Midlife Crisis? Bring It On!

How women of this generation are seizing that stressful, pivotal moment in their lives to reinvent themselves

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So while some women may follow the classic male model in certain superficial ways — buying motorcycles in record numbers (up 34% in the past five years) and getting divorced (two-thirds of divorces among people 40 to 70 are initiated by the woman) — many realize that a new toy or a new lover can do only so much for one's sense of well being over the long term. Researchers have found that women tend to take a hardheaded look at how their lives are unfolding and where they want to be 10 or 20 years down the road, when they are more than twice as likely as men to be living alone. And when women weigh their prospects, says Elaine Wethington, a Cornell University sociologist who specializes in midlife, they are "more likely to talk about growth, making the best of it."

That optimism takes many forms. Surveys find that middle-aged women think they will stay healthy longer. They are joining gyms at twice the rate of their male peers. Full-time college enrollment by older women is up 31% in the past decade. The National Center on Women & Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., found that women age 50 plus said they feel happier about getting older than they thought they would. There is a kind of virtuous cycle created when women feel more confident about their coping skills. "They are better at coming to grips with problems because they believe that they can," says Wethington. "And solving problems then feeds back and gives you a sense of mastery of life."

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung explained how in middle age people tend to drop the roles they were playing, outgrow their pretenses. Some women become more willing to take risks as they grow less concerned about what others think. Women who submerged their identity when their children were young may feel a sense of liberation once they are older. Even the death of a parent, while painful and a frequent trigger of midlife depression, can free women from the burden of expectations, as they ask, Who am I doing all this for anyway? Shellenbarger cites research that found men's "dream fulfillment" goes downhill from their mid-30s on; women, who tend to put their dreams in the sock drawer during their main child-rearing years, actually become dreamier as they get older; 36% of those between 50 and 64 reported that they had fulfilled a dream, compared with 24% of younger women and 28% of their male peers.

The dream for many women involves starting a business of their own. As economic confidence and corporate loyalty decline, says Mary Furlong, executive professor of entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University in California, people are looking for a sense of control. "What they're not trusting," she says, "is that big corporate America is going to provide for them. They want to be involved in a creative environment but not have it dominate their lives the way it did when they were selling on the road 80 hours a week for IBM." Plus, Furlong adds, going into business for yourself is fun, especially for women longing for a sense of adventure. "I don't think boomers are going to join the Junior League and have tea," she says. When they do the cost/benefit analysis of staying in a job they dislike or taking a leap of faith, more and more women are ready to jump. "I think part of the elixir is the learning. Part is the control. Part of the reason is just the idea, 'I better take control of my own nest egg because no one else is going to.' "

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