Does mid-life crisis exist? The jury is still out
This month, two economists presented a working paper that offers statistical proof for the existence of a mid-life crisis. In a survey of 1.3 million people across 51 countries, researchers found that people report a measurable decline in happiness, starting in their 30s and continuing until 50, when they start to feel satisfied with their lives again.
“We’re seeing this U-shape, this psychological dip, over and over again. There is definitely a mid-life low,” said Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick in the UK and co-author of the study.
There’s just one problem— Psychologists say the mid-life crisis doesn’t exist. “I had a little tussle with Oswald about this a year or two ago,” said Susan Krauss Whitborne, a professor of psychology and brain science at the University of Massachusetts-amherst in the US and just one of several psychologists who hold this view.
“I’ve been doing research for pretty much my whole career on adult development, and I’ve never found age linked definitively to anything psychological about a person. You can call it a mid-life crisis. Or a quarter-life crisis. But whatever’s going on with you personally, you can’t blame it on age,” said Whitborne.
“I don’t know why some psychologists say it doesn’t exist,” said Oswald’s co-author, David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s blindingly obvious. All we did was plot the data points.”
“I don’t understand why they’re so set on this,” said Whitborne. “They’re economists. What if I tried to use psychoanalytical measures to index the economy?”
Ultimately, they might both be right. Oswald and Blanchflower’s dip might not indicate the existential angst Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques theorized in the 1960s. It may instead be a general side effect of contemporary adulthood.
If anything, the dip recorded by Oswald and Blanchflower may simply be the statistical proof of what millennials are only starting to learn: “adulting” is hard.