There was a time when “mid-life crisis” was simply (though sadly and inaccurately) typified through divorce, a shiny red sports car, or career change. These stereotypes allowed us to distance ourselves from the real pain of those we know in midlife; we laughed and made jokes about older people trying to live out fantasies of being young. Especially as women, we took part in chastising those men who traded in their older wives for a “younger model.” 

Yet, adjustment problems in midlife are no laughing matter. Middle-aged adults have the highest suicide rates in the country for the second year in a row, a recent New York Times article reports. While suicide rates have historically been the highest in very elderly men (those over 80), the New York Times article reports that rates of suicide in men ages 45-54 are now the most common group to take control of their life and death in this way.

What explains these recent statistics?  No one knows for sure. And data on happiness in midlife is confusing; while suicide is increasing, so are reports of happiness and wellness in middle age. Of course, some of the same pressures that apply to all baby boomers could apply here: Difficulty in dealing with aging parents, seeing what is ahead of them in terms of a long and protracted life, but without much quality of life (a topic I have written about previously), seem to be creating a kind of stress that has been unknown to previous generations. And as I have discussed before, rates of substance abuse are rising in those in midlife and among older baby boomers.  So perhaps the suicide rates among middle-aged men are, in part, related to the ease of obtaining prescription drugs and the prevalence of substance use

Statistics aside, however, there is a disquieting level of despair that I see everyday among those I treat who are in middle age. Though many of these individuals are taking care of older parents, I am not sure that this is the only source of distress.  It seems to have more to do with a fear of displacement in a workforce that highlights the young, as well as a culture which values youth and beauty.  Our society constantly gives the message that the young have more to offer. Perhaps of more concern, is that in a very empty world of electronic media, middle-aged adults and those who are older may not know how and if they can fit in.  I was talking with a senior colleague recently about how I hate electronic readers; the visceral and sensual aspects of reading are lost through the cold and distant contact of a screen.  My colleague was stunned!  As he is in his 60’s he assumed that I would be thrilled with the idea of electronic reading.  But I am not.  As I am in middle age myself, I understand the idea of what it means to lose the most fundamental aspect of reading and writing, and the beauty of the written word on a page.  However, that I am young enough to embrace new and old forms of media may be of little consolation to those who are a generation older than me, and trying to feel a part of a world that is no longer available, or of interest to them. 

The world has changed.  And not just in the way that we get information.  News, social connections, and data of all kinds (whether it is accurate or not) are now housed on the Internet. Being “connected” no longer has to do with whether someone has simple electronic access.  It has to do with how and if one can connect and feel a part of things online. While the past ten years has brought an unparalleled transformation of our lives through online communication, it is a medium in which we all connect to one another in a less personal way.  Perhaps younger generations are more tolerant of impersonal connections.  But even if they are, I worry about the impact of a less personal way of feeling connected.  Though baby boomers may be experiencing the downside of less intimate relating, I wonder if future generations are also at risk.

The reality is, much of our population does not feel connected online.  And given that a big source of social support is not available to those who get emotional needs met on the Internet, there are a lot of people who are feeling at a loss for social support. Many adults, including myself, are part of an “in between” generation; we are online, but many things that seem to induce “connection” (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are lost on us. We don’t get it.  As Betty White said on Saturday Night Live, Facebook seems like a “huge waste of time.”

Lack of social support is a risk factor for both depression and suicide. It is not clear if older and middle-aged adults feel more isolated in the age of the Internet, and it is even less clear if isolation from electronic connections contributes to suicide rates. However, I can’t help but wonder what it would feel like to know that a good part of what people perceive to be “happening” is online and to feel left out.  But a lot of people do feel left out.  Older generations have always remarked that they do not understand the younger generation.  This has always been a veiled attempt to conceal the loss that older people feel when the world is moving on.  Feeling left behind is nothing new in the history of aging. But it does seem that the world has moved on faster than previous generations, and I worry about those who are getting lost; certainly some boomers are.  From friends of mine who refuse to text or older colleagues who won’t sign up for Facebook, I understand their resistance, because I have felt it too.  And while it may be tempting to say to these older and middle-aged adults, “get with it,” I don’t think that will help people much, especially those who want to read what is on a piece of paper, or for those who think of interpersonal connection as lunch with a colleague or dinner with friends. For all of its benefits, the Internet is a lonely place, and my older colleagues are right about wanting to meet in person.

Though the reasons for boomer’s suicide rates remain unclear, it does seem to be the case that some people in middle age feel lonely and not able to connect.  The question is does the Internet help to connect people or make them feel more isolated?  And if the latter is true, what can we do to help people of all ages feel connected in the world of new media?  Maybe the key is making social networking more inclusive and interesting to those who are older, and for once, not just catering to the young.  

About the Author

Tamara Greenberg

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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