Rethinking the mid-life crisis

Forget the cliches, the mid-life crisis affects women too.

And it seems we're all wired for it

I just can't do this for another 20 years," Sam, 49, a partner in a top Melbourne law firm tells me. "All my life has been about what I should do, being responsible; I just have to break out." Sam is going through a crisis and it's at mid-life. Maybe it's a mid-life crisis (MLC), maybe it's not. There has been no Porsche purchase and (so far) no young hottie. But then Sam's a woman.

Ninety per cent of the research on mid-life over the past 53 years has focused on men. That has led to the belief that men have midlife crises driven by work while women have them about their role changing (say when the kids leave home). But now women are doing the same jobs as men, with the same stressors and increasingly the same health outcomes. The only good aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that women experience mid-life symptoms for about half the length of time as men.

"In fact, the 'mid-life crisis' is still seen today as a distinctly male type of problem, one often lobbed at men by disgruntled women to explain the former's selfish, impulsive behaviours," says US psychologist Jesse Bering. Bering had his own early MLC, moving when he turned 40 from his position as director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, to become director of the Centre for Science Communication in Otago, New Zealand.

Bering says his "first encounter with this tragic illness was my mother informing me that 'your father is having a midlife crisis' after he suddenly bought a horse and left her for a younger woman. Needless to say my mother's diagnosis of my father wasn't accompanied by tones of sympathy, and I've long feared the day when I too might inherit this shameful affliction, struck down by a sudden, incurable case of Joe Shmo hedonism.

"The most frequent symptoms of this disease, I gathered from television, were a shiny new convertible [or prize-winning stallion], a toupee and the unshakeable delusion that one is now attractive to 20-year-old co-eds."

Most companies have the same attitude to men's behaviour in their middle years. They have no attitude to women's behaviour around the same time because no one ever talks about the issue, only the symptoms. The fact is that even if the way they act out doesn't meet the strict definition of a crisis, both men and women are pretty close to meeting the definition of madness.

It's no secret that senior women in large law firms who get tired of the politics and games often just leave and go to other jobs, often in the public service. As one of them said to me, "It's just not worth putting up with all the shit."

While men are starting to become more open about issues such as depression, with some business and political leaders and sports stars leading the way, at the top end of town the reality is that if you mention you are struggling emotionally, your career will slow down or stop.

Colin is 45. He had just been appointed to the leadership team of one of Australia's biggest companies when I spoke to him. "I feel like I'm in a box," he said.

"I'm trapped in this job and my life. I don't have fun anymore. My wife doesn't get it. I just feel like I want to break out, go and live in Byron Bay."

Stan Glaser is a psychologist turned business school professor who sees managers of both sexes who are facing an MLC in the middle of circumstances they can't control.

If they believe their success is due to their own efforts and abilities, not only are they likely to be more successful, they will be healthier and less stressed than managers who believe they are not in control of their lives.

"The demands of many companies, including professional services firms, take a great toll," Glaser says.

"The problem with engagement and other surveys they do to look at wellbeing is that employees think working long hours under enormous stress is normal.

"There's a saying that 'all politics ends in disappointment'. It's the same with many senior executives. As you get older, you start to temper the idealism and ambition of youth with the often harsh realities of life. The younger women, the sports cars, the changes in behaviour are attempts to start again, to recapture their youth."

In her book Life Reimagined (Penguin, $65), Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes that the MLC is a myth. "I think mid-life is a very meaningful time of life," she says. "Yes, it's freighted with responsibilities, but ... those responsibilities are powerful and meaningful, about your kids, about taking care of your parents, doing the right thing, working in a job that gives meaning, volunteering. All of these things, I think, in the long term are very satisfying. [For the book] I interviewed many people who did have their second or third career at 55, 60, 65. And what was really exciting about this was people had a real clear sense of how they wanted to spend that time. They realise that at age 55 you don't have an infinite number of spins at the wheel so you've got to be really intentional about 'what am I going to do for this next 15 to 20 years?'."

In his new book The Happiness Curve (Bloomsbury, $29.99), Jonathan Rauch describes life as a U-curve where it's good early on, slumps in mid-life and then gets good again. "There's nothing abnormal or critical or dangerous or wrong or pathological about having trouble feeling happy in midlife; we're wired for it," he writes.

"Chimps and orangutans follow the same pattern.

"Again and again I heard these stories of isolation.

People don't even tell their spouse that they're having these issues because their life is great, they don't feel justified, they feel like they'll be whiny, and they also feel they'll set off alarms. You know, are you going to quit your job and give up the marriage?"

Barbara Bradley Hagerty says the approach to being out of control shooting down the rapids of mid-life is to engage with verve (don't cut off emotionally from any part of your life); choose purpose over happiness; and watch your thoughts: thinking shapes your experience.

Just don't rely on your employer to help.

Julie Connolly