Crisis? What crisis?

Suddenly purchasing a red sports car. Pursuing much younger mates. Taking wild risks and making reckless, life-changing decisions. Unsuccessfully trying to dress in a youthfully trendy style. These are the popular perceptions of the ‘mid-life crisis’ – and they all revolve around middle-aged men.

However entertaining these disparaging stereotypes might be, few serious attempts are made to understand what might lie beneath these patterns of behaviour. In our affluent society, with an ageing population, it is vitally important that we understand this phenomenon, and its implications in the world of work.

It can be challenging for organisations to manage people going through different stages of life. Some have even argued that it is not worth the effort – that if people behave inappropriately, they should not be offered any ‘special treatment’.

But these people are often skilled, with a great deal to offer, and may have contributed much to the organisation. Is it even possible that the changes that they are experiencing could open up new ways in which they could be effective?

What does the evidence say? Various large-scale studies have been carried out looking at trends in personality at different ages, and this sheds light on what may underlie these phenomena. Before examining this data, it should be stressed that these are general trends across large groups, and may not necessarily apply to any one individual.

There are several clear patterns affecting men in their late 40s, many of which are linked to emotions:

– An increase in anxiety before big or important events

– Greater sensitivity to criticism and insults (finding them harder to brush off)

– Less control over emotions – expressing them much more freely then before.

These patterns are relatively transient – once men are in their 50s, they start to reverse. However, around the same age, they begin to see themselves as coming up with fewer innovative ideas. Once men are into their late 50s, their tendency to make quick decisions also reduces.

In their early 40s, men tend to become more interested in artistic and aesthetic matters. Both sexes tend to steadily reduce in their physical activity levels as they grow older.

While these patterns are not entirely at odds with popular perceptions, they certainly need not carry with them any negative connotations. Becoming more anxious and sensitive may have its downsides (and be inconsistent with traditional views of masculinity), but it can also be very advantageous in many work situations.

What about women? The evidence suggests that they tend to be less outgoing around the age of 50, though this trend reverses by the mid-50s. Women around the age of 50 also report greater difficulty in coping with change, and experience less self-confidence. However, women above 50 also see themselves as showing their feelings less, controlling what others see.

Women’s anxiety does not seem to change to a great extent at different ages, though it is generally a little higher throughout life than men’s.

Overall, it does seem to be true that men experience more mid-life personality change than women, particularly in areas related to emotions and anxiety. However, the picture is subtle and dynamic, taking place against a backcloth of variations for both sexes, so its impact should not be over-estimated.

Such changes and trends at different ages do not seem to be an unreasonable and damaging malaise, but simply a part of how people develop over time.

Perhaps the destructive behaviour that can be associated with mid-life is a product of lack of support. By the time people reach their forties, they have often amassed significant experience and expertise.

Organisations that support and encourage their people through the different stages of life tend to get much more out of them. Everyone, of both sexes, and all ages, should be supported in making their own, unique contributions. In the final analysis, this is what diversity and equal opportunities are all about.

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