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.


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