THE male midlife crisis is indeed male, according to research that has found women turning 40 are more confident and fulfilled than men the same age. The only area of life in which men and women feel equally dissatisfied is sex, with widespread unhappiness in the bedroom due to men’s increasing anxiety about their ability to perform sexually as they age.
The author of the report, social researcher and Age columnist Hugh Mackay, says many men interviewed for the study, Turning 40, complained their wives were not interested in sex.
“Then you’d hear about it from the other side of the fence; women were saying that around 40 their men seemed suddenly quite anxious about performance and were demanding sex more frequently … to affirm their sexual potency. It was quite a poignant aspect of the study. The women said everything would be fine if he would just relax and stop trying to be an adolescent.”
Mackay says women discussed the issue “with a lot of hilarity, but I think there was also an underlying sadness and difficulty about it”.
Women were suffering from the loss of the intimacy they craved; they were turned off by encounters based on an effort to shore up their men’s faltering sense of masculinity rather than a desire to connect.
“That’s the opposite of romance or intimacy,” Mackay says. “So the classic male behavior is then to wander, even if it’s just for a fling to find a younger woman with whom you can prove you are still a stud.”
Mackay and three other researchers interviewed eight groups of men and eight groups of women from lower-middle to upper-middle Australia. The interviews were conducted in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, the Blue Mountains and Bathurst.
The “spontaneous discussions” that resulted suggest that turning 40 means different things to different people; those content with their lives see it as an interesting milestone, while the unhappy experience it as a wake-up call to change. Typically, however, turning 40 signals a round of fresh doubts for men and a surge of relief for women.
While both sexes worry about physical decline, women are able to minimise their concerns as mere vanity, while for men it has darker implications about their potency generally, Mackay says.
“Women are superficially more concerned about the cosmetics, in that `drooping body parts’ sense. But leaving aside the beauty question, they have a really obvious sense of being ready to take off. It’s like a second wave of liberation.
“It’s a much more assertive point for women; they square their shoulders and say, `I know who I am. If people don’t like it, tough. I won’t be intimidated by anyone who thinks differently.”‘
Men also reflect and reassess at 40 but they are much more likely to go on as they are, “perhaps with an air of resignation”, Mackay says. He attributes this partly to the continuing strong cultural expectations of men to be the breadwinners.
“They doggedly press on because they have got families that are depending on them, so they can’t do anything dramatic. Some of the women in this study were disarmingly frank, saying, `This is great for us because it means we have the flexibility to make dramatic changes in our lives.’ They’ve got the freedom to do all this because he hasn’t.”
Mackay says 40-something women admit they talk about equality but are frightened by the idea of being the main breadwinner.
“They’re quite happy if they have a male partner who’s prepared to shoulder most of the responsibility for income.”
Men were also extremely conscious of the workplace scrapheap and the fact that making a change might leave them unemployable.
Said one: “Last year, I lost my job after 11 years with the one firm. I found it very, very difficult to get another one. That’s when you realise that 40 is no longer good for employment. I used to think it was 50.”
Mackay says experiences of the recession and unemployment have left these younger boomers questioning materialism and determined to teach their children there is more to life than possessions. Their twin terrors are that their children might be lured into drugs or develop depression and suicide.
“Even the mildest recreational drug use, which they themselves have engaged in, is somehow to be feared far above alcohol, although they are also concerned about alcohol.”
This commitment to family and concern about social problems has translated into a new understanding of what constitutes heroism, says Mackay.
“It’s more internal; it’s to do with psychological states and the quality of our relationships.
“It’s seen as people who are able to hold together a family under the very difficult conditions that would tend to fragment a family today, or people who are prepared to devote themselves to community needs at a time when we are ashamed of the extent of poverty and drug abuse and homelessness.”
ON TURNING 40
‘I might have more wrinkles on my face, and parts of my body are heading south, but I don’t give a rat’s arse what anyone else thinks of me. For the first time in my life, I really fell sure of myself.’
‘Now I’m a bit more determined to make things happen. things have just been happening to me, and I think I’ll go out and do it now.’
‘Gravity is pulling down on everything. And don’t you find the mirrors at shopping centres cruel?’
‘He’s said a few times that he mightn’t be able to do it much more. And I say, “Some men go through to 70 or 80 having babies. What are you worried about?’
‘My grandmother was right. She used to say men are just big babies.’
‘Your body sends you message you can’t ignore, even though you’re still 18 in your head.’
‘Sex after marriage? There isn’t any.’
‘You don’t know what’s expected of you these days by your wife and your children. You have to be everything, the hard-working man, the hard-working housewife, the hard-working father.’
‘I suppose the days of coming home and sitting down and opening up the newspaper are gone.’
‘I know if I see a job application coming across my desk and the age is 43 or 44 I start to question if they’re too old.’
‘Feminism has made blokes softer. When I was 18, a bloke was a bloke, but now you have to hold back a bit.’
First published in The Age.