Easing mid-life misery
Part 6 of What Would Make Life Better?
Trigger warning: this piece covers some themes of mid-life despair, including ageing parents.
The middle part of our lives — between the ages of roughly 35 and 55 — seems to be the least happy, most miserable bit. I suspect it comes as a surprise to most of us. We often spend the early parts of our lives striving to put in place a career, a home, a partner, a family that we can enjoy through our imagined mid-life peak. But while mid-life is typically our most productive period as workers and as fully grown adults, it seems to come at a cost. The burden of responsibility — of caring for children and ageing parents, of leading the way at work — seems to outweigh the benefits of being in charge.
You may be reading this with a sense of dread, especially if you’re approaching the age of 35. You may, if you’re right in the thick of mid-life, take it as confirmation of your current plight. But you might also notice the dramatic upswing in wellbeing that seems to occur after the age of 55 and feel optimistic. Alternatively, you might be much more upbeat about mid-life and reject the premise of mid-life misery. This latter approach is probably the right one at an individual level. After all, the mid-life dip only exists as an aggregate concept; it is not deterministic, it does not have to apply to us as individuals. And the evidence for it is not beyond dispute.
Whatever the truth behind the apparent mid-life dip in happiness, I think there is a strong case for trying to improve the lot of people in mid-life. We invest heavily — rightly — in our children, and we spend heavily — rightly — on our elderly. But those people in between youth and old age, who do a disproportionate share of the earning and the caring, seem to get taken for granted. This is also a gender equality issue, because women often bear more of the burden of care that seems associated with mid-life misery. If we want to make life better, easing mid-life misery seems like a promising place to focus.
This will be a somewhat personal piece — I am 35 years old, I have significant caring responsibilities and what little free time I have I seem to spend writing blogs — but I will endeavour to ground my views in evidence where I can.
The mid-life dip in wellbeing — or the “U-shape” as it’s often referred to by wellbeing researchers — is well known among wellbeing researchers but difficult to pin down. Concepts like happiness are, after all, not easy to express in quantitative terms. The most widely used approach — known as Subjective Wellbeing — relies on people ranking their happiness, life satisfaction and other feelings on a scale, such as from 1 to 10. This method seems to yield — in the UK and across many other countries — a mid-life dip in wellbeing. But there is some debate about how reliable and how universal this finding really is. Are there distorting effects, such as different cohorts or people’s characteristics, which explain the results? Are relatively small differences in wellbeing scores actually worth worrying about? Is it only a phenomenon in some countries, like the UK, or is it repeated across the world? The answers are not clear cut.
My inexpert reading is that there probably is a dip in subjective wellbeing between the ages of 35 and 55, certainly in the UK and in some other countries, but not everywhere. It is hard to know how much we should read into this on its own, given it is only a set of self-reported wellbeing scores. But there is other, more tangible evidence we can use to complement self-reported wellbeing scores. Suicide rates, for example, also follow the broad pattern of mid-life misery, as do divorce rates. There is evidence of more psychological distress in that age group too. It is this that I think merits the most attention — not so much raising happiness to high levels, but reducing the instances of mid-life despair.
So if there is such a thing as mid-life misery, what causes it? The wellbeing literature does not yet have a definitive answer, so I’ll rely mostly on my own impressions here.
An obvious place to start is with children. The average age for becoming a parent for the first time in the UK is 30.7 for mothers, 33.7 for fathers, not long before the first signs of the mid-life dip emerge. This is a delicate topic, because parents don’t generally want to complain that their children — whom they love very much — might make their life more difficult. People often describe the births of children and weddings — both things that on average happen within a few years either side of age 35 — as being the best moments of their lives, so how can they be associated with unhappiness? The truth is that, though being a parent is wonderful, it is also seriously hard work, both physically and emotionally, and it has a drastic impact on the availability of free time.
Alongside caring for children, mid-life often involves caring for ageing parents. Longer life expectancies (a good thing!) typically mean needing care for a longer period of our lives, while mid-lifers often have to assume responsibility for more decisions — often extraordinarily difficult decisions — about their parents’ lives.
And — if I can turn more personal here — it is not just the time, effort and energy that is challenging. The ageing of our parents takes a heavy emotional toll. There is the dealing with mortality — both feared and actual — and processing what that means for our own lives. There is perhaps a sense of losing the emotional safety net of your parents’ care — if you’re lucky enough to have that in the first place — and of then becoming the safety net, the first and last line of defence, for your whole family. For many people, parents provide a huge amount of support and comfort through the early part of life, but at some point that force has to reverse. That is a lonely feeling.
People in mid-life typically take on more responsibility at work. Being more experienced often means managing people (and budgets, and risks), and managing people or things makes you accountable for them. And if you have a family, responsibility at work sits alongside financial responsibility, to provide space and sustenance for more people. There is often pressure to buy a home — something increasingly being deferred to mid-life — and once that is achieved, the pressures of mortgage payments and changing interest rates (or even worse, continued rent) weigh heavily. Oh, and in mid-life you need to pay a big share of the taxes to (rightly) fund support for the old and the young.
And we can also add the burden of administration and responsibility that grows in mid-life: maintaining the fabric and function of a home; paying bills, insurance and taxes; taking decisions and completing paperwork for children and parents. All of these things are time consuming — even in the internet age — and stressful. And all too often, life admin is really about managing things that have gone wrong: stolen cars or property; leaks or broken boilers; difficulties for our children and families.
We can see the effect of all of this in data below about how people use their time — this data is from the USA, but the pattern is likely to be similar in the UK and other advanced economies. What happens in mid-life is clear: time spent with co-workers remains high, but time spent with children increases dramatically. The result? Far less free time. There is no other period of life where there are so many pressures on people’s time.
After the age of 55, time with both co-workers and children begins to fall away, coinciding with the reported increase in wellbeing. Maybe spending all your time both working and caring for kids doesn’t make you happy?
People with children also now spend much more time with them than they used to. Women more than men, of course, although men appear to have caught up slightly in the UK recently. This is great for children — and arguably great for parents too — but it further eats into free time. Perhaps our expectations of parents have also increased, adding to the sense of pressure.
And there is no escaping that mid-life misery is heavily gendered. Men report having more free time than women. Women do more unpaid labour at home . Women are more likely to sacrifice career ambition, by working part-time, from home, or more flexibly. Tackling mid-life misery is not just a generational issue, but a feminist issue as well.
To summarise where we’ve go to so far, the deal for many people in mid-life is this: you need to care for children and wider family, while working harder to provide financial security, but spending any remaining time dealing with the responsibilities and misfortunes of life. If you’re lucky enough to be healthy, to have a committed partner and a strong support network, that sounds daunting. If you don’t, it sounds frankly preposterous. But that is the world we live in.
But this is not a counsel of despair. This is a survey of ways to make our lives better. Rather than sit around getting poorer and complaining about our rubbish lives, we need to find ways to make life better and do them. And mid-life despair is an obvious area to do just that. In case governments need any further reason to take action, this is now a salient political issue, with mid-life voters often swinging elections and childcare becoming a hot political topic. So what can be done?
First and most obvious is improving childcare. Childcare in the UK is expensive — often too expensive to make it worthwhile working — and support from the government only kicks in after the age of 3. While schools provide a free-at-the-point-of-use source of childcare for older children, school hours — typically between 9am and 3pm — do not cover a typical working day. Wrap around care does exist, but can vary. And most formal childcare — not counting babysitters — allows parents to work, but does not allow for free time. Childcare needs to be more available and more affordable, whether that’s achieved through government subsidy or changes to how we provide it.
There is also the ever-present challenge of things going wrong — the illnesses, staff shortages, unforeseen circumstances that working parents know all too well. Perhaps there is scope for more back-stop childcare services, which rather than offering regular care, instead kick in only for short periods, to cover unexpected problems or occasional time off for parents?
And the childcare debate should be about more than hours of provision. There is a desperate need for more support for mental health in children and for children with special educational needs. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health system in England is utterly broken. In many places, it is virtually impossible to get support until there is a direct risk to a child’s life. The special educational needs system is only fairly broken, but it also leaves thousands of parents and children without the support they desperately need. This causes extreme distress for parents and children alike, and Covid has seriously intensified these problems. Dramatically increasing funding for children’s services — via local authorities and the NHS — should be a priority for a government of any colour.
Second, predictably, care in old age must improve. The role for children in their parents’ care is exacerbated by the cost and limited provision of care for the elderly. This is a well-worn cliché in policy terms, but the UK should have a system which social care is properly funded from taxation, not at individual risk.
But besides the obvious issues around care for young and old, what else could be done to tackle mid-life misery? Another option is to reduce working hours. Moving towards a 4-day week, for example, could help provide more free time — or at least ease the conflict between different responsibilities — for busy people in the middle of their lives. Working hours have been gradually decreasing over time, although some of this is explained by the massive increase in female participation in the labour market, often balancing fewer work hours with a burden of unpaid labour. But the biggest reduction in our working lives has been in retirement — in effect we save up more of our free time until after the age of 55. Perhaps we’d be better off working a little longer, but a little less hard, through the course of our lives?
The other area I’m curious about is whether the administrative burden of being a responsible adult could be eased. Modern technology should in theory have made many aspects of adulting much easier, but it doesn’t always feel that way. The internet has made it very easy to buy things you don’t really need, but when you try to sort out vital paperwork, claim on your insurance, or unsubscribe from services you can no longer afford, things seem very challenging indeed. The difficulty of dealing with private companies in the aftermath of the death of a relative seems a particularly cruel manifestation of this. There is, I think, a strong case for much tighter regulation of business conducted online, particularly those related to household affairs. If you can buy something online, you should be able to stop or fix it online just as easily.
But going further, aren’t there opportunities for suffering mid-lifers to delegate their admin burdens altogether? Certain services, such as financial advisors, are currently fairly common, but why not companies that can — in a trustworthy way — sort out all of your life admin, from taxing your car to overseeing your pension? Would it really be that difficult, that risky, to have someone help with those aspects of our lives that few of us really understand anyway?
The same goes for sorting out homes. Mid-lifers often have to act as part-time project managers — coordinating between a range of different tradespeople — alongside their jobs and childcare, whenever something goes wrong with their home. Surely there is a market for services which could oversee the maintenance of a home, without relying on a resident’s dodgy DIY skills. This may sound overly indulgent or lazy — like the kind of thing only rich people would have — but that is precisely the point; the aim of this series is to explore ways we can all get richer and live better lives.
There are many aspects of mid-life misery — the ageing of parents, responsibility at work and home — which are facts of life that cannot be changed. But there are some aspects we could and should strive to make easier, most obviously care for children and the elderly, but also increasing free time and reducing administrative burdens for mid-lifers. And perhaps we just need to moderate our expectations — including self-imposed expectations — of what people can reasonably manage in the hyper-productive middle part of life. There is more to life, after all, than productivity.