are. He’s found a startling trend. “At around age 40, people start to feel 20 per cent younger than they are,” Schafer says, a pattern that continues as they age: at 40, they’ll feel about 32. At 50, it’s closer to 40, and by 60, they’ll feel like they’ve just reached their early fifties. “It’s really remarkable,” he says. (By the time they hit 70 or so, people start reporting that they feel closer to their real age.) Studies show that subjective age—how old you feel—has an impact on all sorts of factors, from blood pressure and diabetes risk to self-confidence. “Chronological age is just a number,” Schafer says.

If some mid-lifers do run out and splurge on a convertible, who’s to say it’s a crisis? Often, “it’s just because they can,” says David Almeida, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University. “I know a lot of 20-year-olds who would love to have a red sports car.”

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