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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And it is a market that many established companies haven't figured out or are scared to talk to. "Marketers are obsessed with 16-to-24-year-olds while substantially ignoring the largest, richest cohort of women in the history of humanity," marvels Bob Garfield, advertising critic for Advertising Age. "It's bizarre how focused people are on children when the baby boom is just sitting there with hundreds of billions of dollars of discretionary income and very few kids left in the house to spend it on." Women make the majority of purchasing decisions. "The marketers I talked to for my research, I was expecting to find many of them poised to profit big on this pattern," Shellenbarger says. "But they didn't understand it. They were asking me questions — How does this play out? What do women want?"

For entrepreneurs with a smart answer, these are gold-rush days. "Anybody who is making pants with elastic waists is cleaning up," laughs Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington. Curves International, a women's-only gym franchise aimed at the over-35 group, is the fastest-growing franchise of any kind in history, including McDonald's. Ninety percent of the franchise owners are women. Curves doubled in size from 1997 to 1998, from 247 to 537 locations, and now has more than 9,000 locations around the globe, the world's biggest fitness franchise. Tammy Parkinson, 42, who left the real estate industry to start her own personal-training and nutritional-consulting business in Los Gatos, Calif., thinks the fitness focus makes a huge difference. "We lower cholesterol, blood pressure, help them lose weight," she says. "Some of these people, I don't know where they'd be if they hadn't started a program."

The Best Escape Routes
When women find a key to solving their own midlife mysteries, they often want nothing more than to help other women do the same. That typically involves some kind of journey, often a literal one. For Jennifer Wright, a divorced assistant professor of occupational therapy in Indianapolis, Ind., the epiphany came seven years ago, when she was 46 and on an intense four-day backpacking adventure in Nevada with her 21-year-old son. Up to that point, she says, women like her "may have been spending a good deal of our life taking care of everyone else. We come to the place where we say, 'It's my turn.' If women get there, they get there with fervor." The transcendent confidence Wright acquired on that trip ultimately inspired her to move to — of all places — New Zealand and become what she calls an "adventure coach." She leads hiking trips through rugged scenery — a "midlife, middle-earth adventure" on the Banks Peninsula Track in New Zealand. But Wright also emphasizes the internal journey: "You step out of time. You don't know what day it is, what time it is. You eat when you're hungry. And when you come back, you are changed."

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