Middle age is often seen as life’s pivot point. A hill has been climbed and the view over the other side is unsettling. As Victor Hugo said: “forty is the old age of youth” and “fifty the youth of old age”.
The idea adults in midlife face a dark night of the soul – or desperately escape from it, hair plugs flapping in a convertible’s breeze – is deeply rooted. Studies show the great majority of people believe in the reality of the so-called “midlife crisis” and almost half of adults over 50 claim to have had one. But is it actually real?
There is good evidence a midlife decline in life satisfaction is real. Population surveys typically find both women and men report the lowest satisfaction in middle age. The Australian HILDA survey locates the lowest life satisfaction at age 45 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics singles out the 45-54 age bracket as the glummest.
Middle age may be dislocating for some but there is little evidence it is usually a period of crisis and despondency. Psychologically speaking, things tend to get better. If there is a small dip in how people evaluate their lot – even if it is objectively no worse than before – this is understandable. Our attention shifts from time past to time left, and that requires a process of adjustment.
When is midlife?
Clearly there are many grounds for being unsatisfied with life during the middle years. But does that make the midlife crisis real, or just an intuitively appealing phantom? There is good reason to be sceptical.
For one thing, it’s hard enough deciding when the midlife crisis should occur. Concepts of middle age are elastic and change as we get older. One study found younger adults believe middle age stretches from the early 30s to 50, whereas adults over 60 saw it as extending from the late 30s to the mid-50s.