The Breaking Point

The Breaking Point

Women have the skills and resources to make career changes or start their dream businesses at midlife if they wish. They hold nearly half of all executive, managerial, and administrative jobs.

By: Sue Shellenbarger

The outcomes of midlife crisis are as diverse as the women in my study. Twenty wound up with new careers, thirteen with new spouses or partners. Eight made extreme sports a fixture of their lives; sixteen did the same with adventure travel. Fourteen plunged with fervor into new hobbies, fifteen into religious pursuits. Some did several of the above. And many made quieter, inner changes, drilling deep into day-to-day experiences to look for meaning in each moment. Nearly all say midlife crisis transformed their life outlook, changing, for a time, nearly everything and everyone they touched. “I feel as if I had two complete and total lives,” says Marilyn, looking back on a midlife transition that brought a divorce, a new career as head of her own company and, eventually, a new husband. The second and more fulfilling life, she adds, began at 48 with her midlife crisis.

Why Now? This pattern of female midlife crisis is emerging now because, to put it simply, women are different today. The new roles this giant generation of women carved out for themselves in the last quarter of the twentieth century positioned them perfectly for midlife crises in the twenty-first. For the first time in history, women not only face more of the kind of stresses that tend to bring on midlife crises, but they have the financial muscle, the skills, and the confidence to act out their frustrations and resolve them. In a sense, women are having midlife crises now because they can.

The income of middle-aged women has posted powerful gains in comparison with men’s, by many measures. Women’s inflation-adjusted full-time earnings have risen 16.8 percent in the past fifteen years, giving them the financial strength needed to act on midlife rebelliousness. Men’s comparable earnings have declined 1.7 percent over the same period. Nearly one-third of wives now out-earn their husbands, and the proportion of women earning more than $100,000 tripled in the past decade. All this gives women a sense of freedom at midlife. “My successful, satisfying career allowed me to be very independent, with a cocky attitude” that sparked to a full-blown midlife crisis, says a California saleswoman in my study.

Women also have the skills and resources to make career changes or start their dream businesses at midlife if they wish. The proportion of professional jobs held by women, from engineering, law, medicine, and architecture to teaching, writing, and computer science, has grown to 54.7 percent from 51.1 percent in 1990. Women hold nearly half, or 45.9 percent, of all executive, managerial, and administrative jobs, from CEO slots to food-service management, up from 40.1 percent in 1990. Women today are better educated than men, too, earning 58 percent of all college degrees granted, including 59 percent of the master’s degrees.

Both of these factors — higher occupational status and education — increase the propensity for a midlife crisis, Wethington’s research shows. Both traits foster expectations for a higher quality of life, as well as create a sense of entitlement and a more activist stance in expressing personal frustration.

In another change from the past, an especially stifling brand of stress among today’s midlife women provides the spark for this psychological tinderbox. Many working women reach their late thirties and forties exhausted by long hours on the job, a relentlessly demanding workplace, and nonstop juggling of work and family. Like light off a disco ball, these women’s energies flicker and fragment across so many demanding roles that they lose focus.

This generation of women feels more harried and oppressed by daily demands than older women. Working mothers’ time to themselves, for self-care or just relaxing, has plunged to a mere 54 minutes a day from 2.1 hours in 1977 — less than the 1-3 hours of free time reported by men. In a new study, a Gallup poll shows 57 percent of women 40 through 55 years of age say they lack enough time to do what they want, setting them apart from the 48 percent of the entire random sample of 3,015 Americans who feel that way.

“We have created such a fast-paced, jam-packed life that women are not connecting with themselves and picking up on . . . signs and symptoms” of inner needs, says Diane Sanford, a St. Louis clinical psychologist who teaches at St. Louis University.

Today’s midlife women are far more likely than the previous generation to say life has become too complex or out of control. Life is “much too complicated” for 73 percent of today’s 40- to 54-year-old women, up sharply from the 55 percent who answered yes to that question fifteen years ago, based on new research by the Yankelovich Monitor. The proportion of women searching for ways to gain more control over their lives has risen, to 69 percent from 60 percent. Reflecting the strain, the percentage who feel a “need to take something to calm my nerves” is up as well, to 29 percent from 23 percent in 1988.

Though satisfying in many ways, the multiple roles many women play in their twenties and thirties can also be so draining that women do not even remember much of what happened. Several in my study described a period of “blackout” during their twenties and thirties. They were so stressed and overloaded that their lives were a blur.

“Our whole lives were consumed by children and work. I almost can’t remember those years,” says Sarah, a Tennessee physical therapist who says she embraced a “zombie-like routine” to get through it all. She broke free in a midlife crisis that began at 49 and took up kayaking, rowing, and other sports.

The stresses have become so intense that one expert, Katherine Halmi, an author of a Cornell University study on eating disorders and a professor of psychiatry at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, believes they are a major contributing factor to a burgeoning epidemic of eating disorders among midlife women that has surfaced in the past decade.

In another change from the past, today’s women believe they have more at stake as they enter middle age. Midlife females have a full three decades or more of life still ahead of them, on average, compared with the scant few years the average middle-aged woman had left at the turn of the century, when the average life expectancy was forty-seven years. More than three-fifths of women of this generation feel younger than they really are, by seven years on average. This contributes to high expectations of longevity, according to a study by the AARP, Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2005 Sue Shellenbarger

About the Author:

Sue Shellenbarger is the creator and writer of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Work & Family” column. The former chief of the Journal‘s Chicago news bureau, Shellenbarger started the column in 1991 to provide the nation’s first regular coverage of growing conflict between work and family and its implications for the workplace and society. Read her book The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis is Transforming Today’s Women

Photo:  R. Motti