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The Three-Quarter Life Crisis

A midlife crisis used to be when people in their 50s bought a Harley and had a fling. Now we’re living longer, personal crises are happening later, writes Brenda Ward. But you can prevent them.

18 October 2021

Autumn 21

It can happen to anyone – a crisis that makes you question your values, think about how short life is, and wonder where your life is going.

We used to think this angst happened only to the middle-aged. Now it’s happening later.

Canadian pyschologist Elliott Jaques was the first to call these times of soul-searching a ‘midlife crisis’, in 1965, and he believed it mainly happened to people in their mid-40s. A few decades later, it was seen as a 50s problem.

Now the experts argue that longer lives are delaying the midlife crisis till our 60s or even 70s and it’s being called the ‘three-quarter-life crisis’.

Auckland financial adviser Jonty Horrocks of Element Financial, says this later-life crisis marks a number of factors colliding at the same time, that used to happen much earlier.

“We’re having children later, so kids are leaving home later, around the time people are leaving the workforce and facing an uncertain future,” he says.

Within a few years they face emotional turmoil from giving up work, possibly downsizing the house, facing friction at home that can lead to a ‘grey divorce’, and can have later-life financial woes leading to depression.

But Horrocks says there are ways to avoid the three-quarter life crisis.

Half of us have them

Experts are just starting to realise how common the phenomenon is.

Across the Tasman, the Australian Seniors’ 100 Year Lifespan Report asked 5000 people about ageing and found 32 per cent surveyed had had a three-quarter-life crisis and 46 per cent had seen others go through one.

But rather than seeing a life crisis as a negative thing, almost seven in ten (67 per cent) said re-evaluating our lives can be healthy.

Clues to the reasons for the delay of the crisis can be found in Kiwi demographics that are being echoed around the world.

Emeritus Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University says he’s seeing a ‘structural ageing of the population’.

  • The number of over-100s will double by 2030, he says.
  • A quarter of us are now aged over 65.
  • The number of us living to over 85 will triple from 83,000 to 264,800.

We used to retire at 65 and spend 15 years in retirement. Now many of us could live up to 30 years after giving up work.

Spoonley says baby boomers are entering retirement as the healthiest and wealthiest generation ever.

And unlike their parents, at 60, many baby boomers are still active, enjoy working, and have a youthful mindset.

Their parents married young and spent 20 years raising a family and forging a career. Then they asked: ‘Now what?”

But today’s 60-year-olds are living longer, they often started their families later, in their 30s, and their kids can’t afford homes, so they’re leaving home later.

This all delays the day when they face empty nests, stop working, fall into a hole, and start rethinking the purpose of their life.

Professor Carlos Strenger, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University, told Time Magazine there’s another common trigger for the crisis – the death of a loved one.

He says you usually start being aware of your mortality when your parents die.

What to do

Horrocks says the anguish of a three-quarter life crisis can be avoided by just planning your goals and how you want your life to look, years before you retire.

“We’re having children later on in life, so you need to think about the whole notion of planning and understanding what that looks like.”

He says a financial adviser can help you plan your goals and dreams at any stage of your life.

“You might say to your adviser, OK, if I’m 42 and I haven’t started a family yet, what is my life going to look like? How much do I need to save? Do I want to save for that child’s future education?

“That way, when some people might be coming down the tail-end of that financial responsibility, you don’t feel that you’re still riding that massive financial risk, because really that’s what it is.”

Horrocks says research shows the stage from the early 30s to mid-50s is a high-risk time.

“Then, by the time you’re in your mid-50s, probably most people will have adult children who’ve left home. You’ll have an empty nest, so you can reduce your debt, and your risk profile reduces.”

But in modern families, some of us will be starting families later, or divorcing and starting again, or having more children with a younger partner.

Says Horrocks: “If you start a family later, at the age of 55 you’re still carrying quite a lot of risk and you need to think about how you mitigate that risk and the cost of it.

“So, the pressure is there to work for longer and your retirement dreams can change. It can be very challenging.”

How do you plan?

Horrocks says in planning you should always start from where you want to be in the future, and work from there.

“If you’ve never climbed a mountain before, you’re never going to be able to climb Mt Everest on your first day.

“If that’s your goal, you have to figure out the steps that you need to do to achieve that. If retirement’s the Mt Everest, what do you have to do, to reach the top?”

He says every year or couple of years when you refresh that plan with your financial adviser, you can update it.

He says you can simply say you’ve got a child and you’d love to support them through university, or maybe help them get into a home.

“The answer might be just as simple as setting up KiwiSaver for your child, and contributing into that, so by the time they’re 25 it could be a massive investment for their first home.”

Signs of a three-quarter life crisis

The experts say if you recognise any of these symptoms, you should ask for help:

  • You no longer have a sense of purpose.
  • You’re turning into a grumpy old person.
  • You live in the rear-view mirror, regretting the paths you never took.

If you see the warning signs, you can:

  • Talk to your family doctor, a life coach, counsellor, or a trusted friend.
  • Develop and maintain a strong support network.
  • Work longer you can, even if it’s only part-time, or volunteer.
  • Keep a healthy body and mind, and make sure your finances are secure.
  • Make a bucket-list.

Remember, say the experts, assessing your life can be a healthy process to work through, leading to positive change.


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