It’s true that many people in their 40s — roughly defined as between the ages of 40 and 60 — are stressed, and for good reason, says David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. “Quarantine is a time in life where you are responsible for a lot of people, and people are counting on you,” he notes. This pivotal position in the world – in families, workplaces and community – is why quarantine can sometimes feel like “a daily crisis”.
And right now, as the world continues to recover from the pandemic, Almeida says, quarantine demands are “on steroids.”
A brief history of the midlife crisis
The term “midlife crisis” originated in 1965, when Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques published an academic paper titled “Death and the Midlife Crisis.” He wrote there: “At 35, the individual has reached the pinnacle of life and sees before him a declining path, with death at its end. The result is a crisis, stronger in some than in others. … It is a period of anguish and depression.
The idea that midlife is a time of crisis was popularized in the mid-1970s by Gail Sheehy’s book. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. From there, the concept took root in popular culture – think Dudley Moore chasing a young Bo Derek in the 1979s. ten.
Solid research on midlife wellbeing has taken longer to emerge. But when it did, early results painted a rosier picture. According to “The Midlife in the United States” (MIDUS) study, which began publishing results in 1999 from an initial survey of more than 7,000 people. Later reports from MIDUS and other studies that have followed people over time have yet to find compelling evidence that contentment drops between early adulthood and midlife, says Margie Lachman, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Other types of studies, mostly from economists, paint a darker picture. These studies, which ask people of different ages to rate their life satisfaction or happiness, often on a 10-point scale, repeatedly find a distinct pattern: middle-aged adults in several countries report lower well-being than younger or older adults, creating a so-called “U-shaped curve” in happiness.
“The evidence is completely overwhelming. … It’s not even worth debating anymore,” says David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College. Blanchflower hits the low point of adult happiness around the age of 48.
And yet the debate continues. In a recent review, Lachman and colleagues argue that the evidence for the U-shaped curve “is not as robust” as proponents claim. For example, they say, different studies find the low point at different ages, ranging from 30s to 70s.
Even if the midlife drop is real, it doesn’t mean that all midwives, or even average midwives, are depressed or in crisis, Lachman points out. “Things like this make people nervous about getting old and unnecessarily worried about the severity of midlife.”
The stress factor: Is it getting worse?
In his book Did I say that out loud: the indignities of quarantine and how to survive it, Kristin van Ogtrop lists 31 reasons why a middle-aged person might have trouble sleeping. They include children, spouses, parents, anxiety, depression, climate change, the news, and “freeform despair.”
Van Ogtrop, 57, a former magazine editor turned literary agent who lives in Westchester County, New York, says when she finds herself awake at 3 a.m. these days, she must be wondering, ” Is it quarantine? Is it hormones? The pandemic?
Psychologists say it’s too early to tell which age group has been hardest hit by pandemic stress, but some initial surveys suggest teenagers and young adults are struggling the most. The American Psychological Association’s October 2021 report “Stress in America” found that 79% of Gen Z adults (born 1997 or later) said they had “experienced behavioral changes over the last month due to stress”. That compares to just 37% of baby boomers.
In data collected before the pandemic, however, Penn State’s Almeida found that quarantine stress was already significantly higher for today’s middle-aged people than it was for previous generations. in his forties – and there is every reason, he says, to think it has gotten worse. In his study, people aged 45 to 64 in 2012 reported almost 20% more stressful days than people of the same age in 1995.
While young adults were significantly more stressed than middle-aged people in the previous survey, both groups were equally stressed in the latest round, Almeida says. He speculates that the fallout from the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 may have hit middle-aged people particularly hard because of their central role in families and at work. The same could happen during the pandemic, he says, as midwives try to navigate all the disruptions affecting their children, aging parents and workplaces. He analyzes new data to find out.
There is further evidence that the past few decades have been difficult for some middle-aged Americans. Most notably, the researchers found that “deaths of despair,” from suicides, drugs, and alcohol, increased among middle-aged whites, especially those with little education.
“There are a lot of people who are suffering in their 40s,” Lachman says. But, she adds, it’s also true that “many people view their 40s as the prime of life.”
Change of living environment can be a good thing
Douglas LaBier, a corporate psychologist and psychoanalyst in Washington, DC, says he sees many midlife patients who are making productive changes in their lives. Some, he says, fit the old stereotype of crisis: Struggling with unresolved pasts and uncertain futures, “they escape through something that feels momentarily nice…the new car, the trophy wife, the ‘alcohol or drugs’.
But many more people, he says, are making positive changes because “they start to feel a kind of nostalgia for other dimensions of [themselves].” For one person, this could mean changing careers; for another, it might mean getting into woodworking. Some people get divorces that make them happier; others are finding new ways to connect with spouses or partners.
That’s what happened with Earnheardt when he and his wife, both professors at Youngstown State University, found themselves enjoying ‘date nights at home’ – complete with chocolate fondue and karaoke – organized by their children during the first months of the pandemic. “I just realized that this is what I needed, this is what I wanted,” he says. He adds that this realization inspired him to rebalance his life to put family first.
Van Ogtrop has also gone through a quarantine rebalancing, starting with stepping down as editor-in-chief of really simple reviewed a few years ago. She quit, she says, amid “deep dissatisfaction” with a job that increasingly involved laying off people to cope with shrinking budgets. “It’s hard to start a new career in your 50s,” she notes, but in her case, it was worth it.
In his book, van Ogtrop writes about other difficulties and inconveniences of midlife, including root canals, colonoscopies, arm fat, and not knowing how to use your smartphone as smartly as your children.
And yet, she said, she would take her 50s on her unstable 20s any day. While “everyone has really different life circumstances,” she notes, her own quarantine is good: “Every year I’m more grateful. I’m more grateful for the days when I wake up and nothing hurts me.
Kim Painter is a contributing writer specializing in health and psychology. She writes frequently for AARP’s Staying Sharp and previously worked as a health reporter and columnist at USA today.