The Midlife Confidence Surge

Can science confirm what so many of us have figured out on our own — that passing 40 kicks women’s confidence into high gear?

By Thea Singer
Confidence, Ryff says, plays a role in several of those, especially autonomy, which, in the study, "is really about feeling that you can follow your own convictions and do what’s right for you even if it might go against conventional wisdom or what other people think is appropriate." When she and her colleagues compared how survey respondents felt about themselves with what they’d said 10 years before, they discovered an upswing among those in midlife. "It’s the people who were in their 30s to 40s who are now in their 40s to 50s who were more likely to show actual gains in their well-being over time," she says.Perception Versus RealityIn studies involving men and women, both genders had a surge in confidence as they hit middle age. "But they were at different levels," Lachman says. Men, more accustomed to feeling confident, begin higher on the scale, she explains. "So for the women, perhaps the surge in confidence is more meaningful or has more of an impact."Stewart, however, views the young men’s assertions with skepticism. "My guess is that underneath this self-report by men in their 20s — that they feel fully confident and powerful and so on — is that they don’t," she says. "But I think that the public image men have to project requires that they seem confident. And then they grow into it."I’m ready to bust another myth, one born of my generation’s hubris: that the midlife female power boost was invented by boomers. No, the research says, it was not. In fact, increased confidence among women of a certain age seems to have occurred in every era, regardless of the social climate, which leads researchers to believe that it’s experience in general — taking our lumps and learning from them — that makes us strong and wise.And why not do away with one more myth while we’re at it? In light of the evidence on confidence, the pop-culture images of dried-up midlife women reeling from senior moments make no sense. Why, I ask Stewart, has society — men and even women — been so slow to get the memo?"I agree, it’s pretty bizarre," she says. To her knowledge — as well as that of the other social scientists I spoke with — there have been no studies refuting the findings about women’s increased confidence at midlife. "But the cultural stereotypes are very strong," she says. "They’re resistant to change."I brought up the subject again when I visited Jacquelyn Boone James, 60, who’s the director of research at the Boston College Center for Work & Family and coeditor of several books about midlife development. Wearing a jean skirt with orange stitching and a matching orange watchband, she too is incredulous at the hole in the popular consciousness about women’s confidence — but not surprised that research has proved it wrong. "It seems so intuitive, don’t you think?" she asks. "As we get older, we get experience, we face crises. And we realize that our heads don’t fall off most of the time."Reaching New HeightsI had one more stop to make on my confidence trajectory: a visit to a psychologist who was working on a book about confidence and other elements of well-being.I found Susan Krauss Whitbourne, coeditor of The Baby Boomers Grow Up: Contemporary Perspectives on Midlife, in her office at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she’s a professor of psychology. When I first contacted her, she sent me a copy of her as yet unpublished paper "Psychosocial Development in Adulthood from College Through Midlife," the basis for her new book on paths to fulfillment, scheduled to be published in 2009. At our meeting, Whitbourne, 59, is at once elegant and down-to-earth, with hot-pink nail polish peeking through her open-toe patent leather shoes.She walked me through the paper, a longitudinal study of 382 men and women who attended the University of Rochester, in New York, between the 1960s and the 1980s. The sample was divided in two: Group 1 first participated in 1966, and over the years of testing its members matured, on average, from age 20 to 54. Group 2 was first tested in 1977 and aged, on average, from 20 to 42.The confidence measures told their own story. "Industry" — the sense of identification with the world of work, the feeling that you’re a competent person — soared for both groups as the subjects moved into middle age.

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