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Midlife crisis? Data reveals the real story of the middle-age slump

The sagging smile of middle age is equally apparent if we look at the markers of misery, rather than happiness

The midlife slump is real—but more complicated than we might imagine. Photo: Prospect composite

The midlife slump is real—but more complicated than we might imagine. Photo: Prospect composite

The phrase “mid-life crisis” might call to mind a stolid accountant running off with a woman half his age, or a burnt-out City banker. But in two recent studies, I’ve found signs of middle-age problems that go well beyond any one gender, social class, or indeed part of the world.

Looking across data from 132 countries—including all the big rich economies, but also dozens of poorer ones—I find a U-shape relation between age and happiness. It doesn’t matter how the question is asked: whether it’s about general life satisfaction, feelings about your situation, or the plain vanilla option of how cheery you feel.

Young adults start off relatively happy, before spirits sink in the 40s, and then recover again. The nadir tends to come at 47 or 48 in the rich and poor world alike.

 

The sagging smile of middle age is equally apparent if we look at the markers of misery, rather than happiness. Anxiety, loneliness, strain, depression and nerves, phobias and panic, downheartedness, restless sleep, sinking self-confidence, rising self-hatred, and feelings of exclusion—in most places, pretty well all of these things hit more in middle age.

What is going on? Perhaps mid-life quells unfeasible aspirations, or brings a sharpened sense that time is finite and that achievements are inadequate. And there’s special pain for today’s middle aged, who have had to earn their way through an almighty economic crisis, in an era of shredded safety nets. But on a happier note, it looks like once you’re over the hump, older age brings the wisdom to count your blessings.

Graphics by Chris Tilbury.

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