Older Aussies say the three-quarter life crisis is the new midlife crisis

Feb 05, 2020
As our life expectancy grows, Aussies are now experiencing crises later in life. Source: Getty

More than half of older Aussie reckon the mid-life crisis is a thing of the past – instead, people are waiting until their 60s and 70s to have a three-quarter life crisis.

An in-depth study by Australian Seniors examined the changing attitudes and concerns of more than 5,000 Australians aged between 54-73 on topics including retirement, health and technology, ageism and public perception. It found that instead of having the stereotypical period of painful self-reflection in their 40s or 50s, the new generation of retirees and soon-to-be retirees were experiencing it in their mid-60s and 70s.

More than 31 per cent of survey respondents said they’d personally experienced a three-quarter life crisis, while 45 per cent had witnessed someone else experience one. They said the symptoms they’d experienced or observed included feelings of depression, remorse, resentment and anxiety, a period of questioning life achievements and choices, and worrying about mortality and any legacy they may leave.

The report put the increasingly late ‘crisis period’ down to greater life expectancy, which means we’re marrying, having families, buying homes and, in turn, retiring later in life than ever before.

What’s a three-quarter life crisis?

Despite the negative connotations that the term ‘crisis’ might conjure, Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at The University of Melbourne noted that a three-quarter life crisis wasn’t necessarily a time of despair.

“It’s more a turning point when people in their late 60s or early 70s reassess their priorities for life with the wisdom and perspective that comes with maturity,” he said. “People may be troubled or in a rut when they enter the crisis period, unsure of the value of their work or jaded with the routines of their life, but they generally come out of it with a refreshed sense of possibility.”

Indeed, 67 per cent of the over-50s surveyed said that a three-quarter life crisis was ultimately a healthy process to work through.

Haslam said it wasn’t uncommon for people who experienced a three-quarter life crisis to embrace their work with a renewed sense of meaning, decide to take on study, pick up new hobbies, plan new travels or spend more time with family and friends. And that renewed sense of purpose was in line with how most survey respondents viewed their 50s and beyond.

“Challenging the ageist stereotype that seniors are closed to new ideas, they see the future as a time of opportunity, challenge and enjoyment rather than one of threat, loss and resignation,” he said. “This generation is redefining what ageing means; they see being a senior as a time for positively engaging with the world rather than gradually disengaging from it.”

The survey found 57 per cent or respondents didn’t identify with the term ‘retired’ and instead of experiencing their 60s and 70s as the end of something, felt that they were beginning a new chapter of life. And while on average Australians felt that the the ideal age to retire was between 65 to 69 years old, just under 40 per cent of survey respondents planned or hoped to keep working for as long as possible because they got a sense of purpose or fulfilment from their jobs.

You can read more of the research into what older Aussies thought about various topics here.

Managing a three-quarter life crisis

But what if you one of the roughly one in three people who do experience a three-quarter life crisis? What if you’re experiencing one now as you wonder how to make the best of your next decades?

David Kennedy, the co-author of 2019 book Finding Joy in Retirement, reckoned it was no surprise a significant proportion of retirees or near-retirees spent a period of time struggling to adapt to slowing down or ending work entirely – which sometimes came about for reasons that weren’t in their control.

“As many have observed before, we tend to hear far more of the negative phrase ‘retire from’ than of the more positive ‘retire to’,” he told Starts at 60 last year. Most of us know someone who struggled mentally and emotionally soon after clocking off for the last time. Where your purpose, routine and social network are heavily dependent on your career, the transition from employee to retiree can be fraught with danger.”

His book encourages people to change their thinking around retirement, by choosing to see it for the possibilities it presents.

“For many of us, there will be elements of our careers we will be glad to leave behind,” Kennedy said. “But the message that became clear in writing the book was that there are things our job (or business) provides that we need to consciously replace in retirement to assist our mental and emotional wellbeing, including meaning and purpose, a regular routine, frequent social connections, activities that are a source of achievement and physical activity.”

“By acknowledging these realities, and consciously planning for how you will incorporate each in your life when you retire; rather than spending those precious early years going around in circles, you are more likely to enjoy an easier path to retirement,” he finished.

Kennedy’s research identified some steps older Aussies could take to avoid or deal with mental or emotional upset at or after retirement, which were:

  • Maintain adequate social interaction and foster good quality relationships within your local community.
  • Ensure there is meaning and purpose in life outside work in the lead-up to retirement.
  • Stay physically and mentally active.
  • Think optimistically about the ageing process.
  • Be open to trying new experiences.
  • Strive for balance in life.

Paul McKeon, a publisher who runs retirementbooks.com.au, which specialises in books that help over-60s navigate the life changes retirement brings, has a similar view – satisfaction with retirement and achieving a positive outlook cames from throwing yourself into life, not signing out of it.

“While we’re still working, the idea of sitting around and just relaxing may sound very appealing, and it is — for a while,” he wrote for Starts at 60 in 2019. “However, if it becomes a major part of our life in retirement, we’re heading for trouble.

“Once we retire, most people find a life of passive leisure, just enjoying the freedom from work and responsibility, is not the answer to a happy retirement. It is only by organising our lives so we are physically, mentally and creatively challenged can most people find happiness and satisfaction in their retirement years.”

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