Are Older Men Happier Than Older Women?

A new US/UK study argues that younger women are happier than younger men and older men are happier than older women:

later in life…men come closer than women to fulfilling their material goods and family life aspirations, are more satisfied with their financial situation and family life, and are the happier of the two genders.

This seems dubious to me. Most of the older women I know are really frickin’ happy. They’ve shed their “good girl” conditioning, they don’t care as much if they look perfect, and they often have this sort of second lease on life attitude where they try new careers, new places to live, even new partners.
A lot of the older men I know, on the other hand, seem to really struggle when they retire (if they’re so lucky) and have to form an identity that’s not work-based. I’ve watched my own dad struggle with this new stage of life. As much as he is enjoying laying on a hammock, reading, taking classes, learning how to cook, he’s also really struggled to make meaning out of his new existence. For those who aren’t lucky enough to retire, it seems like the work grind can get really, really boring after 40-odd years. In workplaces with age discrimination, these guys can feel pretty pushed out.
And I’m not sure what to make of the younger women being happier part of the argument. I see my friends as pretty equally happy and unhappy, regardless of the gender.
Your thoughts?

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23 Comments

  1. Logrus
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Well it’s not working for me. I must be in the placebo group.

  2. Mytrr
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    When I see studies like this, I really have to wonder what the focus groups looked like. Kinda like how there’s this opting-out revolution that really only accounts for the upper classes.

  3. Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a generational thing more than an age thing (if the study’s findings are valid at all). Older women nowadays grew up in an era that had more gender-based discrimination than nowadays, so they were excluded from the most lucrative career fields. Since this study is basing its definition of “happiness” on material gain, then, yeah, I could see that.

  4. nightingale
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    The reasoning is very culturally ignorant. . .Of course men are closer to their financial goals than women, they get paid more, promoted more, and are more highly valued. Ditto for family stuff: Women are still the ones who raise the children, so women are more going to suffer from the empty nest, and men aren’t going “I’ve been doing this for 18 years and you still won’t do the dishes?!”
    The write-up is worthless, too. What does older and younger mean? Are we talking retirement, near retirement, college, beginning careers? “Younger” and “older” mean very little for populations that live to 70 and work nearly that long, too.

  5. Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Giving this the benefit of the doubt, I would say that while material things aren’t an issue for me as I get older, becoming increasingly “invisible” does get me down sometimes. When I was 16-30, just walking in a room was enough to make me feel popular. The older I get the harder I have to work to earn good-will from my fellow humans. I think this is less of an issue for older men: they can still be considered “cute” into their 50s and 60s. And the world IS full of superficial people who reflexively judge you on your appearance, so….

  6. bluemoose3277
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I thought I heard about a study a few weeks ago that came to the exact opposite conclusion.
    I fail to see the point of studies like this. It’s just more of the same “men and women are different, see, this study proves it!” How is a blanket conclusion like “older men are happier than older women” going to assist anyone one?

  7. Alice
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Mytrr: Kinda like how there’s this opting-out revolution that really only accounts for the upper classes.
    The what?

  8. puckalish
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    great point, bluemoose…
    there’s really no established metric for happiness and, depending on how you parse the info, well, you obviously get different results. but, no matter what, if you break it down, you’re going to be able to show some difference between any two groups… then, as you point out, argue that there are essential differences between those groups as evidenced by this ridiculously flawed study… awesome.
    i think, in light of this, it’s very important we all work hard at maintaining and building happiness into our last days – if for nothing else than to confound the establishment’s quack social scientists in 40 years.

  9. Posted July 31, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Most of the older women I know are really frickin’ happy. They’ve shed their “good girl” conditioning, they don’t care as much if they look perfect, and they often have this sort of second lease on life attitude where they try new careers, new places to live, even new partners.
    I totally agree with the way you and everyone else are criticizing this study, but it’s also worth pointing out that your sample is probably a pretty filtered group, too. I’m always starting to make assumptions about the world based on the people I know and then remembering that I choose to surround myself with people who often don’t accurately reflect the demographics of the world around me.

  10. adminassistant
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Sounds to me like another attempts to “prove” common stereotypes about what people should and shouldn’t feel. And really, what’s the damn point of this survey? Like, how does it make a difference and what does it ultimately prove?

  11. AP
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the older women I know seem happy for a lot of the reasons you mentioned, but I do think that sampling is skewed by the fact that the older women I know are feminists.
    To piggyback of off what AmyAmyAmy was saying, I have watched my mom struggle quite a bit with the becoming invisible thing. My mom is super feminist and has never based her identity on being good looking, and I think that the switch in how the world interacted with her was harder to deal with than she thought. I would imagine that for a lot of women who base their identities much more on their appearance, this is a far harder transition, and would cause a great deal of unhappiness.

  12. JonE
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Aviva… any flaws of the study aside, an appeal to personal experience doesn’t cast doubt on the study’s methodology or findings…

  13. Mytrr
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Alice- There has been recent discussion, on this site among others, about women that choose to opt out of the work force. Articles and studies done on the opt out revolution always focus on women in the upper classes that are college educated and have the option to stay home, but they are presented as representing all women, even those that aren’t college educated, nor have the option to stay home. My point when bringing that up and comparing it to this particular study is that the statistics may be incredibly misleading.
    As AmyAmyAmy said, how do they define younger and older? What are the socio-economic backgrounds of the people surveyed? How do they define happiness? I don’t know if it’s the media spin or the actual study, but IMO, most studies comparing subjective differences between men and women are pretty much useless.

  14. followingthru
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I did not go to the link above, but I did hear about this while listening for the weather forecast on the CBS Early Show this morning.
    They said that for people in their 20s, women were happier than men; and for people in their 40s men were happier than women. They said that retirment age people of both sexes were happiest.
    They suggested that the reason men are less happy in their 20s is that they have low-paying jobs and “lackluster” love lives. They suggested that the reason men are happier in their 40s is because they have more money, more material goods, and a wife and family. They guessed that women were less happy in their 40s because their children were leaving home and they did not know what to do with themselves, and because they are unhappy with their aging appearance.
    My first thought when they said that it was about people in their 40s was that women in that age group might be unhappy because they have hit the glass ceiling so many times they have a permanent headache. CBS didn’t mention that possibility.

  15. The Law Fairy
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    You know, it’s interesting… I was thinking about the older women I know and the ones who seem happiest are the ones who choose to remain single (although not those who wanted, but could never find, the right guy). They’ve lived lives they wanted, had experiences they learned from, and have truly made peace with themselves. They don’t have regrets and they simply accept life as it comes. A lot of married women, however, find that once their kids are gone, their marriages don’t leave them satisfied. At least, that’s certainly the case with my mom (who I couldn’t quite call “older” just yet, but I imagine she’ll feel the same way in ten years), who now has fewer distractions from my dad’s sexism and entitlement and outright disrespect for her (not-inconsequential) intellect. It seems to me her friends and family are in similar situations.
    As for young people, anecdotally, the men my age are MUCH happier than I and many of my female friends are. I’m practically miserable from all the bullshit I see day in and day out, at work, online, from friends and family, etc. I really understand what it means to say ignorance is bliss — I’m at that age, I guess, where I still have enough energy to become enraged at the constant injustice in the world, but not enough energy or influence to do much more than fume about it. This definitely comes far from making me happy. Whereas the guys I know enjoy their lives, find their careers fulfilling, have amazing girlfriends/wives, and seemingly have these great lives ahead of them. Meanwhile I can’t find a boyfriend (which I want simply because I want one, not because I think it’s necessary), I hate my job, I hate corporate culture, and I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five years. I have many female friends in similar situations.

  16. Alice
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I see, Mytrr. Thanks for the clarification.

  17. darby
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I find this study suspicious. Of course it all depends on how you define “happy” and how you define “older”. From my own experience, I find that people of both sexes who are near or at retirement age are generally happier than people in their twenties.
    Personally, I just turned 40 and while I’m not thrilled with aging, I don’t miss my twenties which to me were a time of anxiety about career and finances.

  18. Destra
    Posted August 1, 2008 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    It’s all really what factors they ask about in the study. marriage? job? kids? grandkids? social life? traveling? etc. I’ve never been impressed with any happiness studies I’ve never seen.

  19. MoonPie
    Posted August 1, 2008 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    followingthru: My first thought when they said that it was about people in their 40s was that women in that age group might be unhappy because they have hit the glass ceiling so many times they have a permanent headache. CBS didn’t mention that possibility.
    LOL!
    While the statistics rendered by this “study” are almost certainly useless (due to the myriad reasons listed in other comments), I still think it’s worth discussing that across the board, the happiness of surveyed US women of all ages has consistently declined over the last 35 years. This data is worth knowing and talking about because it’s such an easy target for conservative misinterpretation and distortion: Women are unhappy because of feminism! The farther from the kitchen, the deeper the unhappiness! etc.
    There are lots of other explanations for these findings (in addition to the problems with data collection methods and the utter subjectivity of “happiness,” both mentioned earlier). Steven Levitt makes a good start in this op/ed article from the NYTimes, suggesting that after the feminist movement inflated women’s expectations in the 1970s, the pace of progress has been a bit of a disappointment.
    I would take it a step further and say that while the “public sphere” is now open to women, it hasn’t altered to accommodate individuals managing both public (aka. building careers) and private (aka. maintaining home, family, relationships, etc.) lives. As they get paid less at work and are expected to fill traditional roles at home with far less time and energy, women are effectively getting the shit-end of both sticks. Unhappy is right! Gimme a real paycheck, a 30-hour workweek, and some freakin’ subsidized daycare!
    Click here to read a study about these longterm happiness trends (and a couple of economists’ semi-creepy conclusions).

  20. M
    Posted August 1, 2008 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    As a scientist whose work has been filtered and presented in popular media, I can say with certainty that if you want to argue with the methodology of their findings, then you need to read the actual research paper and not base arguments off the article you linked to. Trying to argue against a population study by either creating straw man arguments or citing personal anecdotal evidence is weak.
    Aviva pointed out selection bias, but there’s also some confirmation bias here. It’s good to be skeptical, but had the results been reversed, would you have been just as skeptical?

  21. ShelbyWoo
    Posted August 1, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    And, of course, the MSM headlines boil it down to what’s really important:
    “Older men are happier than older women, study finds”
    (headline from Yahoo! frontpage)

  22. Bee
    Posted August 2, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Older men are probably happier because they think they can just leave their older wives when they start getting wrinkles to get it on with younger women. hmph.

  23. tamerlane
    Posted August 3, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Happiness is subjective/relative of course, and in this case the author chose to make the comparison relative between men and women. Why?
    If your wondering what the!? This paper seems kind of dubius:
    The studys author Anke Plagnol is a research associate for a feminist organization called “ESRC Gender Equality Network”.
    http://www.anke-z.de/
    It’s a well organized but lose conglomerate of feminist social scientists and policy makers from Europe, the UK, and North America. http://www.genet.ac.uk/Synopsis/index.html
    From the actual study paper the difference in happiness levels between men and women at age 78 (long after the apparent inflection point at age 48) is a mere 3-5%…(page 32…scale is out of 3)
    http://www.genet.ac.uk/workpapers/index.html
    you would think this to be good news that such a small differnce exists, but the tools that the old school feminist guard use to move and mold the cultural landscape are 1. female angst and 2. male guilt. That’s what this paper is about.
    what’s cool on this site is that people seem to see through it….on the mainstream media sites there’s people from both genders being emotionally victimised by this so-called study…arguing and bickering with each other about the reasons for women being less happy than men.

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