Polity by Rob Salmond



I just turned 40. The old saying (and song!) says life begins at 40. It’s an allure, with the promise of good times ahead.

But the numbers say different. “Life begins” a few years later. For the average person around the world, their forties is the unhappiest time of their life.

Responsibility and realism look to be the twin culprits.

40-something is often when people, in Western societies at least, are bombarded with the widest range of happiness-crushing responsibilities.

Those who bought houses are usually still paying off the mortgage. Those who had kids are usually still caring for them. Those climbing career ladders have often climbed far enough to be stressed out, but not far enough to be in charge.

They’re not financial independent, as they have the bank to answer to. They’re not personally independent, as they have their kids to care for. And they’re not professionally independent, as they have both bosses to answer to and junior staff to care for.

It’s a perfect storm of mainly joyless adult responsibilities.

For those people who do better than average on some things, and worse on others, the other bad news is that it really doesn’t balance out. Swings and roundabouts aren’t created equal. In emotional terms, people feel losses more acutely than successes. Losing $100 has twice the emotional impact, compared to winning $100. And with more responsibilities comes more chances for something to go awry.

So many people, whose lives may appear “normal” at a distance, harbour some kind of world-gone-wrong demons. In my case, for example, it’s a dead child followed by a dead marriage. My most abiding adult memory is of holding Sophie for the last time, singing to her and telling her how well she’d done, just before I asked the doctors to remove her breathing tube so she’d suffer no more. The joy of a rewarding job I love, great friends, and a loving partner I adore are all wonderful. But they can’t ever fully erase that stain.

For others, it’s care of a sick child or parent. Or their own mortality. Too many kids. Not enough kids. Too much work. Not enough work. Too much stress. Not enough money. It goes on and on, each circumstance different, but each anchor weighing people down more than the good things lift them up.

Nonetheless mostly we Kiwis keep up our invincible façade in public, saying “great!” when people ask how we are and leaving the hurt to fester. That isn’t healthy.

Another driver of middle-aged sadness is the death of ambition. Lots of 20-somethings see themselves as future Nobel winners, All Blacks, or Secretaries-General. Lots of 30-somethings who rent their home or don’t have kids or haven’t found a career they love still plan on the basis of achieving all their dreams, whatever they are.

In people’s 40s, the truth starts to sink in. Ambition dies slowly, and acceptance grows even slower again. While ambition wanes and acceptance awaits, lots of people’s self-image takes a tumble.

For me, through my 20s I wanted to help drive social progress as a Cabinet Minister. Now I tell myself I don’t want that any more, because I’ve seen the lifestyle and it’s too hard on family. I’m sure there’s an element of that, but it’s probably in part a rationalisation, too. It’s always easier to accept a failure if you couch it as a “decision not to try.”

Again, every story is different, but so many people start off talking big and delivering less. Among my friends, there are a lot of 40th birthday parties going on – September and October are popular months for being born around here. (I blame the mistletoe...) Almost all the birthday boys and girls appear strong and successful, in the career of their choice. From the outside, they’re excelling. But whenever I know the person well, I also know the truth is more complex.

The good news for all those people – note to self: including me! – is that it probably will get better. For most of us, happiness goes up as we get older. But there’s a decent patch of stress and unhappiness still to go before the upswing.

As a left I always wonder “can the government help?” I think there are small things it can do, such as provide more mental health and wellness programmes aimed at people in middle age. There’s a bit of a donut hole in that kind of care for mid-lifers at present. But beyond that, it the State can’t really do much, short of compulsory Soma rations.

The community really can help, though. Knowing that the middle-aged, supposed powerhouses of the workplace, self-identified rocks in their family, usually aren’t as bulletproof as they project is a good start.  

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