The Midlife Low in Human Beings

Yves here. I dunno about this happiness stuff. Satisfaction is an alien concept.  Rather than being more happy, I’ve been unhappy in different ways over my life.

By David Blanchflower, Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics, Warwick University. Originally published at VoxEU

Most textbooks in social psychology teach students the idea that happiness and psychological wellbeing are essentially independent of age. Based on data on 1.3 million randomly sampled individuals across a large number of countries, this column argues instead that humans have a fundamental tendency to a midlife low which is apparently substantial and not minor. This puzzling phenomenon seems an important and fundamental one, and its existence should not be ignored.

How happy do you feel today and how old are you? Do you believe in the midlife crisis of folklore, the life-cycle theory of economics, or any other specific theory about what happens to humans as they go greyer?

Nearly two decades ago, a review article by Diener et al. (1999) concluded that happiness and psychological wellbeing are essentially independent of age. They illustrated that view with a flat line (in Figure 3 of their paper). To our knowledge, most textbooks in social psychology continue to teach students the same idea.

How should this topic be tackled by economists and quantitative social scientists? One method is to use cross-sectional datasets. This is a ‘snapshot’ approach (to use the term adopted in Stone et al. 2010). It has some advantages, including simplicity and the ability to examine large cross-national samples. It has the disadvantages that it may be subject to year-of-birth cohort effects and that, more broadly, the statistical information about ageing then comes from cross-person rather that within-person observation. Of course, any cohort effects are themselves, in principle, of scientific interest.

Do We Have a Tendency to a Midlife Low?

In a recent paper, we argue that the traditional Diener et al. (1999) conclusion that wellbeing is flat through life does not do justice to current evidence (Blanchflower and Oswald 2017). We believe that humans have a fundamental tendency to a midlife low. If you have an economics PhD and have ever estimated a ‘happiness equation’ with micro data, you probably think the same. But the idea is still not fully known among economists.

Our paper examines data on 1.3 million randomly sampled individuals across a large number of nations. The paper is methodologically very simple. We bring together seven datasets, treat them in a consistent way, and simply plot the results. We argue that it is natural for researchers to try to understand the patterns in pooled cross-sectional datasets as well as those in longitudinal datasets. This certainly does not mean that we think cross-sectional data are better – just that they offer part of the evidence with which social scientists should presumably work.

The background literature is now large. It is also, currently, rather disputatious (including, but not limited to, Blanchflower and Oswald 2008, Easterlin 2003, 2006, Frey and Stutzer 2002, Freund and Ritter 2009, Frijters and Beaton 2012, Glenn 2009, Graham and Pozuelo 2017, Lachman 2015, Stone et al. 2010, Steptoe et al. 2015, Van Landeghem 2012, Wunder et al. 2013, Schwandt 2016). In an unusual paper that is related to this literature, Weiss et al. (2012) use data on three samples of great apes and document some evidence of a U-shape.

Other studies, such as Lachman (2015), come close to arguing that there may be a midlife dip but that it may be too small to be significant. Some writings (e.g. Freund and Ritter 2009) are fairly dismissive of the notion of a midlife low. Plenty of material on the internet goes further and derides the entire idea of a midlife crisis.

Within the cross-section tradition, two broad ways to analyse the paper’s scientific issue can be found. One set of writings has attempted to study raw numbers on well-being and age. This might be called the descriptive approach. A second has examined the patterns in regression equations for well-being (that is, adjusting for other influences). This might be termed the ceteris paribus analytical approach. Methods of the latter kind are standard in epidemiology and economics, of course, where the tradition has been to try to understand the consequences of an independent variable (smoking, income, etc.) after adjusting for other influences on the dependent variable.

Neither of these two approaches is ‘right’. They measure different things.

The U-shape of Life Satisfaction

Our paper’s seven datasets provide information on large numbers of randomly sampled citizens; each person is asked questions about happiness or life satisfaction. The datasets are, respectively, for the UK, the US, 36 European countries, 32 European countries, 51 nations around the world, and (again) the US.

For example, Figure 1 plots life-satisfaction data for approximately 416,000 randomly sampled citizens of the UK. Wellbeing data are now collected annually as part of official government statistics by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). One of those is a measure of citizens’ overall life satisfaction.1

Figure 1 Life satisfaction at different ages in the UK, 2011-2015 pooled (416,000 observations)


Notes: This figure is based on data using the question “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” scored from zero to 10. To aid in understanding the size of the age effect, the coefficients on marital separation and unemployment in a life-satisfaction regression equation here are approximately -0.3 and -0.8. The figure is constructed by estimating a regression equation with approximately 74 separate age dummy variables.

Figure 1, and each of the later figures in our paper, lays out two kinds of plots. One is for raw averaged life-satisfaction scores at different ages. This is the descriptive approach, advocated by, for example, Glenn (2009). The other, derived from a regression equation in which other covariates (so-called ‘controls’) are included, is the regression-adjusted level of life satisfaction. This can be thought of as an estimate of the pure or ‘marginal’ effect of ageing. It can be seen in the figure that the two curves are similar to one another, so in this case the adjustment for controls does not greatly affect the fundamental conclusions.

Figure 2 plots life-satisfaction data for approximately 427,000 randomly sampled citizens of the US. The data are from the Behavioral Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which is a survey run by the US Centres for Disease Control.2 The data are for 2010, which is the most recent year in which the BRFSS asked this question.

Figure 2 Life satisfaction at different ages in the US, 2010 (427,000 observations)


Notes: This figure is based on data using the question “In general, how satisfied are you with your life? Very dissatisfied,…., very satisfied.” scored from 1 to 4. To aid in understanding the size of the age effect, the coefficients on marital separation and unemployment in a life-satisfaction regression equation here are approximately -0.3 and –0.3.

As before, the figure lays out two kinds of plots. One is for raw averaged life-satisfaction scores at different ages. The other, derived from a regression equation in which other covariates (so-called ‘controls’) are included, is the regression-adjusted level of life satisfaction. It can be seen, as in Figure 1 for UK data, that the two curves in Figure 2 have some similarities to one another. There is apparently some form of midlife low, although now the adjusted nadir (that is, with controls) is closer to early-40s rather than approximately 50. However, the pattern across all ages in the no-controls case is more ‘wavy’ with an early dip at the start of people’s 20s. Adjusted wellbeing in the US starts high in youth and declines smoothly until the flat part in middle age; it then rises in hill-like way to approximately the age of 70; after that it runs roughly flat, or even fractionally up, until the age of 90.

Figure 3 plots life-satisfaction data for approximately 32,000 randomly sampled citizens across a pooled set of 36 Europeans. The data are from the Eurobarometer Survey series.3 Figure 3 has the previous form of double plot. One is for raw averaged life-satisfaction scores at different ages. The other is the regression-adjusted level of life satisfaction. As in Figure 1 for the UK, and to lesser extent Figure 2 for the US, the two curves track each other. Thus, as before, in this case the adjustment for controls does not alter the fundamental result.

Figure 3 Life satisfaction at different ages in 36 European countries, 2016 (32,000 observations)


Notes: This figure is based on data using the question “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied,or not at all satisfied with the life you lead ?” scored from 1 to 4. To aid in understanding the size of the age effect, the coefficients on marital separation and unemployment in a life-satisfaction regression equation here are approximately -0.2 and -0.3.

What comes out of Figure 3 is a pattern very like the one in Figure 1. Wellbeing starts high in youth and falls in a fairly linear way to approximately the mid-50s; as an underlying trend, it then rises in a roughly linear way up to approximately the age of 90. The controls in this case are country dummy variables, gender, level of education, marital status, labour market status, and year dummies.

It might be argued that longitudinal data are, in principle, the desirable kind of testbed. We are sympathetic to that view. However, there is a correction for cohort effects in an earlier paper of ours (Blanchflower and Oswald 2008), and there are emerging panel results, such as Cheng et al. (2017), in which in four longitudinal data sets a U-shape is found. Perhaps the most effective longitudinal evidence against a midlife low is the potentially important work of Galambos et al. (2015) on some fairly small Canadian data sets. It is not currently possible to know why the limited number of modern longitudinal studies do not all agree with one another.

We find in our paper that five out of our seven datasets show a midlife low in raw data. All seven show a midlife low in regression-corrected data. The datasets are publicly available and these results are thus checkable.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, we think there is a great deal of evidence – though we have critics, especially among a small group of social psychologists – that humans experience a midlife psychological ‘low’. The midlife decline in wellbeing is apparently substantial and not minor (see the notes below each figure, which compare to the coefficients on major life events). It should perhaps be emphasised that the midlife low is not affected by regression-equation controls for having young children, nor by changing the exact nature of the dependent variable.

Our view is that these kinds of plots of happiness and life satisfaction should be shown – admittedly with a discussion of appropriate caveats – to all young psychologists and economists and medical scientists and biologists and others. The phenomenon seems an important and fundamental one. It is currently a puzzle. Realistically, nobody in the world understands why these intriguing U-shapes are found in modern data. Ignoring the existence of this apparently deep-rooted pattern, however, is presumably not helpful or scientifically sensible.

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  1. WheresOurTeddy

    Would be interested to see how the data set for mood at different stages of life for baby boomers correlates/differs with what the trend line will look like for people who will live the majority of their lives (and their entire adult lives) in the economic rubble they have left behind of of stangnant-for-decades wages, massive consolidation of ownership of productive assets, and erosion of the few social-safety net provisions left that haven’t been destroyed since the assault on the New Deal began before FDR’s body even got cold.

    Pass a Universal Basic Income and watch this chart flip upside down, along with the Case-Deaton “death from despair” stats.

    UBI or ropes and guillotines. Your choice, Oligarchy.

    1. cnchal

      The economic rubble left behind for those that come after the baby boomers is the result of class war instead of age war. The boomer peasants lost. The boomer elite won.

        1. Wukchumni

          My mom is a great depression kid, saves everything and then some, and a few years ago she gave me the checkbook register from the year of my birth during JFK’s first year as President, and it was quite illuminating…

          There were about 10 checks from mid 1961 to mid 1962 written to Dr. Evers-our family physician, in the amounts of $6 or $7 with one whopper @ $14. My coming out party was $190, versus around $10k nowadays.

          I asked my mom if we had health insurance, and she told me nobody had health insurance back then.

          Oh, and the mortgage for a new home built in 1960 in LA?


        2. jrs

          It may be true that some of the increased satisfaction of the elderly is that maybe some of them can FINALLY RETIRE. No more keeping, and chasing, and trying to keep no matter how bad it gets, and worrying about losing, the hell that is wage labor. And maybe this makes up in life satisfaction even for a body that is no longer in it’s prime or actually anywhere near. So maybe a UBI would do the same thing for younger people.

          Midlife is actually one when worries about all the work things as much as ever (not so easy to start over after loosing a job in midlife) and have other worries as well (aging parents, kids, health etc.). Too much really, but this world is cruel.

          1. Mike

            True, to some extent, “jrs” – but retirement has its own set of worries, and the “terror” has become losing Social Security (let alone the increase that once was larger per inflation), Medicare/Medicaid, and pension benefits due to corporate restructuring, government spending palsy/shutdown. Austerity is its own terror-producing package.

            Shall I go into health care and the infirmities of old age? That is why the “happiness” quotient is not 100% (or “4”, or whatever is perfection). And, no matter what the system of society in which you live, it will never be perfection. Personal lives are too complex to trust such measures, anyway.

            Mid-life is a crisis because of age related to further employment and worries about family and general “status” which encumber all who live in this modern-day criminal enterprise we call society. Change the society, and THEN face these issues and see if they still hold water.

      1. nonclassical

        …actually, “it” had nothing to do with boomer “class warfare”: rather, economic choices by corporatocracy-workers were promised-“given” retirement benefits in lieu of current pay benefits…same retirement benefits today having been determined not “contracts”…this after Wall $treet bank$ter remuneration – bonuses were guaranteed (2008) on basis of “contract” status.

        And no, I don’t buy the “midlife low” (at now 71) prognosis. Self-actualization does involve (imo) higher Ed., and living various venue around world-comparison. Then again, self-actualization without self-discipline is self-deception through self-interest…

        …. the highly educated view appears see FDR era regulatory capitalism an anomaly historically…best develop perspective-Adam Curtis BBC documentaries, “The Mayfair Set”, “Power of Nightmares”, “Pandora’s Box”, Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of U.S.”, Klein’s, “The Shock Doctrine-rise of disaster capitalism”, culminated with Talbot’s, “The Devil’s Chessboard”, which are definitive overviews…

        (those of us-Poly-Sci who witnessed Alliende”-Chile’, are unsurprised to find boomers economically scapegoated, along with teachers, schools, immigrants, social security, medicare, “elitists” (educated), etc.)

        …”educated” view is also surprised witness Huxley and Orwell views equally validated…

    2. ben

      spot on, boomers sold out their own kids to the bankers.

      Hands up if:

      1. you read nakedcapitalism
      2. you are a boomer
      3. you are a landlord

      From a meetup I happen to know the % is insanely high. Why are the boomer banker landlords on this blog? Isn’t this blog largely pitted against lazy rentiers?

      1. John Zelnicker

        @ben – The landlords you find here on NC are not the corporate owners of vast swaths of rental properties, they are individuals or couples trying to build a bit of wealth. Very few own more than a handful of properties. And, they are far from lazy. If you haven’t owned rental real estate, you may not realize how much hard work goes into maintaining the property and finding suitable tenants. I owned a couple of dozen properties at one time or another over a twenty year period and it’s quite difficult to make an operating profit.

        I do wish the hippie-punching of boomers would just stop. It is no more a monolithic group than any other generation. Plenty of us have been fighting the neo-liberals since the civil rights and anti-war movements.

        1. ben

          I completely disagree. They are rentiers. And so are you. Landlords wouldn’t know hard work if they fell over it. None are doing it from a burning desire to house people. They want the easy money. They want the “passive income” where “passive” is no work and a regular cheque.

          Most landlords will happily take in 1K a month and then complain when they have to do a few hours work every 3 months. Plus they should be low paid as it’s a *very* low skilled job. Here are the requirements:

          1. pulse so the bankers will lend you money
          2. not worried about farming young families labour
          3. semi-literate, semi-numerate
          4. can say “where is my rent”

          Why should you expect to be earning a lot from this? Because you are taking a risk in a world where the bankers make sure land is underwritten as much as possible? Because you took out a huge loan? People who can’t hold down a job at Burger King can still manage to be landlords.

          You can’t fight the neo-liberals and “own” a couple of dozen properties. You are part of the distributed tribute machine run by the bankers.

          It just shows how strong the denial is in landlords. Twenty properties and “trying to build a bit of wealth”. You guys are parasites.

          Oh but “it’s the system”. Imagine forgoing dipping into the banker wealth party on principle!

          1. tegnost

            “a couple of dozen properties” and “twenty properties” is not nearly the same as owning your own home and renting out a low single digit number of properties. The classes of your comparison are not analogous. I work for some in the category (two or three rentals) and their main goal seems to be how to protect their assets from the stock brokers and wall street.

            1. TsWkr

              Yes, and the small-time landlords exhibit the other main skills that are important, namely finding and retaining reliable tenants who will help maintain the value of the property and dealing with the cesspool that is contractors and subcontractors.

              The landlords with 20+ properties are much more willing to churn through people, let the property fall into disrepair and accept shoddy work from contractors because their long-term plan is to sell and amass an even larger holding of properties.

            2. jrs

              They are still VERY privileged, to have that option, while their renters most certainly do not have that option!

              1. tegnost

                well for some perspective, say a millenial wrote an iphne app that made them millions, but outside of that they don’t make a massive salary, what would you advise that millenial to do with the money, divide it between everyone they know? Give it to wall st through the stock market? Bonds? Real estate is one of the options they can expend their privilege upon…Railing against QE might be more to the point.

          2. Lee

            Eve Mao made distinctions between large and small landholders; the petty, middle, and large national bourgeois as opposed to the internationally oriented compradores. These differences need to be appreciated if one wishes to forge alliances and identify the principal enemy so as to build an effective mass movement.

            1. Henry Moon Pie

              Ben’s rant against rentiers has some validity. The UMKC econ folks will back him up on that from a theoretical standpoint.

              But you’re right. It is a bit more complex. I live in ethnically diverse, inner Rust-belt city neighborhood. We own our house, but when we bought it for less than $5,000 six years ago, that didn’t mean much. It hadn’t been occupied for 10+ years and had no wiring, plumbing, heating or interior walls (that was a plus). We’ve boot-strapped it to the point that it’s getting to be a bit comfortable and even has some aesthetic appeal in spots.

              In addition to a interesting ethnic mix of Chinese, Korean, African American, Eastern European, Appalachian and Central American, we’re also a mix when it comes to ownership. A large segment are owner-occupied, but there are some rental properties owned by neighboring owner-occupiers and far too many slumlord properties. The rental properties owned by a neighboring owner-occupier are well-maintained and have long-term tenants. The slumlord properties are in poor repair. Many are vacant. People rarely stay in any of them for a full12 months.

              We’re thinking about becoming landlords ourselves, and I’ll admit some of ben’s thinking has been giving me pause while contemplating the possibility. I don’t fancy being in a lord/tenant situation with someone. But we have vacant properties next door to us. One will be demolished soon after we’ve worked for three years with the right mix of folks to get it done, but another is in good repair and would make two nice apartments for folks if they were rehabbed. As we’ve done with our own house, we’d have to do the work ourselves out of financial necessity and concerns about contractor quality that others have mentioned.

              I’m not sure how that house would ever be made livable again unless it’s someone who will rent it out eventually. People with small children could not do what we did. Conditions were too cold in winter and too dirty for kids. Most others would never be willing to live in those conditions, but that’s what we had to do in order to accomplish it–use what would have been rent to buy materials.

              I’d love to see us develop some kind of housing coop that could own, renovate and manage properties like this, but we have a lot of groundwork to lay in the neighborhood and the city before that can be a reality.

              Declaring war on all rentiers does have the appeal of simplicity and clarity. I think I’d like to get to the same place as ben, but it may take traveling some more winding roads to get there.

              1. luke

                Pittsburgh? What part if so? I’ve done similar here.
                I have a neighbor who rents a few houses and is starting to switch to doing air bnb now that our hood has fully gentrified (took three decades after the steel plants closed).

                1. Henry Moon Pie

                  Not Pittsburgh. My hope would be that we never gentrify. For one thing, I sure wouldn’t fit in. ;)

                  One way of avoiding it would be to employ mixed-use zoning to allow all of us to host a little business that could bring in some cash. I was impressed with what Tito left behind in parts of the former Yugoslavia. People had a place to live, a little business like a bakery or cafe-bar, a tourist rental and maybe a in-law apartment in a four-story building they had built themselves, level by level. The back yard, of course, was filled with an olive tree and some grape vines.

                  It produced neighborhoods that provided most of what you needed within a short walk. With a gallery or craft shop mixed in, we could lure in some of the yuppies from the gentrified neighborhoods and separate them from their cash. Legally, of course.

                  Nice living.

            1. ben

              Small time landlords are a massive part of the problem. In the UK we have nearly 2 million. They are all parasites.

              NC is clearly a nice little place for mini-me rentiers to play.

              Clearly it’s fine to be “just a bit of a parasite”. No problem there. I’m sure the 1,750,000 “small time parasites” in the UK are having no real effect and that we should all just stop giving them a hard time.

              People owning a couple of properties are using the system to extort wages from young families, who have come into the labour market after the banking coup.

              Also sheltering from the stock market is a dumb thing to say, that’s way up since 2008.

              This idea that criticizing rentiers is holding back the “mass movement” is not something I subscribe to. There is a huge mass of landlords who are distributed debt collectors for the banks.

              No doubt next we’ll hear that if they stopped monopolizing properties people would have nowhere to rent, in spite of the fact that releasing this supply onto the market would see land prices fall.

              Tax land, not labour. That is all.

              1. ambrit

                Greetings Comrade;
                No snark intended, but, didn’t the ‘Great Helmsmans’ “Great Leap Forward” and related “movements” have some very nasty side effects; such as millions of dead peasants, and stunted lives going forward?
                Since the Millennium isn’t looming on the horizon, simple pragmatism will have to do for now. United Fronts between Labour and the legitimate Petite Bourgeois have so far been of most utility. The big scale Bourgeois and Plutocrats are the real enemies.
                Don’t let ideological purity get in the way of effective actions.
                Another Downtrodden Worker (ambrit)

              2. c_heale

                I’m not sure they are all parasites. They are lucky, and some of them are exploitative, but some of them are probably just trying to get by. If they charge a reasonable rent, then someone can rent and have a roof over their head. I would see the problems as, insufficient social housing and restrictions upon what councils can do, and insufficient protection for tenants both de jure and de facto. I agree with taxing land, but due to the historical power of landowners in the UK (land ownership has been extremely unequal since the times of the Norman conquest), I cannot see this happening in the foreseeable future.

          3. nonclassical

            …painting “neoliberal” requires historical documentation-George Monbiot:

            “The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

            In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

            With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

            As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

            Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

            Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.”


          4. John Zelnicker

            Ben – You probably won’t see this since it’s so late, but you really don’t understand what many small-time landlords go through. I never owned more than 4-5 properties at a time and I would generally put in about 15 to 20 hours a week working on properties, as in plumbing, basic electrical, painting, carpentry, not to mention cleaning out the trash and damage left behind by some tenants. I developed these skills by trial and error and watching experts. Never underestimate how much hard work is involved.

            You seem to want landlords to make only a low wage commensurate with unskilled labor. Doing plumbing, electrical work, painting and carpentry, and doing it well, is not low-skilled. I would have loved to make a profit equal to minimum wage from renting properties for the hours I worked on those properties. Figure 15-20 hours a week is 60 to 80 hours a month at minimum wage is $435 to 580 a month in profit. I never, ever made that kind of operating profit. I think you need to get out more and challenge your assumptions.

        2. Joel

          Small landlords are only bad if they fight new development of housing, pushing people into homelessness or back into their parents’ houses or into three-strangers-and-one-bathroom-in-a-three-bedroom-apartment situations.

          Unfortunately, they have a huge economic incentive to cut off supply and so they are the leading constituency against sane housing policy.

          Back in college, when I volunteered with an affordable housing campaign, the leading group opposed was called the Small Property Owners Association.

          Hands up if you are a NC reader fighting “to preserve the character of my community.”

          P.S. this reminds me of the “row” over the Momentum “dinner party” video:

          1. ben

            They also create a huge block of voters who have a vested interest in land prices *not* falling. And they vote accordingly.

            If we didn’t have lots of petite rentiers we’d have a very clear line:

            one side – people creating wealth via labour

            other side – people monopolising land and demanding part of your labour for the right to exist

            But now in the middle we have a bunch of amoral people who are “just being a bit” of a scumbag.

            If we want a mass movement we should be organising around rentiers and non-rentiers. And we should be castigating rentiers in all their sizes.

            I thought that video was great. Here is another longer one.

            Century of the Self.

            Just a pity there were no boomer landlords in that vid you posted, that would truly have put the boot in.

      2. Clive

        Well, for what it’s worth, I am none of the above. But I do qualify for your other drive-by generalisation “banker”.

        I, though — and everyone else pretty much where I work — hates our employers, hates what the company does, hates what we have to do, hates that we have no choice at our ages / levels of commitment to others / vast indebtedness / other grim reasons, hates the few we have to work with who are sufficiently down the sociopathic scale to not be bothered in the slightest and hates the culture in the country generally which permits it all to go on.

        What, exactly, do you propose we do? Dropping out sounds very romantic and noble. Not quite so easy if you’ve got family responsibilities or merely just looming old age to think of.

        I, for example, am in my late 40’s and even though there’s no children to worry about, my country’s healthcare is being crapified, I’ve just found out I’ll have to live possibly until I’m 68 before I get any help from the state in terms of pension and I’m being fleeced by rent-extracting costs for energy, water, reasonably nutritional food and transport. There’s no welfare state to fall back on, either. Quitting my job and the ill-gotten gains that go with it in a fit of pique could be akin to suicide.

        Also, did you miss the bit above the Comment text box where it said “Keep it constructive and courteous” ? Slagging off entire cohorts of people without delving into why they ended up doing the things they did, how they can, assuming they want to, get out from that position and what is to stop their places merely being filled by others isn’t going to achieve much even though you may feel better for doing it.

        Sorry to dump a load of awkward questions unceremoniously at your feet and ask what do you think we should do about it all. I, though, have those same questions to deal with myself.

        1. ben

          Why can’t you just work? Why do you have to be a landlord? I’m not proposing dropping out the system, I agree you cannot. But why actively join in exploitation.

          If you are not a landlord, no problem. My comment was aimed at landlords and it appears there are *plenty* on a site about the pernicious effects of financialisation and rentier activity, who say they are “only small time” parasites.

          My comments are constructive: to get a better world we need less rentiers. Now that may not fit with the “but I only want a better world if it doesn’t effect me” part, however I don’t care about that line of defence. It’s not valid.

          Millennials: The Landless Generation

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos

            Ben, reading through your comments, I became curious about what you would consider ethical behavior on the part of landlords. Reading between the lines, I would assume it would be: Charge rent that really is only the amount necessary to cover repairs, utilities paid for by the landlord, efforts to make sure tenants don’t trash the place, taxes, etc., plus perhaps a minimal (but only minimal) amount of profit.

            Is this right? If so, I wonder how far below current rental rates this would typically be.

            1. ben

              No, I’d like to see land value tax force speculators to sell, brining down land prices. In the meantime I’d like to see people with a conscience *not* become landlords.

              Land value tax cannot be passed on and could be used to eat up nearly all the profit landlords derive from rentier activity, leaving them with enough to cover the costs of an unskilled job for a few hours a month.

              We certainly cannot expect these people to simply cover their costs from altruism given that they have been unable to keep out of the rentier exploitation game.

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos

                Suppose they don’t become landlords. According to you, what should they become instead?

                They probably shouldn’t work for a mid to large size corporation – doing so means swearing fealty to an institution devoted to expanding its power and influence in an exponential fashion over time. They certainly shouldn’t work for anything like marketing or advertising. One could even start to raise questions about whether working for a private university should be considered okay. What, then, are some things they could do?

                Maybe you would be okay with them becoming library clerks? Or working construction on essential public works projects? Or doing small-scale, ethically-run farming? There are, however, only so many jobs of this sort, and so in this sense, our society could be seen as making even being able to “earn one’s living ethically” into a sort of privilege.

              2. TsWkr

                Do you see value in rental property being made available to people who do not wish to own? If so, I would think that we would want people with a conscience in that role in a society. The difference between having a good and bad landlord has been immense in terms of my well-being as a tenant.

                1. ben

                  But the value derived by those engaged in land ownership is massive because the value is created by society and yet delivered to land owners.

                  Christ this isn’t hard stuff, nor is it esoteric. Many economists have written this up.

                  We should tax land to return the value to society. We should not tax labour. The present situation delivers gains to the wrong people.

                  Which is precisely why most landlords go into it. Because it’s easy money. If most where honest they’d admit that. How many landlords have you ever heard say “I really want to house people at cost”? Some trot out a bit of guff about “providing a service” yet neglect to mention they are handsomely rewarded for very little effort.

                  1. Joel

                    I’m curious: don’t property taxes count as land tax?

                    I agree with property taxes over a certain value and also with the caveat that people over a certain age/with terminal illnesses can use a reverse-mortgage to pay it.

                    I think I’d just like to avoid a situation like the movie “Up” where we’re taking homes that have sentimental value.

                  2. TsWkr

                    I won’t disagree on the need to tax large landholdings more and share Joel’s sentiments below — there’s concerns when taken to the extreme of the retired and elderly getting pushed out of modest homes.

                    I see that as a completely different issue as “landlords are inherently scum no matter the size”. The motivations you describe aren’t what I see amongst people I know. The landlords I work with mainly see owning another property or two as a more trustworthy place to store savings than the stock market. The rent barely comes out ahead on the mortgage, if at all, and they often have to write big checks and deal with contractors and the city to fix issues with older homes.

                  3. lyman alpha blob

                    You managed to avoid answering the question – do you see value in rental property being made available to those who do not wish to own?

                    Until we get rid of capitalism altogether (which can’t happen soon enough IMO) this is a valid question.

                    Say a person wants to live somewhere for a year or less for whatever reason . Should they be forced to pay thousands in fees to a bank in order to purchase a property they have no intention of owning for the long term? Then in order to come out even, they’ll need to sell at an even higher price a year later?

                    This is how capitalism works unfortunately and in this scenario, the landlord is actually keeping property values down by providing a place to live for someone who does not want to own. Given the system we have, isn’t there some value in doing this?

                    1. Anon

                      Yep. I’m not normally a subscriber to the “hate the game, not the player” concept, but this is probably the only context where I agree with it. There’s a systemic issue that needs to be fixed. Until then, isn’t there value in landlords providing access to housing on a less-than-long-term basis without the high transaction fees and capital requirements of buying and selling?

                      Hotels are another example: technically rentiers, I suppose, but what’s the alternative? Buy a house for your one-week vacation and then sell it at the end? LOL.

                      (And I am not, have never been, and have no intention of being a landlord or even involved in any real estate-related industry.)

                  4. LyonNightroad

                    When you consider that the main reason given for not owning a home by would-be homeowners (often paying rent that is equal to a mortgage) is lack of funds for a down payment, this all just seems like another extraction on the cash poor.

                    But things like down payment assistance aren’t enough to solve the problem, if you can’t ever come up with the savings for a down payment, it’s unlikely that you can handle the other sudden home related maintenance expenses. You could suddenly need to come up with multiple thousands of dollars for a repair at any time or risk progressively more expensive repairs down the road e.g. a roof needs to be replaced and failure to replace it leads to massive water damage inside the home.

                    If suddenly all of the current renters became owners, I’m not sure that things would be great. Not to say that extracting rent from the cash poor is better. I think there is some larger problem.

                2. Joel

                  I’m sure some are good, but on the whole, small landlords tend to be amateur hour, often doing a very bad job with maintenance because they’re undercapitalized and underexperienced.

                  The bigger problem is political: small landlords often lobby hard against new development because it will reduce the value of their small holdings through competition.

                  And they have the unbelievable gall to say that they are standing up to big greedy developers and defending their communities as they do this, all the while demonizing younger people who want to move in to their prime neighborhoods just as they did when they were their age, pitting lower-income people against slightly-less-lower-income people.

                  In the process they geriatrify, whiten and gentrify formerly vibrant neighborhoods that could have stayed vibrant and diverse with a few apartment blocks.

              3. lyman alpha blob

                You do make some valid points, many of which I agree with, but I do think you are painting with too broad a brush here.

                Not all landlords are created equal. In my own neighborhood, I have friends who rent out property. They own a handful of rental properties at most, are meticulous about keeping them up, and do most if not all of the upkeep themselves. Also not everyone wants to own their own home and prefer to rent for various reasons. I don’t care much for capitalism either but that’s the system we have. Given the capitalist system and the fact that not everyone wants to be a property owner, someone’s got to be a landlord in order for others who desire it to have a rental.

                Now I also see speculators buying up property in my neighborhood, paying below market value to little old ladies and then flipping the property at great profit to themselves, driving up the costs for everyone else. They have no stake in the neighborhood, don’t put any work into the properties and don’t care about the damage they do as they look to make a quick buck. These are the speculator types who deserve your and everyone’s scorn.

                I also worked for a bank at an entry level position at one point. I did do as you suggested – when I realized how awful they were, I quit (I also managed to do my part to cut into their profit margins before quitting by refunding as many fees as I could for anyone who asked and some who didn’t). But I also realized that I had the luxury of just up and quitting – at the time I was a renter and single with no major responsibilities. Most of my coworkers had families and mortgages and as clive mentions above, even if they hated their job as much as I did, they could not simply quit without dire consequences for themselves and their families.

                Here’s a real life anecdote for you. Friends of mine live in rural Maine in a fairly depressed area. They own a house and it could use quite a bit of work but they can’t really afford it on a schoolteacher’s and hunting guide’s wages. They decided to take a year off from Maine and go to the Florida Keys for a year. To make it work, they rented out their house for a year to a local woman and her son. They moved to the Keys, rented a place down there for a year and got jobs. They had to furnish the apartment themselves. This was in late July of this year. They were there barely a month before the hurricane hit and they had to evacuate. They left all their possessions behind – their vehicles and all the stuff they had just bought to furnish the house. It’s unclear at this point whether they’ll be able to live their dream year in the Keys, and meanwhile someone else renting their own house in Maine. They are in limbo somewhere in Alabama right now. They’re basically screwed at this point, but technically they are also landlords.

                So are they also bad people?

              4. K.Tree

                How about this?

                Housing Syndikat

                An interesting approach that developed in Germany, using a convoluted “ownership” system via LLCs in a way to extinguish/subvert the existing private property housing model.

                As for being a landlord, I’ve found myself in the position previously to rent a lot more space than I needed for myself. I did this so I could rent out the rooms not at market cost, but at cost. Mind you, I actually enjoy living with other people, so I already gain just by sharing my space. I don’t want to smile at someone in the evening while I top up my savings account from their hard work.

            2. nonclassical

              “outis”…quite simply, scapegoating various groups = diversionary $trategy…always necessary “follow the $$$$” to truth…

              Since 2007 Wall $treet economic disaster, round robin scapegoating has folded back in upon itself…usual suspects…immigrants, teachers, schools, poor-unemployment recipients, social security, medicare, “elitists” = educated, “boomers”….

              allowing continuation of “more of same”….the stuff HC lost 2016 running on basis of…

              my acquaintance Frank Herbert wrote in his “Dune”, “…he who can destroy a thing, controls a thing..” Today Wall $treet can destroy entire U.S. economy-has pivoted their “holdings”-derivatives under FDIC auspices-taxpayer responsibility…financial sector have more than quadrupled their portion of U.S. economy since 2001.


          2. Clive

            I love a nice diatribe as much as anyone, but it doesn’t make me have sudden onset amnesia and forget an original point which is now being airbrushed out the way like your weird aunt Maude in the wedding photo.

            Ben, you said this:

            Why are the boomer banker landlords on this blog?

            In doing so, you lumped me in with a group you criticised. That criticism was, if not unjustified, then at least needed some qualifications. None have been offered. Do feel free to add some context and perhaps row back a little on your very broad-brush displeasure on an entire category of people who you only know as a group but do not know as individuals.

            And as for being constructive, your proposed solution is a tad unrealistic. Forcibly taking, without compensation, others’ property (for whatever reason you think up) is the stuff of banana republics. For every Rachman-esque landlord trope you envisage being banged to rights in your wealth redistribution pogrom, there’s going to be another in the form of old gramps in the sticks renting out his late mother’s house because it’s either that or living in a tent and going to foodbanks.

            1. ben

              That’s a common criticism of LVT. Many proponents of LVT suggest a one-time compensation at market value. That fixes gramps. Of course he could sell up right now and then live off the unearned gains, brought by huge land inflation and taxpayer infra investment. Or do a reverse mortgage.

              Regarding the banker landlords, I meant to say that landlords are in hock with the banks in exploiting workers via rentier activity. Banks are issuing credit in order to appropriate from wealth creators. Landlords allow the banks to outsource the monthly debt collection / tribute.

              I guess you must have a lot of angst on this site which repeatedly attacks the banks, yet suddenly it’s an issue for you?

              1. Marco

                Hmmm. My first instinct like many here was to quibble with your “tone”. However I find it refreshing and understand the utility in having an extremely clear distinction between rentiers (at all points on the rentier continuum) and non-rentiers. Thanks Ben!

              2. Rojo

                Good points Ben, I take it your a Georgist?

                It’s incredibly frustrating how many of us are Stockholmed with rising property values. We’d all be better off with cheaper housing. The relative price of food has fallen over the decades, and most of us are better off for it. But when it comes to property we fork over half our paycheck and dream of one day being the exploiter.

                At least a bank occasionally lends toward some productive end (when they’re not gambling with fraudulent securities). Landlordism produces nothing.

                Nobody needs bunched panties about this. Love the sinner, but let’s at least recognize the sin.

                1. tegnost

                  Blame QE for astronomical property values, and that was a policy choice that was made to benefit the true rentiers who are actively trying to possess everything everywhere, including everything small landholders possess, and who also benefit greatly from having those lower than them fighting over where one draws the line as to whats “rich”. Heads up…rentiers have more money than you can effectively imagine.

                  1. Rojo

                    QE is gas on the fire. But land speculation has been around for a long time, especially in the Anglo-sphere. It’s a chronic condition. Don’t blame Goldman Sachs if you’ve caught it.

            2. Moneta

              The rentier debate has existed for centuries. It’s been discussed ad nauseam and I find it appalling that rentiers in 2017 still defend exploitation.

              I understand that we are all being driven to act in ways that make us part of the systemic problem but the least we could do is admit to these bad practices instead of rationalizing them in a way that gives us the right to perpetuate the problems.

              Asking Ben for a perfect solution is unfair. Perhaps you believe in a win-win redistribution solution but from my perspective when looking at the state of the world, I have a hard time seeing how we can give to the bottom 80% without taking from the top 20%.

              I believe one of our biggest problems is property rights. They have somewhat evolved since the Magna Carta but for better social justice they need to be drastically changed and rentier exploitation, no matter the reason why it is practiced, needs to go.

              1. Clive

                I never asked for perfect solutions. I merely enquired who were going to be the winners, who were going to be the losers and on what basis this was going to be decided.

                I also challenged assumptions about “deserving reniters” and “undeserving rentiers”. And pointed out how difficult it is to make such a distinction based on generalities.

                Once you start pulling on a thread, you have to be aware of what might unravel in the process. Simplistic answers (“property owning democracy” anyone?) are rarely, if ever, actually answers.

          3. WheresOurTeddy

            Wow I get my hours backwarrds, am awake when the links post, and my happened-to-be-first comment conjures Ben, who I can only assume is a long-lost brother.

            If you have your feathers ruffled by any of Ben’s posts…The. Problem. Is. You. And you SHOULD be uncomfortable. Being born in an advantageous decade does not justify being “just a little bit” of a parasite.

            UBI, job guarantee, LVT, Wealth Tax, Windfall Income Tax for top earners, 0% income tax for bottom 60% of earners, 100% inheritance tax for estates over $2m for an individual and $3.5m for a couple (currently at $5m+ and 10m+ – go to hell, rich people’s kids), 1% flat tax on ALL high frequency trading, 0.1% tax graduating to a full 1.0% over time for ALL stock transactions. Basically honor labor and stop glorifying the greedy.

            Oops, forgot which country I was in for a second there. Justify away, rentiers…

            1. ambrit

              Hey there, some ‘parasites’ are advantageous for the body, whether it be corporeal or socio-political. The gut bacteria help us assimilate food. Take some big time antibiotic and see how well your digestion gets. Similarly, the inequality of resource allocation does drive some social processes. Not everyone is a saint; I’m certainly not one. The question is one of degree. That’s where the big conflicts come from.
              So, being “a little bit of a parasite” can be defended, because, a little bit of “parasitism” is endemic to the body social and politic. It’s like Malaria. The parasites that cause that affliction cannot be eliminated, just managed. I’m asserting that, absent some glorious “Grand Awakening” of the species Homo Philanthpopicus, greed and corruption are here to stay. Management is the key issue.
              Otherwise, I’m fully on board with your ‘shopping list’ of social reforms. Absent some such Neo New Deal, I fear that Guillotine Futures are going to be a great investment.

              1. WheresOurTeddy

                Gut bacteria are part of the ecosystem that is your body. They are no more a “parasite” than the Plover bird that cleans the teeth of the alligator.

                No, you’re extracting the value of someone else’s labor, because you had the money to buy the land and the guy who needs a place to live is younger/poorer/less-gainfully-employed than you/etc. You have leverage and you are using it to extract unearned value.

                The vast majority of us who do not want to move somewhere else and start over one or several times in our life do not WANT to rent. You are not providing any service. You are extracting wealth you did not earn.

                1. ambrit

                  I’m not questioning the theoretical underpinnings of the egalitarian idea. I’m questioning the practical feasibility of any “solutions” yet offered. The ultimate answer to the question of social inequality might be Theocratic Communism, such as the early Christian communities practiced. The core of the Teachings of Jesus seems to be a Theocratic Communism. God being the ultimate arbiter, and humans being the ‘sheep’ to be protected and guided. Who shall speak for this God? And so, schism commences.
                  I have read that Marx is considered a Romantic thinker. The Dialectic was inevitably going to lead to perfection. (Forgive my garbled explication.) Humanity is thus assumed to be “perfectible.” Can a more Romantic idea than this be found? I think not. I will not, however, espouse the opposite; that Humanity is d—-d and evil. As the Philosophers say; “Balance is all.” That Balance assumes a range of qualities inherent in being human. There is a wonderful cartoon from the sixteen hundreds from England where Newtons’ Theory of Gravitation is lampooned by being applied to human character. (It is reproduced somewhere in Bronowskis’ “Ascent of Man.”) A man is shown floating horizontally within a circular scale which runs from bottom, “Absolute Gravity” to top, “Pert Fool.” The horizontal man is described as something like “Well Balanced.” However, the point is valid. People exist in a range of characters and characteristics. Gravitation is a phenomenon of physical science, (as well as we can understand it,) rules based. Human nature is a compendium of nearly infinite “influences.” Materialists might quibble, but I would then ask for some even approximate set of “hard and fast” rules that work for all humans. All physical objects fall into the gravity well. Not all humans fall into the political well, or the infotainment well.
                  Well, that’s my two credits worth.
                  We live in a decidedly imperfect world.

                  1. skippy

                    “Human nature is a compendium of nearly infinite “influences.””

                    Indeed, which makes the Newtonian rational agent model such an absurdity. But hay, as you say, when perfection is quantified by some and forwarded as the answer that all must attempt to emulate, the questions are akin to heresy.

                    1. ambrit

                      Finding a true “rational agent” is so difficult that Clarke and Kubrick had their ‘HAL 9000’ go paranoid. It could be a joke wherein to be “human” requires one to become unsane.
                      “Just call me Heresiarch.”

                    2. skippy

                      Poor HAL… raised with care and nurturing only to have some direct him to ignore all so a mission would achieve some’s expectations.

                      Always thought Von Newman and Nash et al informed that decision in abstinence.

                      Seems some get the job of creating and then others take over, how that washes is a concern.

                    3. ambrit

                      Poor HAL. I can empathize with it.
                      I have often encountered “managers,” which unpleasant experience I continue to have in my present job, who ignore the “nuts and bolts” of doing a job well, in favour of processes that predominantly maximize profit to them. If the ‘job’ itself comes off as second rate and shoddy, hey, who gives a d—, as long as “we” make out financially. (That “we” always tends to cut out the worker bees in favour of the ‘queen bees.’)
                      My point being that there are usually competing ‘rational agencies’ at play.

                  2. WobblyTelomeres

                    The core of the Teachings of Jesus seems to be a Theocratic Communism. God being the ultimate arbiter, and humans being the ‘sheep’ to be protected and guided.

                    Hmmmm. Consider the suggestion that Jesus was a rabbi that encountered the teaching of Buddha. The timing seems right as the time it took ideas to pass from valley to valley to river to valley was far different from today (where an idea can circle the globe in seconds).

                    1. ambrit

                      As an example of that thesis, I direct your attention to “Creation,” a novel by Gore Vidal. A real romp through historiography.
                      Yes, most people do not consider the fact that the historical “Jesus,” if he ever did exist, was called ‘Rabbi’ in the New Testament. Rabbis of that time had serious social obligations. A carpenter could indeed be a rabbi, since rabbis were, and, I believe still are required to possess a ‘trade’ from which they could support themselves and families. Rabbis also were required to marry and raise families, so, the later picture of Jesus is at odds with the historical norm.

        2. makedoanmend

          Your points about living in this particular age and how we have to operate as individuals within it are well put Clive. Also, when one first enters the job market most of us do not have the life experience to judge what is a “good” or “moral” job. (And working in a bank does not make one bad nor immoral – far from it.)

          I also worked in Banks, ranging from an entry level job with a very successful S&L right into risk management with a huge investment bank. How did I land the first banking job? 1)The bank had Irish staff which got me an interview 2) the chief interviewer from Israel and myself got talking about ratios that led onto a conversation about betting. My educational background had no economics in it at all. Nada. Nor anything beyond second year university maths. No family nor friends in banking either. Just happened. Wanted a job and banking sounded sorta sexy back in the early 80s. Why not.

          When I got bored with the interminable office politics, I quit because I could financially do so. If I had needed the dosh, I’d still be there – hopefully. Mind you, I did meet some unsavoury characters in banking, not necessarily bad, but very shallow individuals; and others that were just pretentious (family blog). But I find one gets those individuals in every type of job.

          I’m just thankful, from day one, I never fell for the career bull propaganda. Most modern jobs are just that, jobs. Most jobs don’t make a jot of difference in the long term. None of mine do. Much prefer gardening. Every winter sets up for the new spring. Clean slate.

        3. Tongorad

          As a lifetime renter, in my experience the small-time landlords have been the toughest to deal with. Incredibly greedy to the point of viciousness. Interestingly, this was not the case when I lived overseas.
          In in our society and culture, becoming a landlord definitely marks a point of arrival. A point from which one feels wildly emboldened and entitled to loot.
          However, politics is the art of the possible, so we must build alliances, right? Instead of organizing landlords to be sympathetic to the plight of people who work for a living, shouldn’t we be organising renters? There’s a whole lot more of us than there are of you.

          1. ginnie nyc

            This is interesting; as a renter in New York City for over 30 years, my experience is exactly opposite – the smaller landlords were willing to negotiate points, tiresome as that was; the large megalith landlords (like my current) are the 200+ attorney-threatening SOBs. Dealing with them is a chronic, health-threatening ordeal.

            1. Tongorad

              I find it easier to charm the maintenance man at my large apartment complex with a six pack and some kind words. Same for the gal who works works in the front office. We’re all working stiffs you see.

              Not so much with the individual real estate “investor,” who is not of my class, and who relates to me as a social and economic inferior.

          2. Matt

            Maybe there is regional variation, but here (in Salt Lake City), my experience is exactly like yours re. small time landlords. People renting out their basements thinking they’re going to get an easy paycheck. They tend to get annoyed very quickly once they find out work is involved in the form of repairs, upkeep, etc. They also tend to think that they can put whatever they want in the lease.

            1. Marco

              Ah!! Remember the very annoying prototypical SF yuppie characters played by Melanie Griffith and Mathew Modine in “Pacific Heights”? Hollywood playing its part in constructing sympathy for the small-time enterprising American landlord? We can now look back at how a city full of small-time nimby rentier have turned the Bay Area into an unlivable expensive mess and only wish Keaton’s character had succeeded in wiping them off the face of the planet.

          3. witters

            My favourite small-time landlord solved the massive rat problem we reported (and had tried to deal with) by – I bet you can guess – immediately getting us out of the rats way…

            But what could he do, “the system he was in”? Simplistic answers like “Get rid of the rats infesting the property” are ethically and politically and economically absurd!

        4. Dirk77

          Clive, you do wrong but have the moral integrity to not delude yourself about it. It seems so quaint now. I salute you and your co-workers.

    3. tegnost

      I don’t feel that money buys happiness, productive efforts do, so a ubi (which in all likelihood will be gamed by those who can profit from it, think JPM and food stamps) will make people less happy (excluding, of course, pete peterson and jamie dimon) than a jobs guarantee in which infrastructure and the commons in general can be improved in tandem with well being.

      1. Comradefrana

        “I don’t feel that money buys happiness, productive efforts do”

        That’s quite an extreme position. I can imagine quite a number of productive efforts (in market sense or otherwise) that would do little to less than nothing to my happiness and lot of non-productive things that would improve it (some requiring money). I’d wager most people could too.

        1. tegnost

          If you’re an artist and you spend several hours a day making your thing you can easily be happy w/o money, you may wish you had more, but you can be happy. You may spend several hours gardening and that may make you happy. I’m not advocating that one needs to be constantly productive, that would probably tax myself and many others and lead to stress and unhappiness. As ambrit points to it’s all in the balance. I believe there was an article here recently pointing to joblessness as a root cause of the opioid epidemic. Maybe you could offer some specific instances of what you’re calling non productive activity to clarify your point.

          1. tegnost

            on reflection I need to clarify further regarding a jobs guarantee as I basically just stated the average tech persons idea of how great it will be when robots do everything and there’s a ubi and then everyone will be artists and garden a lot. Imagine you’re not an artist, just an average joe with no place in your rentier supplied housing to garden. Will money make you happy? Say you’re an out of work carpenter, will money make you happy? It’s not an extreme view to say that no it won’t. Now imagine the same not particularly artistic but talented nonetheless person being able to get involved in a project, particularly one that benefits the commons, and also provides money. That might make you happy.

            1. Comradefrana

              I’m not sure I completely understand your argument. You’re talking about a hypothetical scenario of a post-labor “robots do everything” society, right? Are you arguing that in that case there should be a jobs guarantee instead of an UBI?

          2. Comradefrana

            “If you’re an artist and you spend several hours a day making your thing you can easily be happy w/o money, you may wish you had more, but you can be happy.”

            I never said that productive things can’t make you happy. Also, without money? Art supplies cost money, lots of it in some cases.

            ” I believe there was an article here recently pointing to joblessness as a root cause of the opioid epidemic.”

            Sure, but how much of the problem is “not working” or “not having money”?

            “Maybe you could offer some specific instances of what you’re calling non productive activity to clarify your point.”

            Sure, things like reading a book, watching a movie, playing games, meeting friends, having a good meal/drink, arguably sport (depends on if you consider improving one’s health productive or not)

  2. Too Late For Nostalgia

    This is well done and could be useful if more testing can help prove this theory.
    My only comment is that the values appear to be subjective. When we are young we have optimism. When we are old it seems we don’t fret as much anymore (if we are still around). It’s in the middle when we get hit from all directions.

    1. TimH

      Middle age is a point where people may reflect on what they didn’t do when they should, and thus have fewer resources to do what they would like to do next.

      Two positive actions… look at the half finished projects, be honest, and clear out the stuff that won’t be finished. Use that momentum to clear out the less obvious ‘stuff’ that you don’t actually want anymore; books/CDs/DVDs that won’t be used again.

      Now pick an easy project to add to your life. Window-sill herb garden (not a raised veggie bed)? Half hour walk daily (don’t join a gym)?

      1. Too Late For Nostalgia

        TimH, Good advice. I have done these things and it is good for body and soul.

        The point I was trying to make when I wrote “hit from all directions” is: “Things you have to fix that you did not break”. We mature (and hopefully wise) ones often find ourselves fixing the messes of others even if we don’t like it. It does wear you down, but that is why I spend time planting things out in nature, to get re-energized. In fact, I need to step away from the screen and do some watering!

  3. Societal Illusions

    Two thoughts came to me while reading this. “children?” and “what is the impact of timing” – as in the when someone was born as oppposed to age.

    So curious how the regression control excluded children and how the circumstances of your childhood, which would be impacted by when it occurred and societal conditions st the time, could be a factor in the results.

    Intuitively makes sense to me though, being in my 50’s.

    1. Too Late For Nostalgia

      I will take a flying guess at answering your questions:

      Children’s brains may not be perceived to be developed enough to properly understand such a question.
      The sheer quantity of participants helps with variables, such as birthdate and conditions.

      1. Sutter Cane

        I was under the impression that Societal Illusions was asking about what effect having children had on people’s midlife low, not why the happiness of children wasn’t factored into the study?

        1. Too Late For Nostalgia

          Great question Sutter Cane. Only Societal Illusions can answer it.

          My reply to Societal was based on my experiences only. I spent some of my career taking data and trying to make sense out of it. I found that when you have a population in the 10’s to 100’s you can get wild variation, in this case maybe from the children issue, but as you get to 1000’s trends start to appear. When you get to 10s and 100s of thousands, the variations start to “average out” and the only trends left are the ones most common to all.

  4. millicent

    I would like to know what the “large number of nations” consist of. The u-shaped dip generally reflects those years when people are working and raising families and possibly taking care of elderly parents. I would like to see a nation breakdown. Is it possible that countries that provide more worker supports, better social networks for the elderly, longer vacations, better healthcare…. do not conform to this dip?

    1. flora

      I was wondering the same. Those U-shaped dips conform roughly to increasing financial demands and reduced support. The steepest fall in happiness is graphed between 16-24 – the time when kids leave the financial support of their parents’ home and begin financially supporting themselves – followed by (in general) supporting a spouse, a household, children, and possibly aging parents. This era (25-55) of ‘holding up the world’ is followed by the kids growing up and leaving home, aging parents being old enough to receive more state support or perhaps they have passed on, retirement from a job one may not like, and retirement age financial supports start.

      an aside: I wonder how much of the anti-boomer comments are due in some measure to the big drop-off in happiness from 16-24. Every generation seems to feel this angst and lash out at their parents’ generation. (A large part of “the greatest generation” narrative was fueled by boomers in midlife trying to make amends to their parents for all the mean things they said about their parents when they were younger.)

  5. Jane

    Maybe it just takes 40 to 50 years to get over teenage angst ? Then again, it could be that we spend so much of our time working that we only get time to work at what makes us happy in our teens and our old age.

  6. Terry Flynn

    More than the mid-life dip, it is interesting they are finally beginning to question what is going on in old age. The Euro study is increasingly looking out of step by showing the broad upward trend continuing into advanced old age. I replied to an older piece on NC a while back which showed that quality of life most certainly does NOT continue to improve into advanced old age. The SAME people expressed high “life satisfaction” when asked the typical “overall life satisfaction” question examined here but when asked about the five key aspects of life as identified by oodles of qualitative research, their OWN choice-modelling and Capabilities-Approach scores showed a different story.

    When people are asked about the five key dimensions of life that are appropriate to older people, their scores – purged of “adaptation effects” and “likert scale bias” – show that life ain’t good as you get very old. Cohort effect, not longitudinal, but longitudinal data are becoming available to give similar picture.

    DON’T ask people for numbers – twas established beyond doubt in 2001 that the mathematical properties required (interval or preferably ratio scale) do not hold across people (and within people, even more seriously). I despair that these “serious” economists continue the (well-established) finding that economists are the least likely social scientists to look at the other sub-disciplines. This is what you get.

    1. Terry Flynn

      I ran a quick re-run of the analyses I did years ago when publishing our Bristol data to explain what’s going on by age:
      ‘Attach’ = Attachment (quality of relationships);
      ‘Sec’ = Security (concerns about the future);
      ‘Role’ = Role (doing things that make you feel valued);
      ‘Enjoy’ = Enjoyment (ability to do activities that are enjoyable and pleasurable);
      ‘Control’ = Control (ability to be independent).

      Age bands on x-axis, QoL score on y-axis which reflects NOT ONLY how much you feel you have of it BUT ALSO how important it is to your overall QoL. Older people (for whom the ICECAP-O instrument was initially developed) concentrate heavily on control (ability to maintain independence) and attachment (maintaining quality relationships.)

      The mid-life dip is clearly driven heavily by quality of relationships (married women pull it down a lot – looking at divorced women – particularly in Australia – is hilarious) and security (concerns about the future). There’s no way to get a big boost in old age given that only security goes up – and the choice experiment unequivocally showed it wasn’t very important (hence its lower values compared to the other four dimensions). Indeed since the five numbers for a particular age MUST sum to unity and by their nature reflect the IMPORTANCE of each, the big fall in independence (which is the MOST important dimension to older people on average) and lack of importance of security tell most of the story themselves, with the drop in relationships QoL (spouses dying etc), adding a double whammy later on.

      1. Terry Flynn

        *edit – the five scores here don’t sum to one – they sum to your TOTAL score (on a 0-1 scale) – you get ‘1’ if you tick the top box for all five dimensions. These are the “importance weighted” QoL components – I just didn’t add the total so as not to mess the y axis up and obscure the 5 components. My bad, sorry for confusion.

        Plus the discrepancy between a person’s ICECAP-O score and life satisfaction reflects a confound between ‘importance’ and ‘achievement’ – Mr X reports 9/10 life satisfaction because he is thinking of one component whilst Mrs Y can report 9/10 because she is thinking of a different component (one in which she is currently doing well but isn’t actually important to her). Thus you HAVE to break the confound to properly aggregate. Older people are thinking of different components than younger ones – discounting the ones they ‘expect’ to suffer age-related decline (primarily independence) and hey presto you get the large life satisfaction scores even though when properly evaluating independence its importance to them is high AND they do badly. Life satisfaction/happiness is fundamentally measuring something different at different points in the life cycle – older people probably give 9/10 probably because they think “I did well to get to age 80”. And it raises the normative question of whether it’s OK for society to allow them to think that “four score years and ten” is fair and all they ‘deserve’?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You keep asserting that “quality of life” is a big contributor to happiness. You keep claiming that in the face of data that contradicts that. There plenty are rich healthy people who are neurotic and miserable. There was a long NYT article about a Princeton grad who lost three of his limbs in college and is almost freakishly calm and contented. Nigeria is a fabulously poor country yet it consistently scores as having one of the happiest populations. Phillipina amas who work in Hong Kong and often sleep in closets also test as being a very happy group.

  7. Romancing The Loan

    Also interested in what separating out the effects of having one’s own children would look like on the graph.

    Do the childless have less of a curve? More of one?

  8. lyman alpha blob

    I have no idea why social ‘scientists’ think they can quantify abstract concepts like happiness in the first place.

    Two people could have extremely similar if not identical circumstances in their lives and yet give different answers as to their level of happiness, therefore IMNSO any data collected with that in mind is essentially crap.

    My curmudgeonly match teacher friend recently quit in disgust after a 30+ year career in teaching. When she once complained that some social science study their school was doing contained bad data, the social science guy told her in all seriousness that bad data was better than no data at all.

    She laughed at him.

    1. Juliania

      Thanks for this wonderful comment! I was having similar but differently compelling reactions to the analysis, along the lines that Yves was expressing but thinking rather of my moments of true happiness.

      To me it occurs at any age ( i am getting on now) and any life challenge, rich or poor – but it is a quixotic condition – I like the phrase ‘ pursuit of happiness’ in that it expresses the activity while not defining it’s parameters. Once you do that – you’ve lost it.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I would have been laughing along with her. She just pointed out why the social sciences have so little respect.

    3. LifelongLib

      Yes. A ragged pair of shoes can be very comfortable if they fit your feet. And if they don’t fit your feet, your shoes will make you miserable no matter how nice they look or how much they cost.

  9. NoBrick

    What’s in your wallet? What cultural capital floats your boat, or sinks it? What defines a
    good hair day compared to a bad hair day (happy/unhappy)? Is it academic provenance?
    It is the gospels of “experts”, with the uncanny ability to assign finite values to infinity? Is
    it the time worn (cl)analogies offered by the tribal leaders, with access to the “truth” that
    “others” fail to discern?

    There’s no need to overegg the pudding. It’s still, all up to what you value, down/up
    to where you are. You’re still the sole arbiter of “your” truth.

  10. Croatoan

    The infinite, which is briefly interrupted by our lives, is the source of all joy. Our birth and death are the are the moments we all involuntarily get a strong taste of it.

    1. Lee Robertson


      Eternity is augmented by our existence…….like it or not. The greatest opportunity that life provides is so obvious as to be invisible.

  11. Steve Ruis

    This doesn’t seem particularly puzzling to me. When we are young we have a great deal of hope for the future and rarely is that dashed early on. Late in life we are more content as we realize that we have little chance of making substantial changes in our life and what we have is fairly good. In between “young” and “old” is a time of evaluation that often includes disappointment, that we haven’t made as much progress in our career as we wished and we may need to redouble our efforts to get anywhere.

    It seems that perspective is what is different in these three rough zones of our lives and it is vastly different in those zones, which might just influence how we feel.

    1. Terry Flynn

      My subsequent Australian research study (larger, much more comprehensive than the UK one) is broadly consistent with what you say. Young people focus disproportionately on relationships – a time in life that they can and do make big changes there and don’t, generally, fall flat on their face in that sphere. Middle-aged Aussies are different – they value security a lot more than other groups – they’ve (again, making generalisations), got their preferred family set-up etc but mortgages/school/uni fees, itchy feet over their relationship trajectory etc make them focus more on the importance of “concerns about the future” (which is what they are “suffering on”) and in the modern world such concerns are increasingly borne out. Older people switch to focusing on independence a lot more – since this typically picks up the effects of deterioration in physical health *but* as I mention above, there’s a lot of societal conditioning that “that goes with the territory” and they reduce their expectations, thus boosting their stated life satisfaction (though not their quality of life since their desire for independence is not ameliorated by societal norms).

      Aussie divorced women place huge importance on independence, however, but this leads to a chicken and egg situation: do independence-minded women have a tendency to divorce and by “getting a boost” to the thing they value, buck the mid-life dip? Or does divorce cause (Aussie) women to suddenly value (regained) independence – again causing the “boost” to something they suddenly value to cause them to buck the trend? Interesting area to work in….

      1. Frank Fowler

        How do you control for people exiting the pool? It seems likely that people in poor health are likely to be less happy, and are likely to exit the pool earlier than healthy people. Suicide has the same effect. Over time, the average happiness of those still in the pool will increase. As best I can tell none of the analysis addresses this obvious explanation.

        1. Terry Flynn

          Poor health does not equal less happy. That’s precisely my point. Happiness has very little to do with underlying well-being or health. I had people in terrible health who would say “9 out of 10” to happiness but whose quality of life was 50% due to their appalling answers to the dimensions that pick up the effects of poor mental health (and big proxy for suicide). And why doesn’t my “existing pool” ALSO demonstrate higher QoL? It’s the SAME people giving high happiness but awful QoL. We (as did the Americans before us) showed that we had a sample of people in terrible health and by any realistic interpretation the QoL score was a better summary of their life than the happiness score. Which begs the question “what use is the happiness score?”

          I also quota sample NOT representative sample – I went out of my way to get people with specific impairments at various ages to quantify their preferences and outcomes. In fact it’s my data that are probably most informative in explaining any “suicide gap” – where are all the people who are worried about the future in the elderly group? My graph earlier in the thread shows how each 5 year age band does on each of the 5 dimensions. If the “worriers” have died then why is QoL still so much *lower* than happiness? It still suggests happiness is artificially high. The two should *converge* not *diverge* with age if worriers are suiciding.

    2. Enquiring Mind

      The mid-life low concept may fit with the following for many people.

      Will Rogers said it well.

      “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so”

      Mood affiliation helps me rationalize that, as I learn more about the world outside the school room, then the college classroom, and the workplace room/field/forest/anywhere, and the voting room, and…. YRMV (your room may vary)

    3. djrichard

      Speaking of “hope”, happen to be watching Mad Max: Fury Road this evening and there’s a line in there I hadn’t noticed before: “You know, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane”. I’m guessing that “epiphany” starts to happen when we’re 52 (according to the chart).

  12. justanotherprogressive

    Hmmmm…..perhaps this study should be renamed as “The Midlife Low in Humans of Mostly European Culture and Descent”. I don’t see any diagrams for African countries or Asian countries or South American countries or……..although they do claim to have at least some of that data (“Our paper’s seven datasets provide information on large numbers of randomly sampled citizens; each person is asked questions about happiness or life satisfaction. The datasets are, respectively, for the UK, the US, 36 European countries, 32 European countries, 51 nations around the world, and (again) the US.”)

    Perhaps these researchers have a blind spot about what is considered human…..

    1. Terry Flynn

      Haha indeed.
      But being (more) serious I’m willing to bet that their models don’t work nicely when they apply them to cultures known to use Likert (category rating) scales differently from the groups you mention so they “conveniently” don’t include them.

  13. JEHR

    Happiness is a very fleeting thing that comes unbidden and cannot be compelled. What is easier to bring forth is contentment or ease which a person can plan in her life. Unhappiness, however, is forceful and unbidden too, but can be overcome through creativity and mindfulness and through a good relationship or two.

    1. polecat

      Happiness, for me at least, is standing within arms’ reach of the hummingbird flittering, knowing that this human is of no threat, while sipping nector from the flowering plants I grew, for that very purpose !

      Just a small, fleeting vignette of happiness, polcat style.

      1. ambrit

        Good for you polecat. I was just sitting on the front porch watching some hummingbirds (male ruby throats) chase each other around and then slurping away at one of our nectar feeders. Nature has a way of calming me down. “Happiness” is episodic from my experience.
        @ JEHR; I agree with you about personal relationships. My central relationship grounds me and stimulates me at the same time. Absurd, but all so human.

    2. Lee

      William Blake, 1757 – 1827

      He who binds to himself a joy
      Does the winged life destroy
      He who kisses the joy as it flies
      Lives in eternity’s sunrise

  14. Alex Morfesis

    Happiness is way overrated & for many, unhappiness is their happiness…having sadly way too long into my life noticed being dan felding is not something one should reflect on with joy, have noticed there are certainly as many women as men who fall into the happy not being happy mode…

    except misogyny does not allow it to be “acceptable” for women to be grumpy, or to be allowed to be unpleasant…

    Fake happiness never earned anyone a third date around me…

    My grandmother and godmother were my little “yodas”…having lived through civil wars they were always “up” but were not in any way “loudly happy”…

    For them it was not the proposition but simply your disposition…but having a proper disposition did not mean hiding behind a smiley face…simply that although things can get dark and ugly, they tend not to stay that way for too long…neither was of a generation or a place which would allow them the opportunity to get much of an education, but they were the smartest people this carbon based life form has ever encountered…

  15. Sluggeaux

    As far as I’m concerned, this study is utter poppycock. Everyone has their own definition of “happiness” and it tends to be very relative and subjective. My former colleague discovered that her father had spent four years as a slave in the Dachau concentration-camp system, but only told her about it after the post-communist Polish government awarded him a medal when a fellow slave wrote a book lauding the influence that her father had on his fellow prisoners, who described him as “positive” and “upbeat” throughout their ordeal, preventing scores of deaths by suicide and despair. Should the Nazis have used him as an example of a “happy” concentration camp slave?

    We live under a rather oppressive and competitive economic regime. The observations of subjective feelings of “less happiness” coincide with the years that people are struggling to get “ahead” but are “more happy” when people still have parental economic support or some sort of retirement income. Drawing further conclusions is akin to concluding that the sun revolves around the Earth because it always rises in the east and sets in the west.

    1. Terry Flynn

      Everyone has their own definition of “happiness” and it tends to be very relative and subjective.

      Indeed and it’s why (although I probably dressed it up too much in terms of the maths) people like me in choice modelling utterly reject it. If there’s to be any sort of “less subjective” measure of well-being that might be of any use in comparisons and public policy it must be “quality of life” NOT happiness/life satisfaction. We “anchor” our stated scores in this life satisfaction/happiness type of study to things that are not under the control of – or even observed indirectly by – the observer/analyst.

      Wellbeing is conceptually, at the level of the INDIVIDUAL, a weighted score of “how well I can achieve the things that matter in life” (which is where Sen’s Capabilities Approach comes in – whether it’s “basics” in Africa, “higher level constructs in USA/UK/etc” or whatever) with these ‘weights’ reflecting how IMPORTANT each “thing” is and how much he or she is willing to trade one “thing” against another.

      Thus our group’s framework is that there are five (higher order) “things that matter to people in industrialised countries”. Whilst Sen himself never liked the idea of saying something like “this group would sacrifice a certain degree of independence if it reduced loneliness”, attempts to operationalise his “Nobel”-winning approach have had to go down such a road, given the society we live in – society doesn’t appear willing to do “maximin” and ensure the worst off person has at least some “basic” (however defined) level of social interaction, independence, etc….yet

      So we got our “things that matter” from Sen’s work. Then we used another ‘Nobel’ prize winner’s results (McFadden’s) to quantify how much Mr X will trade one against another. (As an aside, I completely agree that whilst most winners of that ‘pseudo-Nobel’ produced rubbish, Sen and McFadden both deserve accolades.) McFadden’s insight is that if everyone in our sample explicitly has to trade the “things that matter” then we can quantify how much they’d trade. In essence, how often would you prefer to live in a life defined by “loneliness but everything else OK” to one defined by “little independence but everything else OK”. It underpins proper (i.e. NOT representative agent, but heterogeneous agent) demand theory and, when properly done, gives robust predictions as to human behaviour – that was partly why McFadden got his Nobel (predicting demand for the BART in San Fran before a single rail was laid) and why I won at the bookies for correctly predicting the UK General Election, knowing all the odds quoted from the conventional pollsters were wrong.

      We essentially get the ‘importance weights’ from a choice model, then “simply” apply them to “how well an individual is achieving” on each thing (goal in life) and sum up. The weights are ratio-scaled (probabilities) and therefore comparable across a person’s life, across people, etc. Thus whilst you can “care” more about one goal than another, if you do “badly” on one/more then your score goes down according to a probabilistic scale.

      Thus attitudes are another kettle of fish entirely – people with “positive attitudes” can have good/average/awful quality of life – unlike those awful rating scale based existing scales. We have separated the “artificial, attitude/other” based scoring (making it conform to mathematical principles and which can be challenged with data) from the absolute “deprivation” a person suffers on each goal. And so we can compare without:
      (1) People thinking of different things when they give us an aggregate score
      (2) People’s scores being artificially changed due to heuristics/attitudes that are unrelated to the outcome of interest.

  16. Annotherone

    I realise that this will not be given much, or any, credence here, but cannot resist pointing out that the ancient art of astrology indicates life cycles which coincide, roughly, with research mentioned in the post above.

    An astrology blogger I used to follow regularly, as one who retained a certain amount of common sense in his writings, wrote this :

    I’d relate the particular mid-life effect discussed here, more specifically to the Saturn cycle (around 29 years in full). At the mid-life point Saturn will be transiting exactly opposite the position Saturn held at one’s birth.

    Scoff if you wish, but even Carl Sagan, who also scoffed, once wrote that “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

    That being so, why wouldn’t we respond to these natural cycles?

  17. Wukchumni

    I’m middle aged (I guess i’ll have to make it to 110 now?) and what makes me the happiest is when i’m away from ‘polite’ society in the back of beyond…

    Money is merely ballast once you take your first step on the trail-won’t buy you a thing, and there aren’t trails for the 1%, everybody walks the same walk, and the denizens of the forest for the trees are refreshingly honest, be they human or otherwise.

    And in contrast to the role that technology has played in ‘improving’ our lives, not one thing has helped the simple art of walking, the onus is completely on you.

  18. Arthur Wilke

    The Biennial General Social Survey routinely asks a representative sample of U.S. residents how happy they are.

    Below the percent of respondents indicating they are “very happy” have been aggregated for the 2000-2006 period, excluding 2008, and 2010-2016 period and for seven age categories: The data are unweighted.

    The biggest declines in “very happiness” are exhibited in the 45-54 (-3.9%) and 65-74 (-6.8%) age subcategories.

    % VERY HAPPY Pct%
    2000-06 2010-16 Chg AGE
    25.4 25.0 -0.4 18-24
    31.1 29.6 -1.5 25-34
    30.8 29.0 -1.8 35-44
    33.1 29.2 -3.9 45-54
    29.3 28.0 -1.3 55-64
    36.6 29.9 -6.8 65-74
    32.8 32.1 -0.7 75 & OLDER

    As problematic as the measure may be, The results suggest possible differential impacts of the Great Recession.


  19. Joel

    The amazing thing isn’t the decline from 20s to 55, it’s the very sudden rebound after that.

    It makes sense that people would be less happy as they inevitably encounter more health problems.

    But apparently that’s not what’s happening?

    Hypothesis 1: are the unhappy people just dying off at 55?
    Hypothesis 2: is the rebound due to retiring from the workforce?

    1. ambrit

      If your Hypothesis #2 is valid, I’d expect a sharp deterioration in the responses as the present overworked and underworked cohorts age. Retirement used to be a safe bet for many “middle class” people. Now that that “security” is disappearing, conditions will worsen across the board.

  20. Lord Koos

    A teacher once said, “Happiness” is for cows, human life is full of ups and downs.

    A friend of mine once said that in your 20s and 30s you run life, but in your 40s and 50s, life runs you. This is certainly true for many in their 40s and 50s who have children to raise and have often taken on a lot of debt.

    Sure, 16 year-olds are happy — most of them live without having a job and have little responsibility. People in the 60-90 age range are just happy to still be around (me included), to have the mortgage mostly paid off, and to be finished with child-rearing.

    As far as the landlord argument, I was a landlord for 7 years, renting out a single small house to various tenants. Anyone who thinks being a hands-on landlord is an easy, stress free job, has never done it. Owning a single rental or two is one of the very few ways regular working people can build some wealth that isn’t tied to Wall Street. The risks of owning real property are very low compared to most other investments, so it’s hard to blame people who want to do it. I didn’t make a ton of profit from my place but the little bit of positive cash flow every month really helped me survive during that period.

    Of course, current tax law greatly favors landlords over renters, and it allows people to flip houses with a minimum of two years residence to avoid paying tax on profits. This could be changed.

  21. Oregoncharles

    About the preface (and I hope I’m NOT the first to say this): I’m afraid that’s the price of being the kind of person who could create a site like this.

    Believe me, Yves, you have a lot to be satisfied about. And a lot of us are here to tell you so. If you aren’t satisfied, then NC will doubtless just keep getting better.

    Thanks, anyway.

    1. Arizona Slim

      There are times when I call NC my Daily Dose of Dystopia. And when I’m finished reading the posts, I get my snarky self off the couch and move on.

      1. ambrit

        What a shame that the presentation of the “True Face of Things” could be considered Dystopian.
        Keep on keeping on. That’s what I try to do.

  22. Tomonthebeach

    With or without covariates in the equation, once again Economics leaps to vague speculations about the psychological, so commenters get to hypothesize about dynamics (deprived of time-series data).

    H1: These data merely reflect changes in awareness, thus the recovery in later years.

    By age 50, whatever you were going to be when you grew up, you’re it. For many people, the struggle for upward mobility, including creating a family and a career distracts us from monitoring how our lives are evolving. In many cases, we discover as we mature that there are tripwires, potholes, and unforeseen events in life that anchor our or divert our progress. The degree of contrast between self-imagined after High School, and self-experienced in middle-age is just part of growing up. By 70, most of us have dealt with the disparity and come to realize that who we are today is just fine. We appreciate that at 18 or so, we were rather naive, and thus, the contrast should be substantial between then and 50. Most of us just do seem to reflect on selfdom until the kids are graduating, and the nest has vacant bedrooms.

    H2: [silly] Most of us are happy at 50, but a percentage of our cohort are miserable, which pulls down the average. Data recover over time as unhappy people withdraw into depression and stop responding to surveys.

    [Note] Neither hypothesis is falsifiable.

  23. Joe Kapoe

    In this discussion I thought there would be some mention of that small country in the Himalayas, Bhutan, which not too long ago adopted a policy of “gross national happiness” instead of gross national product. When I first heard about this I thought this could be an antidote to our overly materialistic culture, which in my view leads to a lot of unhappiness.
    Since this policy was enacted some 10 or so years ago in Bhutan, there has been much work done trying to figure out how to incorporate some of the ideas encompassing GNH. Now there are offshoots of the idea, a GNH Institute, books, articles, etc.
    Once I heard someone say we need to envision an economic system that is based on generosity, cooperation and trust rather than what we have today – one based on selfishness, competition and mistrust. This kind of thinking eventually has to get down to the specifics and consider all the complexities of our human existence, and all the cynicism that we have nurtured (for good reason), but I think statisticians would be happy to work on such studies.

  24. Daryl

    Is this a natural feature of human life, or is it a result of the similar path that most people take through life (school -> 9-5 job -> marriage/kids etc).

  25. Adam Eran

    “He who laughs last has not yet heard the bad news.” — Berthold Brecht

    I’m guessing this is the macro equivalent of the “terrible twos” which occur when children first learn the effective meaning of the word “no” (and that they can say it too). Midlife is when we hear that the myths of childhood were just that: myths. Kind of a letdown, but it’s really not possible to live one’s life like a fairy tale…at least and have sanity or satisfaction. Of course there are lots of adults still waiting for prince or princess charming (hence the fixation on the American presidency, IMHO), rather than getting on with their lives.

    A good read in this connection: What Do You Say After You Say Hello? by Eric Berne

  26. Hayek's Heelbiter

    As great fan of primate evo devo (evolutionary development) and sociobiology, almost any time there is a consistent behavioral/biological dataset, from women being better multitaskers to human vs. gorilla vs. gibbon male/female size dimorphism, there is an evolutionary basis for the development.

    E.g., the recent finding that it makes sense of elderly people to be light sleepers (it’s not a bug, it’s a feature) so that in hunter gatherer societies there will always be someone alert in case of intruders or large predators.

    But what would be the evolutionary advantage of this happiness curve. And are the male/female (happiness) curves dimorphic?

    Just curious. Thoughts?

    1. Rojo

      Evo-devo is fine, once you strip away economic, political and social dimensions. IOW, comparing hunter-gathers to each other.

      In modern times, it’s pretty useless.

  27. Rojo

    So I guess I’m maybe the only person on here who thinks of money in terms of where my next meal is coming from. I eat microwave corndogs from Grocery Outlet (colloquially “Gross Out”} for a week. I’m not turning my back on consumer society, it’s turned its back on me.

    I’m what you call poor, especially after the landlord takes his cut. Wealth building? What’s that?

    I’m 49 and see no way forward. I’m Case-Deaton in the flesh. Every morning I’m disappointed to wake up. It’s just another day to spend money to feed this stupid, insistent stomach. Jesus, not another corndog.

    Yesterday my boss wanted to go to lunch with the department. “Informal” of course. That means the company doesn’t pay. I had to overpay for a salad — and skip dinner that night.

    I work for a nonprofit that works on poverty issues, yet I feel like I need to hide my own poverty. Most of my co-workers are well-meaning women with techy-finance hubbies who make bank.

    So why are people happy, at any age. Are they stupid or rich? It’s gotta be one or the other.

  28. Rojo

    I should add that my idea of heaven doesn’t have landlords. And I guess that’s true of most of us.

    So if you’re a landlord, you’re most people’s hell.

    1. polecat

      But if you OWN your dwelling space, then Hell rents you !
      ….. at least when, say, the waterheater, craps out on a Sunday evening and you have a dental apt. on Monday morning …. so you get to cancel your long awaited appointment to BE the landlaird as your drag that heavey sob out to the curb, only to find the the newer models won’t fit the space the old sob did !
      On, and on , and on …

  29. Edward E

    This is easy, never leave the Ozark Mountains, when I do I get depressed and sad. The only sign of intelligence I’ve seen away from the Ozarks was a sign in Green Bay that says Arkiefornia 820 miles –>> that gives you a reference. So coming back home snaps me out of it, and she (Superstar) really snaps me out of it. Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy. The Duck Dynasty folks have nothing on us. The beautiful Ozarks makes us happy.

  30. LyonNightroad

    I’m going through a bit of an early midlife crisis myself. In my late 20s I find myself *successful* beyond my wildest imagination growing up poor, ditching school, and dropping out of college in my first year. Somehow, I’ve worked my way up to double my starting salary in a large corporation I began working in a decade ago. I have a home and vehicles below my means and I am just generally comfortable. However, now I have no idea why I did all this. What is the point? What am I supposed to want now? Am I supposed to want a bigger house? a better car? I’ve been alive long enough to know these things don’t bring you any lasting happiness. I had $2,000 the other month in spending money earlier in the year and I just couldn’t think of anything for the life of me to buy that would actually make me happy. My spouse and I are relatively functional. I have no interest in bringing children in to this world that I am not content in. I think this might be why I am having this crisis 20 years early. I’m lost, I have no idea what to do. I’m haunted by this feeling that I don’t deserve any of this, that I am just lucky to be who I am. I’m resentful of those around me who think they do deserve it. I’m relatively isolated because the people around me just don’t seem to feel the same way. Either I can’t relate because they think they would be happy if they were just me or I can’t relate because they are like me and think they would be happy if they just had more. Advertisements often make me feel ill. I often dream of running off into the woods, but all the good land is taken. I’m surrounded by people who have no idea that all of this is temporary, a peak built up on unsustainable use of hundreds of millions of years of stored energy. Through it all I see my own failure, my inability to just let go, I fear losing everything. The knowledge that all of this hinges on my job and I wouldn’t be able to rebuild it if I did lose it because most of my credentials lie in my history with this company. Sure my skills are somewhat portable but the industry is being gutted like all the others anyway. Then there is the guilt for feeling this way in the first place, what an incredible luxury of affluence.

    I think this is what a midlife crisis is like?

    If so I definitely understand the dip in the chart.

    I would love to hear advice from people who have been here and gotten through it.

    1. ambrit

      (Edit: I forgot that we’re not supposed to give advice.) So, to trip Moderation; Hitler loves Cthulhu.
      Enjoy what you’ve got while you have it. Take nothing for granted. Treat your ‘other’ as if they were Gold; they are, for better or worse. Don’t obsess about things you have no control over. Accepting the fact of lack of control is hard, but necessary. Finally, (in a list of ‘useless advice’ from this geezer,) don’t do what Psychologists call “Catastrophizing.”
      See, for a simplified version:
      Good luck to both of you.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I can’t relate to this since I’ve always been very anxious, and that’s been compounded by being self-employed since I was 32 (do not romanticize having your own business!).

      Getting involved in a charity where you do meaningful work might give you a sense of purpose that might help. If you have to work hard or travel a lot, it might be something where you can do it casually. Like reading to the blind or visiting/brining food to elderly stay at homes, or working in a kitchen that feeds the poor (not this Thanksgiving stuff, places like that need help the rest of the year).

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