Midlife Without a Crisis
By Sally Squires
The myths surrounding middle age are legion. From midlife crises to the "change of life," the middle years are often viewed as a time of upset and endings.
Beginning with 30th birthday celebrations, the decades of midlife are marked as milestones along the bridge to old age and the gradual loss of vigor and diminishing opportunities.
But results from a new, large research project by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development (MIDMAC) paint a far different portrait of midlife, one that may shatter the cultural perceptions of these middle decades.
Studies abound of childhood, adolescence and old age. But the years from 30 to 70 have been largely neglected until now. The goal of the MacArthur project is to identify major biomedical, psychological and social factors that allow some people to achieve good health, psychological well-being and social responsibility.
The findings challenge the notion that middle age is automatically a time of slow decline or fraught with angst and psychological discomfort.
Even 10 years ago, societal attitudes portrayed midlife as a time of hazard and peril. "It was considered a time of empty nests, stress and worry, poor health, menopause, midlife crises," said Orville Gilbert Brim, who directed the MacArthur research. "But the more we got into, the more we studied it, we found that on balance, middle age really is the best place to be."
The project included 11 studies involving about 8,000 men and women in the United States ranging in age from 25 to 74. One main survey asked the same questions of all participants. The research team also conducted in-depth studies of small groups, reviewed daily diaries kept specifically by some participants and carried out comparative studies in England, Germany and India to tease out possible cultural differences at midlife.
By probing participants about a wide variety of topics--from satisfaction with personal relationships, jobs and finances to how people coped with problems--researchers discovered midlife to be a time of surprising calm. Four books and more than 100 papers on midlife have already been published from the project. Additional findings will be released in the next three to four years as more of the results are analyzed.
The project shows midlife to be a time of stable relationships and some financial security. Health remains good. Work is satisfying and relatively secure. "For most, it is smooth sailing," Brim said.
While the researchers expected to find many people complaining that they had lost control over much of their life during these middle decades, they discovered instead an increased sense of control. "That was one of the biggest surprises," said Margie E. Lachman, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Boston and a member of the research team.
The popular belief in a midlife decline is a relatively new concept, dating from the late 19th century, the team pointed out. It represents a uniquely Western perspective. Other cultures, such as India, Samoa and Kenya, have long venerated middle age, rewarding those who achieve it with status and privileges. Richard A. Shweder, a University of Chicago anthropologist and one of 13 scholars who ran the MacArthur project, said that unlike most Western cultures, these cultures have no tradition that "emphasizes the . . . biology of aging."
What Is Middle Age, Anyway?
Women followed the same trends, with those of younger ages identifying 43 as the average age when a woman enters midlife. Older women set nearly 49 years as the threshold for women.
However participants defined middle age, they generally agreed that it lasts for about 15 years.
Enid Doggett, 43, vice president of a public relations firm in the District, is a typical midlifer with a strong positive view of middle age. "I love being in my forties and who I am," said Doggett, a single mother whose daughter is about to graduate from Dartmouth. "I've never looked better. I feel wonderful. I am better at solving problems and managing my life. There are still a few things that I struggle with, but I am more adept at finding solutions and overcoming obstacles. . . . I feel that I am just beginning to take ownership of my life."
But age is also an attitude. Despite the widespread satisfaction with their lives, nine out of 10 respondents in the project said they would like to be younger than they are. Two-thirds said that most of the time, they actually feel younger than their chronological age. Only 14 percent said that they feel older than their birth certificates indicate.
While the oldest of the respondents, aged 65 to 74 years, wanted to be 32 years younger than they were, they were not necessarily yearning for a fountain of youth. Instead, they wanted to be at the start of midlife. The desire to be younger may reflect society's treatment of aging. "Some people will say that this represents the fact that people have accomplished all that they will accomplish," said Alice Rossi, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "But another interpretation is that our society does not value the elderly and make adequate use of their skills and knowledge."
The Myth of Midlife Crisis
A far different picture emerges from the MacArthur project. Nearly all 750 participants in one in-depth study recognized the term "midlife crisis," but only 23 percent had actually experienced one. When researchers analyzed their responses, they found that only 8 percent tied the emotional turmoil to the realization that they were aging.
The remaining 15 percent said they had experienced a turbulent period in their middle years but the crisis was caused by significant life transitions--not by aging. "When you look more closely, they are saying this is my crisis that occurred when I was 40 years old rather than what caused it was the fact that I was 40," said Elaine Wethington, a research team member who is a professor of sociology at Cornell University. Among the events that sent lives into a tailspin were divorce, loss of a job, the death of a child, the serious illness of a close relative or friend or severe financial problems.
"One of the most important findings is that the fear that there is a midlife crisis awaiting us all as we go through middle age doesn't appear to be true at all," Wethington said.
At the same time, the study found that the number of stressful life events--what the researchers call psychological turning points--peaks during the middle years. But these events don't necessarily trigger a midlife crisis in most people.
A.J. Winterwerp, 43, a lieutenant with the D.C. Fire Department's Rescue Squad, is an example. Four years ago, his wife died of breast cancer, leaving him a single father to three girls, then 11, 9 and 6 years old. Her death was a major turning point for him, but it did not throw his life into crisis.
"To me, midlife is still an enjoyable time," Winterwerp said recently as he showed visitors through Rescue Squad 1 near the MCI Center. "I had a beautiful wife. I have great kids. I have a job I love. Not very many people can say that they come to work with a smile on their face."
During nearly 20 years on the job, Winterwerp has been given medals twice for pulling children out of fires. Both youngsters survived. "It's very rewarding to have done that," he said. "I just don't really believe in what they call a midlife crisis."
Positive View of Menopause
Even the frequency of headaches declines with age in a pattern similar to irritability, according to the study.
Menopause, often characterized as emotionally taxing and physically stressful, also appears to be benign for most women, according to the findings.
When asked how they felt about the time when menstrual periods cease, 62 percent of post-menopausal women in the project reported "only relief." Just 2 percent of female participants said they felt regret at the change of life.
The incidence of standard menopausal symptoms--hot flashes, profuse sweating, insomnia and irritability--occurs mainly among women in their early fifties, the researchers reported. But even then, half of women reported no hot flashes, 13 percent said they had them daily and 25 percent reported that they suffered from them once a week or more.
"People have told dramatic stories about how horrific menopause is, but it is not borne out by our study," said Paul Cleary, professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a researcher on the MacArthur study. "There's great variability in how people experience certain things, and . . . the point is that [severe symptoms are] relatively infrequent and certainly less frequent than a lot of the popular press would lead you to believe."
The findings paint a comfortable picture of midlife. The sense of control over work, finances and marriage increased in the late forties to early fifties and continued rising into old age. Most satisfying are relationships with children and spouses. Each ranked between 9 and 10, the study found.
Clare De Cesare, a nursing supervisor at Providence Hospital in the District, reflects this mood. She reports high satisfaction with her family, even as she sees her mothering role diminishing with her children leaving home. One son has already graduated from college. Another son and a daughter will be finished with college in two years. The days of financial support, including providing tuition for private elementary and secondary schools and college, are nearly over. "Our life for nearly 23 years has been paying tuition and I wouldn't change it for anything," she said, "but I'm also glad to see it ending."
Her children remain close, but their needs have changed. "I have three wonderful kids, who are pretty independent," De Cesare said. "I'm very fortunate."
Marriages that last to midlife also appear to have reached solid ground, with both partners reporting high levels of comfort. Fighting, bickering and other tensions have eased.
"If you read the tabloids, you think that everyone is having an affair and an unhappy marriage," said Harvard University's Cleary. "It's true that there are a lot of marriage breakups. On the other hand, in midlife there appears to be quite a bit of stability."
Some 72 percent of participants in the project rated their marriages as excellent. Ninety percent said that they were not at all or not very likely to separate or get divorced. "We're not saying that breakups and infidelity don't happen," Cleary said. "But this time of life looks like a relatively stable kind of period."
Satisfaction with sex life did diminish as people aged. The youngest age group reported their control over sex to be 7 on a scale of 10. By middle age, that sense of control had dropped to 6 and it sank to a 5 in old age. During all ages, women consistently reported feeling slightly more in control of sex than men did, ranking it an average 7 compared with a 6 for men.
Health is also rated highly. Seventy percent ranked their overall health as excellent. On average, midlife folks said their health was a 7 to 8 on a scale of 10, lower than what it was 10 years ago, but still quite high. Middle-aged adults said they expect to maintain their health for the next 10 years, but the project found that less than a quarter of participants "are working hard" to make sure that it does. Seventy percent of participants described themselves as overweight. About a quarter of the men and 42 percent of the women aged 45 to 54 years said that they were already experiencing shortness of breath upon exertion--an indication of their chronic inactivity and a possible early warning sign of heart disease.
"I am 50 and I should be doing a lot more things to protect my health," Cleary said. "But part of it is that we are very busy, we have a lot of responsibilities."
In the 40- to 60-year-old age group, job satisfaction is also extremely high in midlife, regardless of income, education levels or profession. "I love what I do for work," said James Dickson, 53, a vice president for the National Organization on Disability, echoing sentiments from most of those in the MacArthur project. "I'm an unregenerate product of the 1960s and my role is to make the world better."
Dickson, who has been legally blind since age 7, graduated from Brown University, worked in political campaigns and has been an advocate for the disabled for 30 years. In 1987, he sailed solo to Bermuda, encountering a hurricane along the way.
Like many others, he feels the financial pinch of having young children while he is in middle age. "I will be 63 when my daughter leaves home to go to college," said Dickson, and this worries him. ". . . The fear is that age discrimination could occur at the same time that someone hands you a college tuition bill for $125,000."
Even so, Dickson and others in midlife recognize that they are experiencing a special time of life, perhaps especially so because of the medical advances, the educational opportunities and the healthy economy that has given baby boomers more midlife opportunities than any other generation.
"Midlife just isn't what it used to be," said Cornell University's Wethington. "I'm 48. When my parents were in their forties, they were not looking forward to as long a life expectancy as I am."
That revolutionary longevity, plus the unprecedented access to health care, financial reserves and social and professional opportunities, make midlife today a valuable life stage.
As Dickson puts it: "It is a good balance between the physical vigor and moderation that comes with experience."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company