Midlife crisis is real as work stress peaks at 45, study says

Authors found feeling like an underachiever can contribute to an emotional decline in our late forties and fifties

People handle a midlife crisis in different ways, with many looking to escape work, make impulse purchases or take up new hobbies. Photo: Paul Mansfield
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It may not give men the green light to buy a flashy sports car or take up the guitar. But a US study suggests the midlife crisis is real — with work stress peaking at the age of 45.

A recent paper based on data from the National Bureau of Economic Research in Massachusetts looked at levels of happiness and mental health in midlife among those living in wealthy nations.

It evaluated middle-aged people living close to their peak career earnings, without serious illness and in some of the safest countries in the world.

Something elemental appears to be going wrong in the middle of many of our citizens’ lives
Authors of The Midlife Crisis paper

Researchers looked at life satisfaction measures in 500,000 people and data on midlife suicide rates, sleeping problems, alcohol dependence, concentration problems, depression and memory loss.

They found hill-shaped patterns — with the peak in middle age — over the course of ageing in each of the social science metrics tested.

“This is paradoxical and troubling,” the authors of The Midlife Crisis paper said.

“Something elemental appears to be going wrong in the middle of many of our citizens’ lives.

“It is not currently clear whether there is a timeless and innate form of human middle-aged crisis, or the midlife pattern documented here is some kind of perplexing, and perhaps temporary, by-product of today’s affluent world.

“Whichever of these turns out to be true, the hill-shaped pattern of extreme distress over the human life-course in rich countries appears to constitute a foundational puzzle for economists and behavioural scientists.”

Reachers found that people in their mid-forties are most likely to feel overwhelmed in the workplace. Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National

Academics found the maximum level of work stress was reached at around 45.

That is the age people are most likely to feel overwhelmed in the workplace.

Those living in industrialised societies usually earned more at the midpoint of their lives than ever before, reaching peak earning power in their late forties for those with a lower education level. Higher educated workers tended to earn the most later in life, in their early fifties.

Although there was no explanation for the emotional decline in people in their late forties and fifties, a common feeling of underachievement was a probable contributor, the paper said.

There was no evidence to suggest envy of others or having dependent children were factors in a sense of feeling unfulfilled.

However, the research struck one bright note. Once that period of midlife passed, distress reduced later in life as wisdom and personal growth continued.

“There is some published evidence for a midlife psychological low in data on chimpanzees and orang-utans,” the authors said.

“So sheer ageing biology in primates may play some kind of role.

“That would take the ultimate explanation out of the social sciences and into the natural sciences.

“Much is still to be understood.”

The term “midlife crisis” was coined by Elliott Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst, who in 1965 said the period was when people moved beyond youthful idealism towards maturity and an acceptance of death as a reality of life.

Previous reports for the American National Bureau for Economic Research concluded that the peak of unhappiness hits at 47.2 years of age in the developed world, and at 48.2 for those living in developing nations.

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Updated: September 14, 2022, 11:47 AM