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Is COVID society’s ageless midlife crisis?

A period of life satisfaction followed by a big dip in happiness that then rebounds more or less to previous levels. This is the classic “U-shaped curve” of life satisfaction used to characterise the so-called midlife crisis, as shown in the chart below right from US policy thinktank Brookings.

However, it also describes the trend that our colleagues at Walnut UNLIMITED have observed with their Understanding the Nation tracking survey – the graph below left shows the proportion of Brits giving a positive (top 2 box on a seven-point scale) rating to how they feel about their life in general right now, tracked from the start of the year) and with a potential future pathway sketched out. The two curves look strikingly similar.

Has the virus prompted an early mid-life crisis for people?

The set of symptoms outlined by therapists NeuroSpa is fairly typical and interestingly many of the same effects are being seen now, during the pandemic.

  • Feeling bored: As lockdown has deprived us of freedom, so it has limited our choices and the repetitive daily cycle has had us grasping for ways to stave off the boredom. The search term “lockdown boredom” generates over 4 million responses on Google!
  • Impulsiveness: Perhaps as a result of feeling bored, lockdown has also made us act on impulse: we’ve online shopped ’til we dropped as coronavirus made us more impulsive, intuitive and emotional. Certain sectors (such as pets) even had to warn against following our instincts and making purchases we might end up regretting.
  • Feeling nostalgic: Nostalgia is not just a part of the midlife crisis; it is also seen every time there is a recession or other crisis. Our colleague Will Holloway of Fever UNLIMITED (our integrated creative agency) has written a series of articles on Creative Moment about the power of nostalgia in the current situation.
  • Changing our behaviour or appearance: Just as a midlife crisis can have us reinventing our look and changing our habits, so too in lockdown. We’ve exercised more, drunk more, cooked/baked more and worn more casual clothing (Asos’s profits have quadrupled as a result!)
  • Being unfaithful to a partner: The extra-marital affair is almost the cliché of the midlife crisis. You might think that lockdown has made affairs all but impossible but, in fact, there has been a documented rise in “virtual affairs”. Some 13% of married people have contacted an ex-partner during the pandemic and sign-ups to dating sites for married people have risen markedly.
  • Feeling regretful: Lockdown offered the chance to reset. Away from the normal stresses and routines of life we could reinvent ourselves – as bakers, as runners, as painters, and so on. Some of us took the chance. Others didn’t and are now feeling regret over the missed opportunity. A second lockdown may offer a second chance but we may find it is quite a different proposition, not least because of the weather.
  • Comparing ourselves unfavourably to others: while it is tempting to regard COVID as a leveller, affecting all of us equally, the truth is quite different. Our lockdown experiences vary greatly depending on whether or not we’ve been directly or indirectly hit by the virus itself or its economic fallout. We’ll also have had very different experiences depending upon where we live and who else we live with. Given all of this it is only natural that those of us hit greater by these factors should look enviously at the rest.
  • Feeling unfulfilled: WFH limits our opportunities for all kinds of workplace fulfillment – networking, socialising, career advancement, and so on. The cycle of waking, shuffling the ten steps to the laptop and then back again, takes its toll and reports of feelings unfulfilled are increasingly common.

Marketing to a quasi-midlife crisis

COVID is not a midlife crisis and in no way do we mean to treat the impact of the greatest health crisis in a generation with anything but the utmost seriousness. However, for those who have, thus far, been spared the worst effects of this horrible disease, the two types of crises do have some characteristics in common: COVID mirrors a midlife crisis in many ways.

One route for brands is to make hay while the sun shines: if your consumers have a sudden urge for piece of retail indulgence, surely it is only fair enough that they spend it with you rather than the other guy, right?

Of course, that is true up to a point. Playing the longer game may be a better bet. Traditional therapy for those suffering midlife angst can give clues to how responsible brands can act in the best interests of their customers and build strong, emotionally intelligent relationships with them for the long-term.  Consider how you can help your customers to:

  • Be thankful for what they’ve got and where they are, instead of where they could be
  • Avoid the crisis clichés of hypochondria and infidelity
  • Think of those around them and avoid transferring their neuroses to others
  • Recognise and reject the short-term dopamine hit of unnecessary indulgences
  • Feel positive that things will get better
  • Feel empowered by their situation rather than limited by It

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.