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Juggling parenting, caregiving and work in the face of changing times

ASU professor rebrands what it means to be in midlife

Associate Professor Frank Infurna. Image by Robert Ewing

May 07, 2020

People in midlife can be parents, grandparents, caregivers for aging parents and breadwinners — all at the same time. Yet even though they make up a large percentage of the population and workforce, these adults are the least studied by psychologists.

Arizona State University’s Frank Infurna is working to change that and, in the process, to overturn common misconceptions about midlife. He wrote an op-ed for The Conversation and collaborated with psychologists from Humboldt University Berlin and Brandeis University to publish a summary of midlife in the May 7 issue of American Psychologist. 

“We are working to rebrand midlife to be defined by the many roles people play, the life transitions they are going through and the opportunities and challenges they face,” said Infurna, who is an associate professor of psychology. “This period of the lifespan is the least studied by developmental psychologists. That needs to change.”

Instead of an age range like 40 to 65 years, the researchers suggest that midlife needs to be defined based on how people juggle jobs and caregiving roles while aging themselves. Midlife is also often associated with how some might go through a midlife crisis — marked by a red sports car, elective cosmetic surgery or marriage to someone younger. But only 10%-20% of people in midlife make such abrupt changes to their lifestyle. 

“The midlife crisis is popular in our cultural narrative, but it is basically a myth,” Infurna said.

Video by the ASU Department of Psychology

Much of the support for the importance of the midlife crisis comes from studies that have assessed the well-being of people at just one point in time, instead of following them for a period of time. When psychologists have assessed the well-being of people in midlife over a period of time, they find well-being is high and stable.

At a time when people in midlife juggle the roles of parent, grandparent, caregiver and breadwinner, they can also begin to experience chronic disease or cognitive decline because of their age. The research team wrote about how convergence of these responsibilities and aging requires the development of interventions to promote social engagement and physical and mental health and to reduce caregiving stress. They also described policy changes — like paid family leave and the expansion of health care coverage and reduction in its costs — that are needed to ease the burdens of midlife.

Midlife is not all stress and aging though; it is the period of life when many are in leadership positions and experience their peak earnings. 

“It is imperative that people in midlife are well taken care of — these people play very important roles in society and in the family,” Infurna said.

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