Exhaustion – the new midlife crisis

But there are positives …

When 55-year-old West Australian Premier Mark McGowan quit this week because he was “exhausted”, I asked myself, “Is this what a midlife crisis looks like now?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered often in recent months as numerous public figures have resigned – from politicians to TV hosts and football coaches.

“I know that I no longer have enough in the tank,” admitted former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern when she stepped down from leading the country in February at age 42.

Australian TV journalist Leigh Sales also hit burnout when she left the ABC’s 7.30 Report in July last year, saying, “I am having six months off to try to get a rest because I’m exhausted after … nearly 12 years of 7.30.”

Admittedly, these people all held extremely demanding jobs, but it’s not just public figures who are hitting a wall of exhaustion in middle age. It’s my experience, as an almost-48-year-old mother of three teenage girls and a pastor’s wife, with a high-intensity job and a low-functioning thyroid. It’s also the experience of many of my friends and acquaintances.

What’s causing this exhaustion?

It would be convenient to attribute this middle-aged slump solely to menopause. However, the prevalence of men also hitting the wall at this age suggests otherwise. While some of this collective exhaustion can no doubt be ascribed to the lag of pandemic languishing, it goes deeper than that. An article published five years ago, before the Covid pandemic began, identified the rise of this midlife exhaustion phenomenon, dubbing it “the fatigued 40s”.

“Midlife burnout has become the norm and, dare I say, an expected rite of passage,” said midlife leadership and business coach Karen Skidmore in a 2021 Forbes article.

She gets to the real cause of this burnout: the demands of modern life. “Our current relationship with productivity, particularly for those of us in our midlives, is not healthy and our standards for what we think we ‘should’ be doing during our days is too high for most people,” explains Skidmore.

“… We have to stop and realise how much this affects our ability to live out our lives once we hit our 40s.”

The workplace is not the only culprit. Many of us are exhausted because of the expectations of modern parenting.

The article goes on to note the high rate of workplace burnout, with the World Health Organisation classifying it as “an occupational phenomenon” in 2019. And reportedly, Australian workers suffer a higher level of workplace burnout than other countries; 62 per cent of Australian workers reported being burned out at work, compared to the global average of 48 per cent of employees, according to a Microsoft Work Trend Index report published in September 2022.

Yet the workplace is not the only culprit. Many of us are exhausted because of the expectations of modern parenting. We feel the need to drive our children to every activity and to oversee every assessment and homework task. Dishing up healthy food at every meal and snack is also “required”, as is maintaining a Vogue-styled house. Then there’s the “need” to keep fit and look young, as social media constantly badgers us to be a “fabulous 40-something”. Of course, social media and other technologies are to blame for our digital fatigue as we are now constantly interrupted and “on call”.

For Christians, there are also church commitments. I often lament the absence of people in my demographic at church services because of kids’ sports or other activities, or because they need a Sunday sleep-in. At the same time, I get it. While I love my church family and I love Jesus infinitely more, some Sundays, it takes pure discipline to attend and serve at church. It’s easy to feel like it’s just another demand, one more obligation in an already overflowing schedule.

And now for the positives …

So, what’s to be done about this midlife exhaustion crisis?

First, I think we need to recognise the positives. When a public figure (or anyone else) chooses to bow out of a position in midlife for health or family reasons, we should celebrate it. These Generation Xers are modelling to younger employees that there are more important things in life than work. It’s not a failure to recognise that a job is untenable, and it’s certainly not a loss to put your family and your health first.

The “new midlife crisis” should be celebrated for focusing on the right priorities. Think of the old midlife crisis cliches: buying a fancy car, making drastic changes to your appearance or jetting off on an overseas jaunt (Eat, Pray, Love style). In comparison, choosing to step back from pressure to focus on relationships is infinitely more productive and long-lasting.

With the wisdom of middle age, we could examine where our sense of self lies.

While these developments are encouraging, I think this time of transition offers even more opportunity. Not only does it invite reflection and re-evaluation about the things most important to us, but it could be the perfect time to reassess ourselves in light of our faith. With the wisdom of middle age, we could examine where our sense of self lies – in our achievements or lack thereof, in our career, in our earthly relationships, or in our relationship with our creator and sustainer.

Recently I was lamenting with another almost-50 minister’s wife and mum of three about our inability to meet all the demands on us at our age and stage of life. It’s impossible, we decided, and so we must be content with what we can do and leave the rest to God.

A midlife repose sounds perfect. To leave our striving at the feet of Jesus.

As I thought about this more, I wondered if this defines midlife: accepting the limited things I can do and surrendering what I can’t. Rather than a crisis, perhaps midlife could be characterised by the antithesis – a “midlife repose”.

Repose: to lie at rest, to take a rest, to place (confidence, trust) in someone or something, to put away or set down.

Yes, a midlife repose sounds perfect. To leave our striving at the feet of Jesus. To let go of control and admit defeat. To rest in God and through him. To ask him for deep, soul-filling renewal and replenishment. That’s how I want to mark the middle of my life. And that’s how I want to enter into my remaining years – not driven, but content in my limitations and my dependence on the Lord.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

(The Serenity Prayer)