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Are generational factors affecting middle-age suicides?

By Mal Fletcher - posted Friday, 5 October 2012

'The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets,' said Theodore Roosevelt. 'Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.'

Perhaps he 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 in Britain, 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 than any other group in the UK. 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.


A decade ago, men aged 15-24 formed the biggest risk group. In seeking to explain this relatively recent development, several dominant factors come into play. Among them is the change in gender roles.

Currently, 58 percent of UK university students are women and 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.

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 in some men, who no longer know who they are or what role they are expected to play in society.

Another factor in the changing suicide situation is the pressure of job loss, caused by the financial downturn and by the changing face of work generally. Psychologists are aware that men face different expectations to women when confronting a crisis such as unemployment. 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, undesirable locations. Retraining is not always either attractive or easy for men in middle age.


Then there is the impact of drugs. There seems to be a growing interest among middle-aged Brits in drugs of the 'party' variety. This age-group was the most heavily impacted by the rave party drug culture of the 80s and early 90s.

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 the middle-aged, it seems, are re-acquainting themselves with MDMA, the pure form of Ecstacy.

Dr Roger Kingerlee, a chartered psychiatrist, 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. 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 period of great change.

The eldest of the Millennial generation will now be in their early 30s, so they fit at the very low end of the group cited by the Samaritans.

Millennials, generically speaking, have 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 they've have received growing up is one of affirmation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Millennials often appear in studies to be more optimistic about the future than their forebears. This may also be why levels of suicide among younger adults have dropped compared to those aged 34 and above.

Most of the group represented by the latest suicide figures may be counted among Generation X. This very resourceful cohort received perhaps the lowest level of childhood nurturing of all the great generations of our time.

They arrived on the scene as their parents were still busy dealing with the do-your-own-thing, hyper-individualism of the 60s and early 70s, or the greed-is-good ideals 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 in Australia, as the leader of a national network of youth organisations throughout the 1980s. Studies revealed that, by the end of that decade, youth suicide in our country was at its highest rate on record. This coincided with the teenage years of GenXers.

In the late 80s, I also toured the UK several times, speaking to audiences of mainly young people. I found that because of rising globalisation, British young people struggled with many of the same issues as those in my homeland and a number of European nations were battling with the same youth suicide problem.

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.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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