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Unemployment, Illness, Divorce

The Triple Whammy of Midlife


The Triple Whammy of Midlife


Gone are the days when the biggest problem of middle age was high blood pressure. In a globalized world of risk and turmoil, midlife presents an increasing array of troubles and strains. What can be done to weather the perilous middle years?



The Triple Whammy of Midlife

By Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 490 )

We live in an era in which stable jobs, healthy lives and lifelong marriages are no longer the norm. Are you prepared to tackle the triple whammy of middle age?

Badly battered by years of financial turmoil and the ongoing European debt crisis, many companies are in a precarious state, and are trying to cut costs at any price. As a result many well-paid middle-age managers have suddenly found themselves kicked out without any prior warning. Their financial security gone, many get severely ill or see their marriages collapse.

In the past middle-aged people were typically afflicted by metabolic syndrome – high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol levels. Nowadays this age group has much more to worry about than just health risks. The new "three highs" are high job insecurity, a high illness rate, and a high divorce rate. All available data show that these trends are inching ever upward at an accelerating pace.

High Job Reallocation and Turnover

Job turnover for middle-aged and older Taiwanese people increased by 127 percent over the past five years. Job turnover has increased for middle-aged and older employees (ages 45-64) every year, except for a slight decline in 2006, according to statistics by Taiwan's Council of Labor Affairs. In 2009 as many as 230,000 middle-aged Taiwanese employees changed jobs. (Table 1)

High Illness Rates

In 2010, nearly 200,000 middle-aged Taiwanese (ages 40 to 59) were diagnosed with cancer, which represents a rapid 30-percent increase over the past five years. Among the middle-aged and older population, the number of people seeking medical assistance for one of the top five health conditions – cancer (malign tumors), endocrine diseases, mental disorders, circulatory or cardiovascular disorders, and digestive disorders – has been constantly rising, according to Department of Health figures. (Table 2)

High Divorce Rate

Over the past decade, the number of people who divorced or separated from their spouse more than doubled. In 2000 about 370,000 middle-aged and older adults became divorced or separated. Ten years later in 2010, this figure had soared to 830,000, a 220-percent increase. (Table 3)

Originally, the incidence of divorce used to be highest among young adults (ages 35 to 45), but over the past five years middle-aged adults have become the most divorce-prone age group in Taiwan.

The New Perils of Middle Age

Which problems, pressures and predicaments do middle-aged people in Taiwan face, putting them at an increasingly higher risk of losing their jobs, getting seriously ill and ending up divorced?

Aside from internal factors – the physical and mental changes that naturally happen in midlife – the external environment is the biggest factor behind these dramatic changes.

Economically, 2012 is offering the worst prospects in three years, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned in its global forecasts. Predicting a mild recession for the Eurozone, which will affect the economies in North America, Asia and other regions, the IMF cut its global economic growth forecasts in late January from 4 percent to 3.3 percent. The downward revision was even steeper for the four newly industrialized countries of Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – from 4.5 percent to 3.3 percent, a 1.2 percentage-point cut.

Well-known psychiatrist Tom T.T. Yang observes that in times of thin profit margins companies become

highly cost-conscious. "Due to an overemphasis on results, one person has to do the jobs of three. This is very common nowadays," Yang notes.

In the past, management used to encourage their employees to stay with the company for lifelong careers, tried to create employee loyalty, and aimed for high employee retention.

But now that cost reduction has become the leading concern, some companies have begun to deliberately lay off staff in a bid to save on pension payments and severance pay. Against this backdrop, middle-aged employees with higher seniority and higher salaries have naturally become the major targets, Yang points out.

Forced to Change Careers in Midlife

"I took advantage of the Lunar New Year holiday to come back to Taiwan and find out if there are any opportunities here," says a Taiwanese manager who has worked in China for the past decade. The 52-year-old, who did not want to be named, looks back on a career as Greater China president in a Top 500 American company.

Responding to customer needs, the U.S. company relocated its China operations to China's interior in September last year. Banking on a midlife career change, the manager opted for an early retirement scheme instead of moving to the new location. Having worked doggedly for his company for many years, he was surprised to discover that the job market had long changed beyond his imagination.

"In the current environment I would advise that staying put is better than making a move," declares Alex Hsu, managing director of headhunting firm MGR Taiwan, a member of the Pasona Asia Group.

Hsu cites as examples the information technology industry and the financial industry. Both employ a high number of professionals, yet most middle-aged professionals who have served in senior and executive management positions and are currently waiting to find new job opportunities hail from these two major business sectors.

"When a client now asks us to find an executive from the IT or financial industries, we can recommend ten top-tier people within 24 hours after receiving the case," states Hsu, and all of these candidates will have an outstanding education and career record.

Physical Breakdown out of the Blue

When reaching middle age, many people lament an unexpected decline in physical fitness, or hear that friends have suddenly fallen seriously ill.

On his way to work one day late last year, Mr. Tsai, who works at a semiconductor factory, suddenly felt a sting in his eyes. He went to see the doctor and was diagnosed with keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea. He took his condition lightly and returned to work, only using some eyedrops for treatment.

The following day he got up as usual in the morning and went to wash his face and brush his teeth. However, when he went to rinse, he was unable to keep the water from running out of the corners of his mouth. Only then did Tsai realize he suffered from a much more serious condition. He took sick leave and went for another medical checkup. Eventually he was diagnosed with facial nerve palsy resulting from a minor stroke.

Initially, Tsai had difficulties accepting that he had suffered a stroke, since he leads a regular life and eats a balanced diet. But the doctor's diagnosis eventually drummed home the message. He was told that the cause of his stroke was too much stress.

Now Tsai goes to get acupuncture treatment virtually every other day. During each session the acupuncturist inserts 13 needles into Tsai's face. Tsai is seeing the acupuncturist so often because he is eager to fully recover as soon as possible. He is not only thinking about his job, but also aware that he cannot allow himself to collapse, given that his two elementary school-age children need a healthy father at their side.

Marriage Alert Flashing Red

On the marriage front, middle aged adults also face greater challenges than before. In Japan more women have begun to take the initiative in filing for divorce in recent years.

As Tom Yang explains, many of these women want a divorce not because they have found a new partner or because their spouses have cheated on them. Having reached middle age and faced with an empty nest after their children have become adults and left home, these women simply want to start a new life.

They feel they have fulfilled their family responsibilities and have decided to let go, to pursue their own interests. Examples can be found in Europe, America, Japan and, indeed, Taiwan as well.

With a chuckle Yang suggests that middle-aged men should try to learn how to respect their wives' burden, or else they might find divorce papers on the breakfast table one day.

"When a wife feels the need to search for a new life, this is not betrayal, because she also needs to pursue her own self-esteem," Yang observes.

On average Taiwanese husbands are three years older than their wives. Therefore, Yang explains, when the husbands reach middle age and begin to reflect on their lives or search for a new direction, their wives might actually be in a similar state of mind and begin to ponder their own future.

How can middle-aged men prevent themselves from being divorced by their fulfillment-seeking wives?

When counseling people with marital problems, Yih-Ru Cheng, director of the Clinical Psychology Center of National Taiwan University Hospital, usually suggests they embrace four principles: commitment, affinity, physical intimacy, and appreciation and gratitude.

Cheng suggest that one reason couples slowly drift apart may be that they both become busy and take each other for granted, gradually losing a sense of excitement and attraction for each other.

"When a man is together with a women who is not his wife, he will more naturally be aware of the gender difference, and when they accidentally come within close proximity, he will find it stimulating and fresh. But when he is with his wife, he can easily forget she once was the girl he pursued with all his heart," she observes. Middle-aged men should be mindful of this and avoid hidden crises, to maintain a happy marriage.

A globalized society in a new era of risk is producing unprecedented pressure for the middle-aged generation.

Similar to running a company, every individual must understand how to run his or her own life. And like corporate managers, we must maintain risk awareness, or we will find it hard to escape the three tribulations of midlife.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz