While the global average age of people who undergo a mid-life crisis has traditionally been between 45 and 60, new research suggests that it can start as early as age 38. The UAE is one of the countries where adults are at risk of premature mid-life crisis, according to a study by the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.
'Mid-life crisis is a real thing'
Psychologist Louise Lambert led the study entitled Paradoxes of Life Satisfaction Predictors in a Wealthy Society: Empirical Analysis of the United Arab Emirates Gallup Data. This used facts and figures collected by management consultancy company Gallup from 17,000 residents between 2006 and 2017. "Mid-life crisis is a real thing and tends to hit people in their 40s and 50s worldwide, but we see it happening earlier here," she says. "We also found the dip doesn't go back up as [soon as] it does elsewhere."
Explaining the condition further, Lambert says: “When you’re 18 or 20, you’re full of optimism – of being the CEO of a company, say, or marrying your dream partner.
“Then you reach 40 and these things may not have happened. You may not have reached one-tenth of your goals, but that’s real life. Some people are proposing that the U-shaped dip is somewhat artificial, in that if we weren’t boosted so full of dreams and self-esteem in our youth, we probably wouldn’t drop in our middle years. Once the kids leave and there is more time to yourself and you have more money, you readjust your expectations, you actually go back up the hill and satisfaction tends to increase again, although that is not the case here [in the UAE].”
The UAE effect
The reasons for this earlier incidence and compromised ability to overcome the dip are multiple, she says. “In the national population, things happen a lot quicker, professionally and personally. Work-wise people are often given jobs fairly young – becoming, for example, a director at 28 – and then where do you go from there? Your dreams are extinguished a bit sooner, because you realise you’ve arrived already and there is maybe only a lateral move or a move to a new industry.
“In the older population, we found the dip goes down, not up like other places. However, the government opened a whole range of community centres last year, targeting retired people and allowing them to take classes and do some personal development, which also happens in other countries. So I’m hoping the dip will go up more.”
Expats, who come to the UAE primarily for work, face their own set of challenges. “Professionally, some people can climb much more than they could have back home, but others face challenges and hindrances, and many don’t get the career progression they expected, despite moving all the way to a new country. Many expats come from countries with a mature job market, where there can be more of [an advancement],” says Lambert.
Time to prepare
Preparation for this time of life must start young, she says, expectations must be managed and work done to prepare young people for the challenges and realities ahead. "My suggestion is that the government do more to prepare students, especially those at university, for this dip. Life is tough. They need more advice on choosing the correct career, parental aid, support in dealing with stress and relationship counselling, which could be a useful buffer later in life."
While Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical director at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai, agrees that the mid-life crisis age bracket is dropping – it's sometimes even lower than 38, she says – she doesn't believe this is unique to the UAE.
“In my experience, the global economy, job competition, globalisation and other factors contribute to tougher life circumstances at an earlier age. This leads to lowered life satisfaction, sooner than it did for previous generations,” says Kanafani.
"I also believe it mostly affects expats in the UAE as they may experience difficulties being away from family and friends, which contributes to less social support. They may feel like visitors, which threatens their sense of security and comfort, the longer they have lived abroad."
Although Kanafani has observed that more people are seeking help, she says individuals can arm themselves with tools to cushion tough times. These include: building resilience, learning acceptance (both of self and others), becoming more proactive, setting realistic goals, celebrating the small things, and not staying idle. “Whether or not people seek psychotherapy, these are things they can work on at any time, anywhere, and with resources such as books, etc.”
'There can only be one CEO in an organisation'
An American teacher, 44, who asked not to be named, has been going through this crisis for a year. She has lived in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for six years and has not had the career and personal life progression she had hoped for. "I didn't even know what this thing was. It's still so stigmatised and nobody wants to admit what they're going through. There is a belief that by the time you're in your 40s, if you don't have it all figured out and haven't reached your life goals, it makes you a loser," she says. "I've fallen prey to this self-esteem movement where 'you can be anything' is bandied around. It's not true. It may be applicable to 1 per cent of the population, but it's not possible for every single person to succeed in the way they see fit. There can only be one CEO in an organisation."
She says expat life is challenging and comes with the weight of expectations given the sacrifices one makes to move to another country. "You leave your friends and family behind, sell your home and car, and work hard [only to] realise it doesn't always work out. You question if you made bad decisions or chose the wrong goals, and you have to watch some hopes and dreams fall through, but sometimes that's just life. Where the shame comes from is that these stories aren't told enough. We don't share narratives of failure and we really should."