I was told there’d be a crisis …
I always assumed middle age marked the beginning of the end. I imagined it as an ominous cloud on the horizon, slowly approaching to cast its dark pall over the sunshine in my life.
This anticipated malaise, the ubiquitous midlife crisis, loomed large with its tales of outlandish car purchases, men abandoning wives for young darlings, and sullen mothers whose children had flown from the nest. I don’t ever recall a positive remark regarding middle age. There were no compliments or spoken desires of reaching this stage in human development. Middle age held little appeal.
The clash between my internal beliefs and the reality of midlife occurred when I considered tossing my hat into the job market. During the last fifteen years, I had established a jewelry design and manufacturing business, kathy lo rocks. This venture was the culmination of stubborn dreams, hard work, and a bit of luck. Its start was rocky, but I persisted and watched it blossom into 1,500 stores carrying my work, along with my own thriving e-commerce site.
For reasons too numerous to discuss here, in 2015, it was time to taper down my jewelry pursuit and move onto the next chapter of my life. Building from scratch and navigating through success and challenges, I gained critical insights into the art of running and growing a business. This entrepreneurial experience, coupled with my corporate background in marketing and sales, made me a powerhouse of knowledge and skills.
I poked my head out of my shell to get a sense of the job market. I was immediately dismayed with what I observed.
The higher one’s age, the harder it is to land a job or even an interview. It’s so obvious that it might as well be emblazoned across the sky. Of course, living in San Francisco skews my worldview. Tech companies are pervasive in the Bay Area and notorious in their penchant for younger workers.
Apparently, these greenhorns don’t mind working longer hours since they have fewer commitments to children and partners, are more easily molded by a company’s culture and importantly, command lower salaries and health insurance premiums. There’s also a notion that more seasoned employees lack technical savvy and fresh ideas.
This is not strictly a Bay Area phenomenon. The bias against older workers on a national basis is well documented and chronicled. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 64% of workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
However, my dismay wasn’t that employers avoid hiring older individuals. I knew that. Heck, once upon a time, I harbored those same prejudices. I totally get it.
What’s astonishing is that I had the wrong story in my head.
That bleak, black cloud of middle age never appeared.
What I believed about middle age in my younger years is almost a complete contradiction of what I’m experiencing as an official resident of the midlife cohort. And the aforementioned prejudices I had about “experienced” employees, simply not true.
Today, I’m at the top of my game. I know I’m more valuable to an organization than I was 20 years ago (sincere apologies to my former employers).
I’ve developed wisdom and a sharp instinct from years of dedicated work. This combined with an emotional maturity I didn’t possess earlier, means that I can contribute to a company or business beyond the specific knowledge that I bear. I make better decisions and my productivity is light years ahead of where it used to be. Office politics and gossip have little sway over me.
It’s as though I’m a grape and I’m finally ripe enough to pick. A fully-fledged fruit, after absorbing nutrients and sunshine, I can finally produce the food of the gods. Organizations should be clamoring for someone like me.
Am I alone in these beliefs? Am I some strange outlier who somehow avoided middle age malaise and its companion crisis?
I poked my head out of my shell once again; this time in search of answers.
The short answer is no. Research indicates that I’m not an outlier. In fact, brain science confirms that middle age is the best time for our brains. Sherry Willis, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University and her husband, K. Warner, Schaie, run the Seattle Longitudinal Study, which was started in 1956 and has tracked the mental aptitude of six thousand people for over forty years.
“Contrary to the stereotypical views of intelligence and naive theories of many educated laypersons, young adulthood is not the developmental period of peak cognitive functioning….Middle-aged individuals are functioning at a higher level than they did at age 25, ” Willis states in her book, Life in the Middle. “For both men and women, peak performance… is reached in middle age.”
While the middle-aged brain does experience declines in processing speed and short term memory, it is better than a younger brain with inductive reasoning and problem solving. This is the ability to evaluate a situation and formulate a creative solution. Social expertise and the ability to make judgements peaks at middle age.
This quote from Denise Park, a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, perfectly reflects my observations:
“I think midlife is the best time of all for your brain. You’ve reached a stage in your life where you have both cognitive resource – that is speed, memory, working memory, sort of mental horsepower – but at the same time you have knowledge, experience and judgment. So I honestly believe, in terms of your overall cognitive abilities, there’s this wonderful blending of knowledge and cognitive resource that makes it probably the most efficient, effective time of your life.”
Plenty of studies now debunk the midlife crisis. Though the narrative of the disillusioned company man who abandons his family for the younger woman and a bright red sports car persists, there’s simply no evidence of a midlife crisis despite numerous studies searching for it. “There is no specific time in life that predisposes you to crisis,” said Alexandra Freund, a life-span researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Epidemiologists have found no spike in negative events – such as career disillusionment – in middle age, Freund explained.
If the middle-aged brain is not in decline, but rather flourishing and better than it was in younger years and if the middle-age experience is not automatically marred by regret and depression, then isn’t middle age worth fighting for and not against?
Why is the truth of midlife happiness overshadowed by the quest for youth and tales of the midlife crisis? Why was I not aware of the positive attributes of middle age until I stepped into it?
That’s the real crisis.