I had a couple of conversations over the last few months with Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the award winning journalist whom many of you will know from her work on NPR. She has recently finished a book on the twists and turns of mid-life.
Set against the backdrop of her decision to leave behind a career that had, for 30 years defined the very core of her identity, she deftly blends deep and powerful research with her own experiences of aging to deliver a thesis and story that I find myself referencing almost on a daily basis. A fluffy self help book this is not.
Oh, and I also found out that she is also a total badass bike racer who, unless you are in the top 5 US competitors, is going to beat your ass. We love Barb.
David Harry Stewart for AGEIST: So one of the fascinating things you talk about is the midlife crisis and how it essentially doesn’t exist — that it was just some strange marketing thing that was made up in the 70s. Which rings so true. In all the AGEIST interviews I have done, I have yet to speak to someone who bought the red Ferrari and after 15 years of married life, runs off with a yoga teacher. I mean, who does that?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty: Right. I mean, it’s just incredible when you look back at the research and see how few people were interviewed to come up with this kinda cultural phenomenon.
I mean, it’s shocking. In the early research on the topic, Daniel Levinson interviewed, I believe it was, 40 people. 40 men for up to 20 hours each. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t finally confess to a midlife crisis?
AGEIST: 20 hours. My God. Sounds like Dick Cheney ran the program.
BBH: “Alright, I am having a midlife crisis. That’s right.” He concluded from this 40 people that 80% of men have a midlife crisis. Like, really Dan? Really? 80%? But when psychologists went out and actually interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people, they found that maybe 10% of people have this existential angst about dying before you fulfill your dreams. Which is kinda like a middle-life something; a fear of aging and unmet ambitions and dreams. But I’m not sure it’s a crisis.
My understanding is that everyone has a dip in happiness in their 40s and 50s. It’s universal. Economists have done these studies for 20 years and of people in 75 countries, so it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, or if you are from a war zone or from Sweden; everyone follows the same U-curve of happiness. You are happy in your 20s and you get a little less happy in your 30s and in your 40s you hit the nadir. Around 45 you are really pretty unhappy. And then you start getting happier and then by your mid-50s you are happier and happier and by 70.. so, what is going on here?
I think it boils down to the fact that people have really a lot of responsibilities when they are 45. Mortgage and kids, college and my parents are aging, probably heavy responsibilities at work. A little dip in happiness is probably inevitable. But is your life meaningful? Absolutely. And if you just kinda wait, some of these responsibilities begin to leave. Your brain naturally becomes happier. I mean, there is a brain mechanism where actually we begin to focus on good news and not bad news the older we get. So the brain becomes happier.
AGEIST: The other thing think plays some factor is the understanding or acceptance with what you have going for you. Something you talk about in your book is when you realized you are never gonna be at genius level. That the next rung on a ladder is just not gonna happen. I find this an extraordinary idea. How did that make you personally feel when you came to this realization?
BBH: Well, it was kinda distressing. It was kinda depressing a little bit to know that I wasn’t gonna be Christopher Hitchens or David Brooks or David Remnick or some of these beautiful writers and deep thinkers.
But what I realized is, either I could try to pedal a little harder and work a little harder and incrementally get maybe a few more stories per year on the air at NPR, or I could basically look at myself and say, “Wait a minute, there are some things that I do really well and some things I don’t do as well. And I am right now spending my life doing a lot of stuff I don’t do well, like deadline news. So what can I do to maximize the things that I am good at and that I love doing? And try to kind of pivot it away from those things that I am not as good at?”
And I was really lucky because my husband supported me in this. I was really supportive of him early on in his career and he wanted to pay back the favor. And so you know, in some ways it was liberating.
AGEIST: That must have been a brave moment for you.
BBH: Yeah. I mean it’s hard to believe that you are not at the far, far, far end of the bell curve. But you realize a lot of that stuff is out of your control. “I can’t control my IQ, I can’t control whether I win a Peabody Award. I can’t control that stuff.” So what I begin to do is think about not just, “How do I go change my career so that I am doing what I am better at?” but also, “How do I change my life so that I am putting more effort into those things I can control, but also really matter, like my family and friends?”
AGEIST: I think there is a part in the chapter where you talk about this midlife examination and meeting everyone else’s expectations and re-evaluating this to tailor to your core identity.
BBH: It’s really, really hard to rewrite the script. Because by mid life you’ve had 40, 45, 50, 55 years of habitual thinking, which has been conditioned and reinforced by those around you. 40 something years of “Oh that story was so good. Oh I loved that piece.” You know, that gets pretty addictive. So one of the surprising things was how hard it is to rewrite the script. It takes a lot of personal effort. And ideally someone else in your corner to support you!
AGEIST: That’s really interesting. And I guess that you must also realise that you are fortunate enough to have the time and the success to be able to make this realization? Or course there is this also huge category of people from whom the career left — without so much self-deterministic control. You talk about this galloping technology assaulting every sort of profession. So many people I know are in that position. What do you say to them?
BBH: It’s not just technology. It’s also what happened in 2008— every person who has been affected by the recession is struggling with this. So I don’t wanna in anyway downplay how hard that is.
I decided to call this out on the NPR Facebook page about “How is mid life treating you?” I got 700 emails, and a lot of them were people who lost their jobs during the recession. It’s really, really hard to get back in the workplace once you’ve been out, if you are middle aged. What I did find however, is that with only, like, 2 exceptions everyone found their way back. It wasn’t easy. They had to do stuff they didn’t like initially, but everyone I talked to basically found their way back to what they like doing. The other thing that I am beginning to hear about now is that companies are really panicking about losing baby boomers. So many are retiring and [companies] are having this kind of wisdom shortage and this experience shortage. So I think the tables are beginning to turn a little bit.
AGEIST: I come out of a world filled with creators. A lot of the people in my social group are photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and the internet, as much as we love it, has absolutely decimated their world. What’s happened is that anything that can become digitized, its value starts going to zero. And so you see these huge dislocations of people who are tremendously skilled and really creative, top of their fields, and what do they do?
BBH: And what do you tell them?
AGEIST: Well, I reference my friend Martin Thompson who is a brilliant photographer who became a fabric designer. Think about a parallel career that is similar but a little different.
BBH: Right. That’s a really good point. I suggest to people also is to think about dipping the toe in the water [of something new]. Some things might require further education. So this guy was a mortgage banker, he hated mortgage banking and started doing divinity school at night. And he did it for 10 years. I mean, it took him 10 years to do it but now he is a minister in Florida. So there is this kind of idea of, even if you don’t drop everything to go to law school, taking classes and seeing if you like that direction and then get the education to do it. Thats one way to go about it.
AGEIST: I want to skip to the other side of this, which is people. You talk about people who are trapped by the security in their careers. I know people who are in the finance industry and they are trapped by the compensation, or people who are tenured professors and they just, they have a job for life. You quote Howard Stevenson saying, “Success is measured by courage and the willingness to start fresh, rather than guard one’s spoils.” People who don’t face new challenges don’t grow—this is a problem.
BBH: It’s a huge problem. And let me preface by saying, I am not suggesting that everyone with a secure job should go and jump into something else. But they need to think about jumping into something else; they need to think about an exit ramp. And I found that so many baby boomers and Gen Xers are really miserable at work. Only a third of [them] are really engaged. And these are often the people who have the highest salaries and most responsibilities. These are the people that are not at the bottom of their career, they are at the top. And they are miserable.
It’s a problem because it can result in all sorts of health problems: people who are miserable in their jobs are much more likely to have a stroke, high cortisol levels, sleeplessness, depression. I mean, it goes on and on. So it’s not just your salary and your security. There is actually your happiness level and your health. So if they feel trapped they need to start looking around and say, “How can I do the stuff that I am good at?” It may even be in the same company. It doesn’t mean that you make this radical change. It doesn’t mean you even have to leave your job. But it does mean that you need to look really, really hard at why you are unhappy.
AGEIST: You speak about a gentleman called Carlo Strenger where he says, “Changing course mid life is an existential necessity.” It’s a powerful statement and I am really curious how this interfaces with the mid-life crisis myth?
BBH: That is a powerful statement. And he said it in the Harvard Business Review too. So a lot of people read that article. I think what he is saying is that at midlife you have “enough years” behind you to know what you are really good at. And if you are just kinda biding time and not really enjoying what you are doing and not really making a contribution, you need to look at that seriously because that’s not only a career necessity, but for existential happiness, for just loving life. I mean, we have one spin of the wheel. We are alive 70, 80, 90 years and then it’s gone.
I mean, it takes effort, but if you just want to kinda bide your time, you are gonna be unhappy. And like, who can afford to bide their time from 55 to 75, because most of us can’t retire at 65. I mean, do you really want to kinda break your teeth through 20 more years of work?
And it’s hard at first. It’s like anything else. You know, when you first start running your muscles are gonna ache the next day. But you know, eventually if you keep doing it you are gonna feel better not worse.
AGEIST: What do you want people to gain out of reading the book?
BBH: The first thing I want them to gain is a sense of hope that this is a really, really great time of life. The second thing is the sense of urgency. You don’t have an infinite amount of time in mid life to make changes in the way you think, live or to change the habits of the mind and heart, right? And so you need to start putting these things in place now so that you are gonna live a really good rest of your life.
Looking at my own life, [I realized] I wanted to do this period well, because the decisions I make now in my 50s will have repercussions right to my dying day. So I wanna do this well.
[The German pyscholgist] Erik Erikson talks about general activity beginning to give back to a different kind of mindset. Not about accumulation but divestment, so to speak. I began to notice that there are other things that were really important that really happy mid-lifers do that weren’t so obvious and they weren’t in the literature and I had to kinda carve it out myself. One is friendships. Friendships can be more important than family in terms of your health and your happiness because you can choose your friends or you can de-friend people, but you can’t really do that with family.
Another area that I found that really happy people had [was] what I call a “little passion.” In general, it was like a hobby that was untethered to their work or family responsibilities. So it could be learning the flute, or learning Spanish, something that led them somewhere. For me it was cycling. It’s not just about cycling for me. It’s about all the friends I’ve made. And it’s about adding punctuation to my life because this is a period of life that has no punctuation. You graduate from high school, graduate from college, you get married, you have kids, you start a career. Those are all like signature times in your life. Cycling is the signature of this phase.
AGEIST: One final question. You mentioned retirement and how it has changed. What’s going on there?
BBH: It’s the new math of midlife. Most of us probably can’t retire at 65. Most of us don’t have pensions. I know I don’t. This is a dilemma if you’re going to work. And I believe I’m going to be working until I can’t work anymore, partly because I get a lot of purpose out of it. But if you’re going to work beyond your later years then the question is: What will you work on and will it be something that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s “Life Reimagined” can be found here.
Photos by George David Sanchez.