Last month I started working with a woman who flopped onto my counselling sofa at the start of our first session and wailed: ‘Nobody told me life only gets harder.’
Susannah, 52, is a recently divorced HR manager. She feels her life has been reduced to endless hours at work and picking up after the adult children she’s continuing to support when she gets home. Her two sons, both in their early 20s, can’t afford to get onto the property ladder, while much of her own income goes on servicing credit card debts. She has no savings and will be paying off her mortgage until she’s nearly 70.
Susannah’s marriage broke down two years ago. Since then she’s discovered that, even for the middle-aged, dating has become a looks-based facade, facilitated by mobile phone apps.
‘It’s soulless,’ she complains. ‘And if I did meet someone, I don’t know how I’d find the time to develop a relationship because I’m always working.’ The sight of her sons sprawled out on the sofa greeting anyone she did take home would hardly encourage intimacy, she wryly observes.
Susannah is suffering from low self-esteem and a consuming sense of dissatisfaction.
‘I look to the future and I just feel horribly anxious — it feels like it’s only going to get worse,’ is her bleak conclusion. Anxiety and problems with self-esteem are issues you might expect to feature in young women’s lives.
But according to the latest official wellbeing statistics, middle-aged people are the least happy, have the lowest life satisfaction and experience the highest anxiety of all age groups.
Statisticians analysed data for more than 300,000 adults from 2012 to 2015, for the Office for National Statistics. They found that even people aged over 90 enjoy better life satisfaction and happiness than those aged 40-59.
In June, a national happiness survey also found 45 to 59-year-olds are the most miserable UK age group. Being middle-aged has a similar effect on a person’s sense of wellbeing as poor health, being single or having only a basic education.
These results don’t surprise me at all. They reflect the feelings of many of my clients, people who should be in the prime of their lives.
They are responding in the most natural way to sweeping social changes that have robbed them of the success their parents’ generation enjoyed.
Yes, there were always those who suffered a ‘mid-life crisis’, trying vainly to recapture their youth. But for many others, middle age was once a time to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Many could expect to have a small mortgage and no dependants, and to reach the peak of their careers.
These days many retire still in debt, and have children living at home long into their adulthoods.
Women who have children later may exhaust themselves looking after toddlers, while increasing dependence on new technology means younger competitors threaten to overtake them at work. Longer lifespans mean elderly parents need intense care and attention.
Economist Nina Skero, head of macro-economics at consultancy Cebr, says that several factors are at play. ‘People who are middle-aged today are likely to help their children financially for longer,’ she explains. ‘If they have savings a large chunk might well go to helping their kids get on the property ladder.
‘Also, this generation will have been working in the 2008 economic downturn; this has had a lasting negative impact on this generation’s standard of living.
‘People are becoming debt-free later and later in life,’ adds Skero. ‘Lower earning growth means they might have taken on more debt. Also, people are buying properties later in life, which means more financial pressure.’
Susannah is a case in point. She spent her 20s and 30s grappling her way up the career ladder, while raising her sons and putting her own needs after those of her bosses and her family.
The pay-off, she believed, would come later, in the form of respect at work, independent offspring, financial security and time for herself.