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Are Generational Factors Affecting Middle-Age Suicides?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 03 October 2012
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The only time you really live fully,’ said Theodore Roosevelt, ‘is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.

Perhaps the twenty-sixth US president was right; perhaps middle-age ought to be the time when we’re most fully alive. According to a report released recently by the Samaritans, however, it may be the time when British men are at their lowest ebb.

Men aged 34-54 are now more likely to commit suicide lives than any other group in the UK, according to the report. Males in this middle-age bracket are more likely to take their lives than teenage boys and four times more likely to do so than women of the same age. Men in this group account for just under half the 5,600 suicides per year in the UK.

According to the Government’s suicide prevention strategy published last month, the economic cost of a life lost to suicide is around £1.67 million. Far more important, however, are the waste of life and the emotional and psychological costs for those left behind. There is no way to quantify this kind of suffering.

A decade ago, men aged 15-24 formed the biggest risk group. The bottom of that age range has shifted by almost twenty years since then. In seeking to explain this relatively recent development, several dominant factors come into play.

For a start, there is pressure on men when it comes to changing gender roles. The male generation now emerging into middle age is the one most affected by the shifts in thinking about gender that came to prominence in the 60s and early 70s.

Today, books like The End of Men and the Rise of Women and The Richer Sex claim that the future will be marked by the dominance of women. Men, they say, are already being left behind while women continue a steady climb toward eventual dominance in world affairs.

It is a fact that girls now do better than boys at most levels of education and 58 percent of UK university students are women. Meanwhile, 60 percent of newly qualified solicitors are female, as are 56 percent of new doctors.

An Oxford University study recently found that in a quarter of British couples, women are already the main breadwinner.

At least one recent survey, conducted by Marie Claire magazine, indicated that women are becoming more driven in the attitudes to work. Around 75% of the 1000 women surveyed said that work is ‘the most important thing in my life’. More than 90 percent of them claimed to be more ambitious than their male partners.

Labour experts talk now not so much about ‘work-life balance’ as ‘work-life merge’. For both men and women, traditional lines between work and life are increasingly blurred by interaction with always-on digital gadgets. Seventy-five percent of Australian CEOs claim that they cannot switch off after work, because of their connection to mobile digital technologies.

For women, this blurring of distinctions is exacerbated by the fact that many see themselves working under greater time pressures than their male counterparts. Many women want to reach a senior position by the time they feel ready to start a family, so that they can return to a dream job rather than low-level labour.

For men, work-life merge also exacts a heavy toll – and one that, in many cases, they are less well equipped to deal with on an emotional level. That may be particularly true for men born to the so-called Generation X. They have inherited the full impact of a feminisation of the workplace and culture generally, which began in their childhood.

Some social commentators, among them committed feminists, now believe that while many nations on earth still deny women fundamental rights, an ‘anti-male agenda’ may be emerging in our own culture. This, they say, may be taking feminist ideals too far. It is producing, among other things, deep confusion among men, who no longer know who they are or what role they are expected to play in society.

There are commentators who’ve suggested that the next step in this process may be the total removal of the word ‘father’ from legal documents, such as birth certificates. Instead of a father, a child will have a ‘supporting parent’.

I’m definitely not a conspiracy thinker and, as far as I’m aware, no definite moves are being made in this direction. But were we to head down that path, it’s not hard to imagine the impact this would have on men. It likely wouldn’t stop there, either. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the title of ‘mother’ eventually being replaced by ‘birthing parent’.

Another factor in the changing suicide situation is the pressure of job loss, caused by the ongoing recession and by the changing face of work generally. The downturn in jobs availability has an impact on both genders. Once again, though, many men arguably lack an adequate outlet for dealing with troubled emotions brought on by unemployment.

‘Big boys don’t cry’ is a childhood mantra that still rings in the ears of many a depressed male. Psychologists are aware that men face different expectations when confronting a crisis. They’re expected to ‘suck it up and move on’; no space is given for emotional catharsis.

The changing nature of work may also represent more of a problem for men than women. Jobs once mainly suited to men – in heavy industries such as mining – are now harder to find, or are situated in remote, less desirable locations. Even heavy manufacturing is moving toward greater automation. In place of these sectors, we see service and data-crunching jobs moving to the fore in the economy. Retraining is not always either attractive or easy for men in middle age.

Then there is the impact of drugs. Among British adults, alcohol is treated as a common, sometimes even necessary, stress relaxant and social lubricant. Yet its impact on general health is often overlooked.

According to the NHS, there was a 4.7 percent increase in the number of doctor’s prescriptions for the treatment of alcohol dependency between 2010 and 2011. The figure, just over 167,000, represented a 63 percent increase compared to 2003.[1] It goes without saying that alcohol and pre-existing depression are a potent mixture.

However, it seems there’s also a growing interest in other drugs – particularly the ‘party’ variety – among today’s middle-aged. This age-group was the most heavily impacted by the rave party drug culture of the 80s and early 90s. A Channel 4 report last week on the use of MDMA – the pure form of Ecstasy – suggested that some middle-aged people feel affection for the drug because they remember it as a part of their carefree rave-generation youth. ‘It’s not heroin or crack,’ was a common mantra then. ‘It’s just ecstacy.’

A study cited in the Times yesterday concluded that 15 percent of the British population have taken party drugs at some point in their lives. Growing numbers of them, it says, are re-acquainting themselves with the drug. Some are doing so because they feel it offers them improved empathy skills and is therefore helpful in maintaining relationships.

Others apparently believe that, in recessionary times, it offers ‘value for money’, with other substances such as Coke being more expensive. They may not take it often, but the drug seems to offer a way of coping with the challenges of a fast-paced world.

Whatever the dosage, though, MDMA is still a potent substance with a very real potential downside. Dr Roger Kingerlee, a chartered psychiatrist interviewed by the Times, says that among men, suicide is much more of an impulsive decision than it is for women. Substance misuse, he says, can raise levels of impulsivity.

Generational factors may also play a role in the changing suicide patterns. Specifically, I refer to the ‘expectation gap’ felt by older Millennials and the impact of relatively poor nurturing experienced by many younger members of Generation X. Both of these factors will be intensified by the economic downturn.

Speaking of generational cohorts is, of course, always fraught with risks. There is the chance that one will generalise too easily, for example, bracketing together people of very different socio-economic backgrounds and experiences. However, there is often a benefit in applying generational shifts or trends to social problems like suicide. For one, it provides a general overview of influences on the thinking of a people-group during a certain period in history.

As a result, it can suggest possible predispositions in thinking and emotions within that age-group. And, in answer to the problem of over-generalising, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of modern globalisation. Pop-cultural references and the impact of events, both trivial and important, are now spread rapidly – often immediately – across geographical and economic lines. This shared consciousness of events and cultural influences helps to shape generational identity.

Generational study is certainly not an exact science and its conclusions need to be weighed against many other factors. But with dealing with a complex subject like suicide will never be an exact science – and any clues as to its origin may be helpful.

The Millennial generation is generally adjudged to range in age today from around 15 years to the early 30s. The eldest of them may presently fit at the very low end of the group cited in the Samaritans study. This is possibly the most nurtured and protected generation in modern history. It has certainly been the most watched-over in recent times, with CCTV cameras abounding in major cities and relatively tight security around many urban schools and playgrounds.

Much of this protection has been appropriate to the threat levels posed within society, but some of it has perhaps gone over the top. This generation has also been the most managed in our time, with a heavy parental involvement in mapping out homework, activity and play schedules.

Millennials, generically speaking, have enjoyed a relatively high level of involvement from parents. They’ve been raised during relatively stable and, until recently, largely prosperous times. Their parents have invested heavily in studying how to actualise their children’s potential and in providing extra-curricula projects to develop their gifts. The dominant message these young people have received growing up is one of affirmation. ‘You’re part of a very talented and well-equipped generation. You’ll go far.’

Perhaps as a result of this, a number of international studies – at least in the developed world – suggest that Millennials are more optimistic about the future than their forebears. They expect that, given the right opportunities, they can, with their peers and using the collaborative power of digital technology, create a better future.

They aspire to marry the blue skies thinking of the Boomer generation (early 50s to early 70s), with the grass-roots mindset of Generation X (mid-30s to early 50s). In doing so, they expect to be able to tell a very different kind of generational story.

This may go some of the way to explaining why levels of suicide among younger adults have dropped compared to those aged 34 and above. Of course, there will be older Millennials within the latter bracket who find that, having been promised the world, their reality does not match their expectations. They emerge from years of university study unable to find meaningful, long-term jobs and the prospects of ticking off ‘success boxes’ such as owning a home are dwindling for them.

However, most of the group represented by the latest suicide figures may be counted among Generation X. This very resourceful cohort – and again we must speak generically – received perhaps the lowest level of nurturing during childhood of all the great generations of our time.

They arrived on the scene as their parents were busy dealing with the do-your-own-thing situation ethic and hyper-individualism of the 60s and early 70s. Or the greed-is-good, self-actualisation of the late 70s and 80s. Their arrival wasn’t met with any huge new toy industries or book series written just for children.

Generation X featured heavily in my early work as a youth leader in Australia and the leader of a national network of youth organisations. Studies revealed that, by the beginning of the 1990s, youth suicide in our country was at its highest rate on record. This coincided with the teenage years of GenXers.

At the same time, these kids were also part of the ‘latchkey generation’. Many would arrive home from school, let themselves into the house and sit for hours without any adult company or supervision. In the late 80s, I toured the UK several times, speaking to audiences of mainly young people in school halls, concerts and other settings.

I found that, whilst the environment was different, British young people struggled with many of the same issues as those in my homeland. These included anxiety about the future and depression. In fact, I discovered that a number of highly developed nations in Europe were battling with the same youth suicide problem as was Australia.

An academic study needs to be done on how generational characteristics in youth might impact upon adult behaviour in middle-age. There are, I think, factors here that may help us better understand the plight of those people, men in particular, who now believe there is no hope for a brighter tomorrow.

What’s your view?

In your opinion, are generational factors part of the middle-age suicide problem?



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