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Is Midlife Crisis Real? Economists and Psychologists Can’t Agree

Life is hard, and also hard to quantify.

This month, two economists presented a working paper that offers statistical proof for the existence of the midlife crisis. In a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, the researchers found that people report a measurable decline in happiness, starting in their 30s and continuing until around age 50, when they started to feel satisfied with their lives again.

“We're seeing this U-shape, this psychological dip, over and over again. There is definitely a midlife low,” said Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick and co-author of the study.

There’s just one problem: Psychologists say the midlife crisis doesn’t exist.

“I had a little tussle with Oswald about this a year or two ago,” said Susan Krauss Whitborne, a professor of psychology and brain science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and just one of several psychologists who hold this view. “I’ve been doing research for pretty much my whole career on adult development, and I’ve never found age linked definitively to anything psychological about a person. You can call it a midlife crisis. A quarter-life crisis. But whatever’s going on with you personally, you can’t blame it on age.” 

“I don't know why some psychologists say it doesn't exist," said Oswald’s co-author, David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s blindingly obvious. All we did was plot the data points.”

“I don’t understand why they’re so set on this,” said Whitborne. “They’re economists. What if I tried to use psychoanalytical measures to index the economy?”

This beef isn’t purely academic. Alongside traditional economic factors, social well-being is a growing consideration for governmental policy and often, businesses. Because people should be happy, yes—and because happiness tends to go along with health and productivity, both of which are good for the economy.

The United Nations studies happiness. So does Bhutan. In 2011, Britain started conducting national mood surveys in the hopes that the country’s general feeling of well-being may one day guide policy decisions the way gross domestic product and inflation do. The U.S. government doesn’t have a similar survey, but the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has been conducting its General Social Survey, which asks about happiness, since 1972.


What governments and businesses should do with their findings, Oswald and Blanchflower are quick to point out, is not for them to say. But it could be relevant to, say, public health policy on opiate addiction, or trying to decrease the suicide rate. (The two are currently interested in the use of antidepressants by middle-aged people.) “We’re just concerned with the well-being of the country,” said Blanchflower. “Happiness is a part of that.” 

The very idea of a mid-life crisis originated in the early 1960s with a Canadian psychologist named Elliott Jaques. He was studying the creative habits of 310 famous artists such as Mozart, Raphael and Gaugin when he noticed a common trait: When the artists entered their mid-thirties, their creative output waned. Some became depressed. A few committed suicide. Elliott then observed essentially the same pattern among his own clients. As people approached middle-age, many of them became acutely aware that their lives were finite and, as a result, reported an increasing fear that they might not achieve their goals.

Jaques's resulting paper, "Death and the Midlife Crisis," published in the International Journal of Psychology in 1965, gave rise to a new pop-science term and provided men with an excuse to get hair plugs or buy a sports car. (The paper is also why most cultural mid-life crisis clichés involve men; Jaques believed that women didn't experience such crises because they went through menopause.)

For a while, Jaques’s theory was well accepted. It was popularized in Gail Sheehy’s 1976 best-selling book “Passages,” and in 1978 the New York Times ran a profile of a psychologist who claimed mid-life crises always happened within three years of a milestone birthday such as 30 or 40. But in more recent research, several psychological studies have either failed to find middle-aged anxiety or have disproved it altogether. The National Institute of Aging finds that only a third of Americans over age 50 claim to have experienced a mid-life crisis. Half attribute their crises to “inner turmoil and angst associated with getting older,” while others point to a traumatic event outside their control, such as a divorce.

Whitbourne, for her part, has spent the bulk of her career tracking a few hundred people from their college graduations in 1965 to now, adding younger cohorts along the way. “People do go through periods of self-evaluation, but it’s not tied to age. If someone close to you dies and you start to think about how life is limited, is that a mid-life crisis? Or is it just a healthy reevaluation of your priorities?”

Still, Oswald and Blanchflower point out, there does seem to be a marked decrease in people’s happiness when they hit middle age. Their findings are pretty simple: Even when accounting for employment status, marriage, wealth, race, gender, education and whether people had children, respondents tended to report decreasing satisfaction over the decades. In other words, life looks great to 20-year-olds, less rosy for 30-year-olds, and borderline bleak for people from  ages 40 to 50. And yes, both men and women—menopausal or otherwise—experience the dip. "Mostly, we just want people to understand that this is happening," said Oswald. "How does it affect people's jobs? Marriages? Economic activity? We don't fully know."

The existence of such a dip doesn’t mean middle-aged people hate their lives. In fact, when Americans were asked in a 2010 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” on a 1-to-4-point scale (with 4 being very satisfied), the change in their answers dropped from 3.75 around age 21 to just below 3.5 in the late forties. That’s still pretty satisfied.

Oswald and Blanchflower have been studying happiness as it relates to age for more than a decade; their first paper published on the topic in 2004 put the nadir at age 37 for men and 41 for women. “No explanation is available even in the psychology literature,” they noted at the time. A 2008 paper repeated the findings in both developed and developing countries and again said that that “what causes this apparently U-shaped curve … is unknown.”

“OK, but a decade ago the group with the highest rates of suicide used to be white men ages 75 to 84,” said Whitmore. “I’d hardly call that mid-life.” 

Ultimately, they might both be right. Oswald and Blanchflower’s dip might not indicate the existential angst Jaques theorized in the 1960s. It may instead be a general side effect of contemporary adulthood. The dip occurs during people’s prime working years. It’s also the time period when most of them marry, form families, get mortgages and possibly experience unplanned shocks such as divorce or unemployment. The “mid-life low” hovers over a number of other studies, including one put out recently by a British human resources firm that found employees from age 35 to 55 were more likely to hate their jobs. A 2005 Families and Work Institute study found that people from 40 to 55 were more likely to feel overworked, but it noted that their feelings stemmed from demanding jobs and family obligations, not their age.

If anything, the dip recorded by Oswald and Blanchflower may simply be the statistical proof of what millennials are only starting to learn: “adulting” is hard.

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