Middle age is dead. Long live (a long-lived) middle age
Forget the stereotypes, mid-life – and beyond – is the happiest, most fulfilling time of our life
How much of ageing is really a reflection not of biology but of how society views and treats us? Photograph: iStock
“I have mixed feelings about the term ‘middle-aged’. Although you think of dowdy, worn-down women, personally, it feels like I’m entering a new phase of life, unleashing pent-up energy.” Ciara Byrne (44) is a psychologist, juggling a new business, running a home and raising three children.
No longer a time of crisis, midlife is now often seen as a chance to reboot, take stock and re-enter the second half of life, armed with experience and re-evaluated priorities.
“I’ve re-prioritised in my 40s, which I suppose comes with wisdom and emotional growth,” says Byrne. “I’ve learnt how to juggle 10 million things, and developed tolerance for discomfort which I didn’t have before, making me more resilient. Unlike our mother’s generation, we’re giving ourselves permission to try new things, to keep developing and growing. Myself and my friends spend hours talking about this. We have more confidence to voice our needs.”
By mid-age we are likely bored of life’s clichés. As teenagers, we thought we knew it all, only to realise we knew nothing whatsoever. In our 20s and 30s, we thought we’d ‘arrive’ if we just followed the traditional signposts – education, career, partner, mortgage, kids. But when we got there, we found the view overlooked the bins and the heating didn’t work and we felt a bit disappointed. Now we face the cliché of middle-age but realise this time, it’s the cliché that’s wrong, not us, the red sports car as redundant as the stereotype.
Crisis? Not so much
According to research reports published in the last year alone, we’re joining the gym more, have more sex, starting more businesses, and frankly, despite a tricky transition period, having quite a good time. Crisis? Not so much.
“When I was 20, I saw my 45-year-old self as much older than I actually feel,” says Byrne. “I could never have imagined this sense of vibrancy, engagement and creativity. I didn’t have a clue how hard the pressures of life would be. Nothing can prepare you for juggling parenting, career and a home. Now my kids are at school I can see how managing that mayhem has enriched me. [Speaker of the US House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi said that raising her five children taught her how to be a leader and I like to think of that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, or that they’re taking away from my career – it will help me in the long run.”
According to the Central Statistics Office, 2019 life expectancy figures are 78.4 years for men and 82.8 for women. In 1940, it was 59 and 61. In just a few generations, we have been awarded with an extra 20 years of life to play with, not at the end of our lives, but in the middle.
Popular culture tells us that youth is vibrant and happy, the best time of life, and middle age will bring ‘crisis’ and then old age will bring functional and emotional decline
“I see the effects of ageing of course, but more so I feel a new sense of adventure,” says Byrne. “Many of my friends are starting to run or taking up triathlons. I recently joined the local women’s football team, all of whom juggle careers and families who are looking to re-engage physically with their bodies. The majority of us are completely new to sport. Part of that for me was also about searching for a place outside my current roles as mother, wife and job. I wanted to connect into my community as me.”
In his 2018 book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch explores research that shows on the whole, life gets better after mid-age, during which we might suffer a midlife malaise – a malaise caused by the end of that period when we are more optimistic than realistic in our 20s and 30s, to a time when our values change. “Popular culture tells us that youth is vibrant and happy, the best time of life, and middle age will bring ‘crisis’ and then old age will bring functional and emotional decline – when the reality is that youth tends to be a time of challenging emotional extremes, middle age a time of grinding but productive adjustment, and the grey years are generally the happiest of all.”
Melissa Slevin (43) can’t connect to the old image of middle age she had when younger. “When I look back at my 20s, everything was about trying to keep up with the goals set by my parents and peers – be good at college, get a good career, strive for security. It was all very competitive and pressured. I just think as I’ve gone through the decades my attitude has changed and my 40s has been about realising what’s really important. For me, that’s about being more settled than searching, and knowing that what makes me happy are the deep connections in my life. I was actually okay about turning 40. I didn’t think ‘here we go, I’m on the road to decline’. The opposite in fact.”
I’m experiencing mid-life as exciting, creative and positive and really looking forward to the next 10 years
The midlife myth lies in the word ‘crisis’. The term was only coined in 1965 so the concept is relatively new, but like sliced bread, it became an instant success. Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques published a cheerily named article Death and the Midlife Crisis, in which the basic tenet was that by midlife, we’ve accomplished all we set out to and feel it’s downhill all the way. According to psychologists, however, despite the term taking off, there is no evidence whatsoever to show it’s true. A more appropriate word seems to be transition. No one who has battled the sandwich years of caring for elderly parents while raising young children, experienced divorce or any other ground-shaking experience that many of us face at this time, can argue that midlife can be a period of some serious stressors. In fact, it can be the most stressful time of life. But not crisis, and that’s because we are better able to cope with those stressors.
Wisdom, experience and resilience
While youth might get hangover-free drinking, smooth skin and tech-talk fluency, mid-lifers get wisdom, experience and resilience. Without those, every damn drama is a crisis; ask any parent of a teenager. Bad stuff still happens, but now we know we can survive it. We have war wounds and our hearts are scarred but we stop obsessing about how many ‘likes’ we get, and start valuing who we like to hang out with.
“I feel so excited about the next few years,” admits Byrne. “I’ve all this pent-up energy. In the early years of parenting, I kept a foot in the door of my career but now I want the next decade ahead of me to be about pushing my career into new areas. I’ve discovered a sense of purpose that came from that process of reprioritising. I want to make a difference and have founded a company to help women with the psychological effects of infertility, fusing my personal and professional experiences. It’s taken some adjustment to re-orient my role within the family, but now I have a strength in my voice and it feels different. I’m experiencing mid-life as exciting, creative and positive and really looking forward to the next 10 years.”
How much of ageing is really a reflection not of biology but of how society views and treats us? According to Rauch, here is what research tells us: stress reduces after 50, emotional regulation improves, we feel less regret, older people are not depression-prone.
Slevin, who has a full-time job and three children, has found her mid-life passion on the rugby pitch. Not on the sideline of her son’s games; instead they watch her. “I started playing rugby for my former club and Leinster in my late 20s. I retired after my second son was born but a few years ago I was approached to set up a women’s team at Railway Union RFC. This was an opportunity to be part of something ambitious and unique, to implement a step-change in the sport for women. We started with a detailed strategy, and one of the most exhilarating parts was the fact there is no ‘hierarchy’ in Railway, and both men’s and women’s teams are treated equally. I’m now president of the whole club, not just the women’s team.
“At 43, I’m back working on my fitness to return to the game, and I’ll be alongside women in their 20s and I feel why not? I want to be a role model to them. I don’t think age has anything to do with what I can do with my life. I’m getting braver, more competent and aware as I get older. I accept that we’re all going to look older and acceptance of that allows me to focus on the things I can control.”
Values have shifted
According to psychologists, the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material. At midlife, we figure we’ve ticked all the boxes, but wonder why we aren’t ecstatic, only to realise our values have shifted and actually what makes us happy is something else completely. We have often lived a life directed by others expectations – parents, culture, society, circumstances, but a biological slump reminds us that time is ticking and actually this is a chance to grab the map and start plotting out our own route.
“I just think we’ve grown up differently,” says Slevin, “and the girls behind us are growing up alongside and it feels like we are part of an age spectrum now rather than one being better than another. I don’t categorise myself as an age but that I’m just where I am now, and it’s exhilarating to know I have 20/30 years of prime living to do, whereas I think the old stereotype nearly thought this was the beginning of the end.”
1. If midlife is a time when optimism meets realism, a good dose of positivity is an advisable antidote. Gratitude journaling has become such a thing that most of us would be grateful if we didn’t hear about it again, but like broccoli, it’s proven to be good for us whether we like it or not.
2. Connect. Not to the internet. Happiness research shows repeatedly that real wealth is social, not material. Luckily in Ireland, the 2018 UN Report on Happiness ranked Ireland 16th out of 156, and in the top 10 for social support.
3. Go wide (middle-aged spread notwithstanding). Review your life goals and get in touch with what’s important to you now. Don’t just focus on the length of your life, but the width of it.