The Fulfillment of Career Dreams at Midlife: Does it Matter for Women’s Mental Health?

Carr, Deborah
Working paper no. 1996-21


This paper examines whether a woman’s mental health at midlife is affected by the degree to which her earlier career aspirations have been fulfilled. Based on data for 3,052 female respondents to the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), the analysis assesses whether a discrepancy between the socioeconomic status of the occupation to which a woman aspired at age 35 and her actual accomplishments at age 53 affects her mental health at age 53. Three dimensions of mental health are considered: depression, psychological well-being and purpose in life. Results indicate that women who fall short of their career goals suffer from lower levels of psychological well-being and purpose in life, higher levels of depression, and are significantly less likely to report that they are “very successful” in their worklives. The harmful effect of falling short of one’s goal lessens when one’s self-assessment of success at work is controlled. Surprisingly, surpassing one’s goal does not provide any benefits to one’s mental health; moreover, women who surpassed their early career aspiration by a great distance are significantly less likely to describe themselves as “very successful” in their worklives. Women who, at age 35, “did not know” what they hoped to be doing in the future evidenced significantly lower levels of well-being and purpose in life at age 53 in the baseline “aspiration-attainment gap” models, yet this effect is no longer statistically significant after prior depression is controlled.