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Midlife? It's Not What You Think

Early findings from a study suggest middle years are marked by comfort and stability, not the widely portrayed crises and turmoil.


The myths surrounding middle age are legion. From midlife crises to the "change of life," the middle years are often viewed as a time of upset and endings.

Beginning with 30th-birthday celebrations, the decades of midlife are marked as milestones along the bridge to old age and the gradual loss of vigor and diminishing opportunities.

But results from a new, large research project by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development paint a far different portrait of midlife, one that may shatter the cultural perceptions of these middle decades.

Studies abound of childhood, adolescence and old age. But the years from 30 to 70 have been largely neglected until now. The goal of the MacArthur project is to identify major biomedical, psychological and social factors that allow some people to achieve good health, psychological well-being and social responsibility.

The findings challenge the notion that middle age is automatically a time of slow decline or fraught with angst and psychological discomfort.

Even 10 years ago, societal attitudes portrayed midlife as a time of hazard and peril. "It was considered a time of empty nests, stress and worry, poor health, menopause, midlife crises," said Orville Gilbert Brim, who directed the MacArthur research. "But the more we got into it, the more we studied it, we found that, on balance, middle age really is the best place to be."

The project included 11 studies involving more than 8,000 men and women ranging in age from 25 to 74.

By probing participants about a wide range of topics--from satisfaction with personal relationships, job and finances to how people coped with problems--researchers discovered midlife to be a time of surprising calm. Additional findings will be released in the next three to four years as more results are analyzed.

The project shows midlife to be a time of stable relationships and some financial security. Health remains good. Work is satisfying and relatively secure. "For most, it is smooth sailing," Brim said.

While the researchers expected to find many people complaining that they had lost control over much of their life during these middle decades, they discovered instead an increased sense of control. "That was one of the biggest surprises," said Margie E. Lachman, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Boston and a member of the research team.

The popular belief in a midlife decline is a relatively recent concept, dating to the late 19th century, the team pointed out. It represents a uniquely American and European perspective. Other cultures, such as India, Samoa and Kenya, have long venerated middle age, rewarding those who achieve it with status and privileges.

Richard A. Shweder, a University of Chicago anthropologist and one of 13 scholars who ran the MacArthur study, said that many of these cultures have no tradition that "emphasizes the . . . biology of aging."

Perceptions on When Middle Age Begins

The MacArthur researchers defined midlife as the time stretching from 30 to 70 years, with ages 40 to 60 as the core. But in the study, the older the participant, the later he or she said that midlife began. Men from 25 to 34 targeted 40 as the time when most men entered middle age. But older men, from 64 to 74, thought that middle age began for men at 46 years.

Women followed the same trends, with those of younger ages identifying 43 as the age when an average woman enters midlife. Older women set 49 years as the threshold.

However participants defined middle age, they generally agreed that it lasts for about 15 years.

But age is also an attitude. Despite the widespread satisfaction with their lives, nine out of 10 respondents said they would like to be younger than they are. Two-thirds said that, most of the time, they feel younger than their chronological age. Only 14% said that they feel older than their birth certificates indicate.

While the oldest of the respondents, ages 65 to 74 years, wanted to be 32 years younger than they were, they were not necessarily yearning for a fountain of youth.

Instead, the desire to be younger may reflect society's treatment of aging. "Some people will say that this represents the fact that people have accomplished all that they will accomplish," said Alice Rossi, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "But another interpretation is that our society does not value the elderly and make adequate use of their skills and knowledge."

Study Debunks the Midlife Crisis Myth

Popular culture fuels the notion that the midlife crisis is universal. Television and movies feature pervasive images of 40-something individuals suddenly shedding spouses and impulsively acting like adolescents. Television ads promise that snappy new cars, exotic getaway vacations or expensive jewelry will help soothe the midlife crises that supposedly arise like clockwork.

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