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What’s So Bad About Being in Midlife?

Once again, new research challenges popular views about midlife.

A May 2018 article by columnist Beth Teitell in the Boston Globe regards it to be a “microaggression” (an unintended but hurtful insult) to label a 40- or 50-something adult as “middle aged.” This is just the latest entry into the midlife discussion focusing on—what else—the negative features associated with the middle years of adulthood. Example of these so-called microagressions include “ A saleswoman in the eyeglasses store points you to “youthful” looking bifocals. “Middle-aged people love these,” she chirps,” and “You overhear a twentysomething colleague referring to you as “middle aged” — and the part of you that thought your cool sneakers were fooling people dies.” Author Beth Teitell bemoans the fact that “middle aged” is a term that needs some rebranding. After all, furniture from the 1950s and 1960s is in style again with the retooled label “mid-century.”

The term “middle” may be at the root of the problem. Consider phrases that include the word, and their unpleasant associations (not necessarily truthful, but prevalent nonetheless):

  • Middle child: the child who fails to get enough attention in the family.
  • Middle childhood: the uninteresting period of childhood between preschool and puberty.
  • Middle school: the period of education when children in middle childhood are perhaps most miserable.
  • Middle Ages: another term for the “Dark” or unenlightened centuries before the Renaissance.
  • Middle of the road: being unable to make up your mind.
  • Middleman/woman: a go-between with no other purpose than to negotiate.
  • The song “The Middle,” with the lyrics: “I’m losing my mind just a little.”
  • Middle class: the undefined social class in between low and high.
  • Middle America: the broad swath of country in between the more exciting coasts, or people who live there who lack interesting lives.
  • Middle East: a part of the world associated with great unrest and political strife.

Middle age as a period of adulthood suffers from the problem of being somewhat vague and undefined, but associated with a set of unpleasant changes; as Teitell notes, “It’s a group no one wants to be part of, until they age out, in which case they realize, too late, they didn’t appreciate what they had.”

All of this is very amusing, but being the target of this particular microaggression can be painful, especially when you’re automatically thought, by virtue of your age, to be in the throes of painful reexaminations of the meaning of life. The idea that midlife is associated with misery is now long well-established in the popular mindset, but psychology researchers continue to find, without success, evidence of a true midlife crisis. Yet, as established as it is in that popular mindset, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With this in mind, a recent study conducted by Prince of Wales (Sydney, Australia)’s Samuel Harvey and colleagues (2018) examined the contribution of job strain to psychological disorders experienced by individuals in the middle adult years.

Taking the approach that it’s not age, but other stressors that can contribute to midlife malaise, the Australian researchers used job strain at age 45 to predict psychological symptoms at age 50. As a prospective study, the Harvey et al. investigation avoided the usual logical problems encountered in correlational research. Instead of connecting current strain with current symptoms, as in the typical correlational study, the research team watched psychological symptoms as they unfolded subsequent to the measurement of job strain.

The large and representative sample, numbering nearly 6900 individuals followed through the UK National Child Development Study, were tested not only on job strain and psychological symptoms, but on a range of other possible confounding factors that could contribute to the observed relationships, including previous psychiatric history. Job strain is known to be a major life stressor, particularly when people feel that there are both many demands on them and that they, further, have little control over their decision in the workplace. According to the model tested by the authors, "high job demands (including work pace, intensity, and conflicting demands) and low job control or decision latitude (including workers’ ability to make decisions about their work) engender a state of high job strain, which places workers at high risk of health problems" (p. 498).

Previous research conducted in the UK in the Whitehall II Study linked higher mortality caused by cardiovascular disease to lack of control over workplace conditions. The Harvey et al. study examined how job strain could take its psychological toll above and beyond other possible contributors including marital status, educational attainment, housing arrangements, and social class. The authors included other stressors in addition to workplace strain such as physical illness, marital problems, death of a close family member or friend, and being the victim of assault. As final controls, the authors took advantage of their long-term dataset and used childhood intelligence and adolescent difficulties as additional controls.

As the authors predicted, there was a cumulative effect of job strain on midlife mental health issues, leading them to conclude that “14% of new cases of common mental disorder could have been prevented through elimination of high job strain.” Unlike other studies examining depression and low happiness scores across age groups of adults, the Harvey and collaborators investigation looked not just at age, but at conditions that could be linked to age as the cause of so-called midlife angst.

The midlife crisis, when framed in this context, becomes not one of despondency caused by age per se, but by the type of worklife situation in which people find themselves in their 40s and beyond. What is in the forefront of your mind in your day-to-day existence is far more likely to be the situation you (and/or your partner) face as you make your way to the office, the store, or the factory, and the jobs you are assigned once there. Your life is also made more complex by the many roles that you enact in addition to those at work, not to mention whatever commute you have to undergo to travel back and forth from home. Not everyone faces these strains, however, and it is for this reason that not everyone goes through the exact same set of issues associated with the year of their birth.

You might challenge the findings of the Harvey et al. study by noting that people who are prone to developing psychological symptoms will also be likely to view their workplace as presenting heavier demands and less opportunities to exercise personal control. However, the items on these scales were reasonably objective including, for example, number of hours worked and amount of control over work tasks.

The authors believe that the solution to midlife misery, then, is not just waiting to get older when, in retrospect, your life might look better than it does now. Instead, they maintain that job strain is a modifiable factor that, if addressed appropriately, could help alleviate mental health problems during the adult years.

In summary, it’s fine to laugh at those so-called micro- middle-age aggressions when you read about or encounter them in your daily life. However, the idea of rebranding midlife may ultimately provide the best answer. Consider your midlife glass “half full,” and you’ll look at the rest of your life that much more optimistically.

References

Harvey, S. B., Sellahewa, D. A., Wang, M., Milligan-Saville, J., Bryan, B. T., Henderson, M., & ... Mykletun, A. (2018). The role of job strain in understanding midlife common mental disorder: A national birth cohort study. The Lancet Psychiatry, doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30137-8

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