It’s tough being a grown-up: the challenges of Middle Age

As part of the course I recently completed on counselling and psychotherapy with WPF in London, I researched and wrote the following essay on Middle Age and the psychosocial issues that arise during this lifestage.  Naturally, being ‘of a certain age’ myself, these issues are close to my heart, not least those related to the infamous ‘mid-life’ crisis.  If you have not yet reached this lifestage, have a read and find out what there is to look forward to.  And if you’re in the thick of it, hopefully this will give a little more insight into what on earth is going on!

 

Introduction

Erik Erikson (1902-94) was a prominent psychodynamic psychotherapist who is perhaps best known for defining his eight stage model of psychosocial development.  Erikson believed our ego identity – the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction – develops throughout life, in response to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others.

At each stage of psychosocial development, Erikson believed people experience a conflict, and that this conflict must be resolved before the individual can successfully advance to the next stage.  If it is not, the individual carries the unresolved conflict on with them into later stages, where it will resurface in a different context.

In understanding this, I found it helpful to adapt Freud’s analogy of military troops on the march.

We start out in life with a full complement of troops.  As they advance, they encounter conflict.  If they are successful in winning the battle (ie: resolving the conflict) then the troops can move on to fight the next conflict (at the next stage of psychosocial development).  We emerge from the lifestage with psychological strengths that will serve us well for the rest of our lives.

But if the conflict has no clear resolution, we do not develop the essential skills needed for a strong sense of identity and self.  Too many troops are left behind, fighting the old battles, leaving us under-strength when we encounter subsequent conflicts.

It is now generally accepted that psychosocial developments through childhood and adolescence profoundly impact upon our lives as adults – how, if we have not successfully resolved earlier crises, we can get ‘stuck’, and they live on in our attitudes, behaviour and relationships.  This is the material that plays out in our adult lives.  But, what is also clear, is that there are also social and cultural issues that can impact on the development of our sense of self throughout adulthood. 

What we would commonly refer to as Middle Age is termed Middle Adulthood by developmental psychologists and covers approximately the ages of 40 to 65.  But it is probably be more useful to think of this stage as occurring in response to particular life events and their timing, rather than as being so age-specific.

In terms of life events, Middle Adulthood is associated with the maturing of all aspects of life and relationships: the development of a different kind of intimacy with your partner, consolidation at work, the independent growth of your children and their ‘flying the nest’, taking care of ageing parents and helping others through mentoring, charitable work or social bodies.

 

Middle Adulthood: Generativity vs. stagnation

Office for National Statistics data from 2015 shows that life satisfaction and happiness are at their lowest for those aged 45 to 59; both rapidly improve after 60.

Anxiety ratings also peak between 45 and 59.  After 60, anxiety falls rapidly.

So, between the ages of 16 and 90, there is no age group less satisfied, less happy andmore anxious than Middle Adults!

Why?  As adults move towards middle age they can be increasingly troubled by job insecurity and future career uncertainty, as well as by childcare responsibilities and commitments to elderly relatives. Conflicts between roles can become unusually great in these years, and income can increasingly fail to meet people’s needs.

Erikson believed the crisis in Middle Adulthood is Generativity vs. Stagnation – contributing to the development of others and the society around you vs feeling unproductive and uninvolved in the world.  Success at this lifestage means finding satisfaction in contributing to the development of others and society; failure do this results in self-absorption and self-indulgence.

In exploring this theme, it is helpful to look in turn at the three key spheres of adult life: personal relationships; children and family; work.

 

Personal Relationships

Research on the quality of marriage suggests a dip in marital satisfaction during Middle Adulthood.

In part, this comes from the amount of plates parents have to keep spinning – with work, with growing children and with ageing parents.  But, while these factors can be regarded as causes of the stresses in intimate relationships, a focus on these activities – on being busy – is in many cases a way of avoiding confronting the cracks that alreadylurk in the foundations of a couple’s relationship.

This can be compounded by the change in sex drive that can occur between men and women at this time, with many men experiencing a declining interest in sex or even declining capability, while many women experience an increasing interest, which can easily lead to tensions in a couple’s relationship.

In psychodynamic terms, many of the big themes can play out during this lifestage.  For example, those who have not addressed issues of trust and attachment arising during infancy can struggle to give their partner space to be themselves or may have a narcissistic concern only for themselves.  Authority and autonomy issues stemming from early childhood up to around 5 years can be seen when disagreements play out old parent-child battles about freedom and autonomy.

It should therefore come as no surprise to find that, in the UK, divorces peak between the ages of 40 and 44.  The average age for the birth of a first child is 28, so divorces are particularly prevalent amongst those with adolescent children, suggesting that the pressures brought about by bringing up teenagers can be particularly effective in prising apart the cracks in a couple’s relationship.

 

Children and family

The big issue here is how Middle Adults handle the development of autonomy in their adolescent children – whether or not they can come to terms with a loss of control over their children’s lives and step back, to let them develop their own, independent identities.

Issues with cooperation and competition can show up in rivalry between adolescents and their parents.  As Jacobs points out, ‘at the same time as young people are finding work and forming their first relationships, their parents may be conscious of imminent or present changes in themselves.  A mother may be anticipating menopause as a daughter has her first periods.  A father may be aware of his spreading midriff and loss of muscular tone as his son is reaching the peak of his physical fitness’.

The tension between adolescents and parents can be such that the departure of teenagers can come as a relief to the parents.  Surveys show that Happiness and Satisfaction improve from 55 onwards, prior to retirement, suggesting that an empty nest is, for many Middle Adults, a happier nest.

However, without the children as a focal point for their lives, some parents have trouble rediscovering their own individual identity, separate from parenthood.  Or, without the children there as a distraction, they find themselves facing previously submerged marital problems.

And it only gets more complicated.  Because, no sooner have they gone, then the children come back!  In the UK today, many socio-economic factors are conspiring to force older children to live with their parents once they are adults, either leaving home at an older age or returning home to their parents after college – this is ‘The Boomerang Generation’.

In the UK, nearly 25% of all adults aged 20-34 live with their parents, and there are 1/2m more doing so now than there were just 10 years ago.  So, if issues of trust and attachment, authority and autonomy, cooperation and competition have not been successfully negotiated by either Middle Adult parents or their Young Adult children, this scenario of kids returning like a ‘Boomerang’ is not going to help.

And then, in the opposite direction, there are the issues arising from the Middle Adult’s ageing parents.  Increasingly, as people have longer lives and live with chronic illnesses and disabilities, Middle Adults find themselves taking care of their ailing parents, a burden that falls much more frequently on daughters and daughters-in-law than it does on men – in the UK, a quarter of women aged 50-64 are carers, an increase of 13% in the last 10 years.

Not only are our elderly parents living longer, we’re having children later – more than half of all births are to mothers over 30.  It’s a perfect storm: an increasing number of Middle Adults are coping with both adolescent children who are struggling to define their own identity and ageing parents who are becoming increasingly dependent.  In the UK today there are 2.4m people who provide support to an older adult with disabilities or chronic illness, as well as care for their own children – ‘The Sandwich Generation’.

 

Work

It is not atypical that Middle Adults have progressed as far at work as they ever will, and there are waves of younger people coming up behind them.  Job insecurity and future career uncertainty can loom.

Again, there are many modern trends compounding the issue:

  • increasing working hours, with the creeping development of a working culture that looks down at those who ‘knock off’ on time
  • if you lose your job, it is much more difficult to find work in your 40s and 50s – ageism is rife in employment
  • a trend towards contract work, without the benefits and security of full employee status
  • the decline of unions, which has left employees without the support they used to have to fight on their behalf in the workplace

And

  • the rapidly changing skillsets required by workers in the digital age, which are more native to younger workers but have to be acquired anew by Middle Agers

These changes mean that many of the psychological rewards we used to derive from the workplace, such as a sense of belonging, are fast disappearing, and the scope for Generativity is reducing, with less opportunity to pass on skills to younger people.

Plus, the financial pressures on this age group are increasing, as they have to support their kids through college and try to help them get on the housing ladder, as well as fund their ageing parents’ care needs (if they don’t care for them themselves) and confront the reality that they are not going to be able to fund their own retirement and future care needs.

 

Mid-life Crisis

Apparently, there is no research evidence that the mid-life crisis even exists.  However, most people in Middle Adulthood will undergo a period of transition, when they find themselves re-evaluating long-held beliefs and values.

A number of factors encourage this process:

  • a growing sense of mortality: you’re more than half way through your life; your parents are sick or have died; you have friends who have died or had serious illnesses
  • your role as caregiver and provider changes, as your children grow and leave home
  • and, critically, you realise you have not accomplished all of your desired goals in life.

The experience of forging your career and bringing up your children can often erode people’s sense of their own identity.  Parents can invest so much of themselves in their children, and see them as extensions of themselves, that, once their children become adults in their own right, they struggle to find their own identity and purpose.  Equally, for many people, forging a career involves being who the company and the clients require you to be – or who you think they need you to be – such that your sense of self is lost.  For many working women, who in the majority of cases still bear the brunt of responsibility for looking after the kids, this makes for a double whammy of an identity crisis.

These issues can come home to roost in Middle Age, as the end of work and parenting comes into view and you wonder what you will be left with; and they will be all the more acute if you still have troops left behind fighting the conflicts that were never resolved in earlier lifestages.

Big questions loom.  Who am I?  What am I for?  What’s the point?

This is the nub of Generativity vs Stagnation.  Do you let go of your past hopes and find peace with a new future?  Or do you cling onto an image of yourself that can never now be realised, and was perhaps never going to be?

There is a need to confront lost goals, or lost possible selves, in order to continuepersonality development.  Successfully resolving the conflict of Middle Adulthood involves reconstructing your goals and investing in new ones, re-envisioning and recalibrating your possible future.

Once we reach Middle Adulthood, time is running out to confront and address the presenting past if one is to create a better future.

 

References:

Adult Development https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adult_development

Average age of first time mums in England – Mirror Online http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/what-average-age-first-time-684503329

Boomerang generation  http://www.if.org.uk/archives/2236/ons-figures-reveal-the-boomerang-generation-is-now-3-million-strong

Crisis in Middle Adulthood: Age 45-65  http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/psychology/development-psychology/psychosocial-development-age-4565/crisis-in-middle-adulthood-age-4565

Development in Early & Middle Adulthood  http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/psychology/psychology/developmental-psychology-age-13-to-65/development-in-early–middle-adulthood

Divorce statistics UK 2015 http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2013#age-at-divorce

Erikson’s life stages diagram http://270c81.medialib.glogster.com/ahl1996/media/24/247c1abc332a6553ec7783b1e6a97e02616377b7/sostages-v-erikson.jpg

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development: http://psychology.about.com/od/psychosocialtheories/a/psychosocial_3.htm

Erikson’s stages  http://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html

Freud’s Psychosexual stages http://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html

Hard Evidence: are age and unhappiness related?http://theconversation.com/hard-evidence-are-age-and-unhappiness-related-49182

Human Growth and Development http://www.hoddereducation.co.uk/getattachment/subjects/health-social-care/series-pages/btec-assessment-guides/series-boxes/sample-chapters/topic-a-2-key-aspects-of-human-growth-and-development-at-each-life-stage.pdf.aspx

Is work good for you?https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/214326/hwwb-is-work-good-for-you.pdf

Measuring National Well-being: At what age is Personal Well-being the highest?http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/measuringnationalwellbeing/atwhatageispersonalwellbeingthehighest

Middle Adulthood  www.austincc.edu/dgran/Middle%Adulthood.pdf

Middle adulthood development http://www.allpsychologycareers.com/topics/middle-adulthood-development.html

Middle-age  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_age#Definitions

Olympic Britain http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/olympic-britain/olympicbritain.pdf#page=23

Psychosocial Development in Middle Adulthood http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/0072820306/student_view0/chapter16/index.html

Relationships in Middle Adulthood  http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/sociology/marriage-family-alternative-lifestyles/relationships-in-middle-adulthood

Sandwich generation concern is growing – Carers UK https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/expert-comment/4604-sandwich-generation-concern-is-growing

Socio-emotional Development in Adulthood https://www.boundless.com/psychology/textbooks/1516/human-development-14/early-and-middle-adulthood-74/socioemotional-development-in-adulthood-289-12824/

The Mind at Midlife  http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/mind-midlife.aspx

The Presenting Past: The Core Of Psychodynamic Counselling and Therapy, 4th Edition, 2012: Jacobs, M

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