The midlife crisis is a familiar, if somewhat vague, concept. It's not clear whether it will strike us, or when. Traditionally we were supposed to be on guard as we neared 40, and now it's widely seen as occurring later. There's even talk of a quarter-life crisis, at about age 25.
But Hannes Schwandt, an economist and researcher with Princeton University's Center for Health and Wellbeing, has given it greater clarity. Disappointment starts hitting people in their 30s and 40s, as the gap between expectations and life satisfaction starts to increase. People usually reach their lowest point in their early 50s. And while it doesn't strike everyone, it will hit most people. "Mid-career crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than the misfortune of a few individuals," he wrote recently on Harvard Business Review blogs.
But if that sounds depressing, a bullet you can't dodge, he also has two bits of positive news. First, if you know it will happen – and why – you will be in better shape to deal with it. And second, after the midlife trough, things usually get better, your life and career satisfaction rising higher than your expectations.
Dr. Schwandt is 32, a recent PhD graduate with a job beckoning as a professor of economics at the University of Zurich this fall. His career is going well. He is satisfied. But he knows from his research what will likely happen, based on a German longitudinal study of 33,000 individuals from 1991 to 2004, who were regularly reinterviewed. They were asked about current life satisfaction and also to predict their satisfaction in five years' time.
The pattern that emerged is U-shaped. Young people, in their 20s and early 30s, are optimistic and expect life satisfaction to grow. He saw no signs of a quarter-life crisis. "They feel they will be the lucky ones – not get divorced, getting the good job, and having great children," he said in an interview.
But then as life starts to play out, it usually doesn't turn out as well as expected. Both life satisfaction and expectations about the future drop – with expectations sinking faster than actual satisfaction, adding to the discontent. Perhaps your marriage is headed for, or has ended in, divorce. Your career is stalled and you're stuck in a bad job. "It's a double misery. You are frustrated about the past and lose the rosy view of the future," he says.
This intensifies until the mid-50s, when life satisfaction and expectations begin to align better. Satisfaction rises and continues to grow over coming years. The elderly can deal better with disappointment. They are more mindful, and aren't seeking as much for the future. "People accept life. They feel less regret about past disappointments," he said.
That won't happen to everyone. But the U-shaped life satisfaction pattern will happen for many, his statistical analysis suggests. It therefore means you will probably have a midlife period of despair and can prepare for it – and not feel guilty or inferior for experiencing it.
It's temporary and perhaps, he feels, even positive, if it leads to reflection. So no need to buy a convertible sports car to release your angst or divorce your spouse for a younger version. Instead, consider better ways of doing your work so it has more meaning or new areas of your life to energize. "You now know there is light at the end of the tunnel. Often people are dissatisfied about being dissatisfied. If they see it as normal, they can deal with it better," he contends.
The pattern occurred in the German statistics regardless of people's socio-economic status, their gender, or other demographic factors. It seems to be part of a natural developmental process, driven by biology rather than the specifics of a particular job. So, he warns in the Harvard blog article, that drastic career changes are unlikely to make you better off: If the burned out Wall Street lawyer and the dissatisfied non-government organization activist were to change jobs, perhaps neither would end up more content.
He also outlined a role for organizations, which these days focus mentoring on the young but might wisely arrange to assist those at a painful stage of the U-shaped curve. "My findings suggest that those in a mid-career low can learn from their older colleagues who already went through the valley and have emerged feeling less regret, having adapted to life's circumstances. A corporate culture that openly addresses mid-career discontent could support employees in this reorientation process, helping them explore new opportunities – within the firm," he wrote.
The midlife crisis can be painful, he stresses. But it's normal and temporary. Be prepared.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter