“The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants to regrets”, said Theodore Roosevelt. Middle age is the sensible stage of life, when we know where we are and where we are heading, having forgotten the disruptive passions of our younger years, accepted our numerous personal limitations and forgiven ourselves for our many sins.
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But the reality is that middle-age, like every other stage in life, is full of challenges. For a start, we call it middle-age, but it isn’t in the middle at all, and we know it. It is clearly placed in the later segment of our life expectancy, which is a worry for mature people who find themselves having to accept their children as adults, manage their parents’ care, and plan their own in the not so distant future.
The main problem, however, is that middle-aged people seem to be particularly preoccupied with the idea of failure. Middle-aged men, specifically, worry about failure a lot. They constantly and painfully assess themselves in relation to others, their achievements and their perceived shortcomings, and then they rank themselves. This exercise doesn’t make any allowances. It is raw and-and unforgiving at the best of times, and cruel in others. Being pushed out of the labour market in middle-age, for instance, can be experienced as a catastrophic failure that some men will struggle to overcome psychologically.
The National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Homicide has published its findings for the period between 2003 and 2013, and it shows a marked increase in the rates of suicide among middle-aged men. We can speculate about the causes, but rising rates of unemployment and debt during the studied period have undoubtedly contributed to this increase.
Suicide tightly linked to the economy
Psychiatrists should feel humbled by the fact that fluctuations in suicide rates always follow the ups and downs of the economy much more reliably than any other factors they may be able to influence, so to understand a sudden increase in suicide, one has to follow the money, or more precisely the lack of it.
A very famous psychologist, called Erik Erikson, described the eight key stages -or psychosocial developmental crises- that we face in life, and he stratified them by age, from the trust and autonomy issues that one faces very early in life, to the problems related to integrity and despair in the last chapter of our existence.
In middle age, men face what he called the “generativity vs stagnation” challenge. Over the course of their lives, they believe they must create and provide, and then protect, secure and consolidate. Skipping these demands, which are just as absolute as those in any of the other stages in life, is not allowed, and yet being able to meet many of them is heavily dependent on external circumstances, such as the state of the economy.
The economy is now on the mend, which is very good news for middle-aged men and their psychological health. But there's bound to be another downturn at some point, and the challenge for them will be how to come to terms with difficulties that are rarely under their control.