A midlife crisis is a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 40–64 years old.
The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly shortcomings of accomplishments in life. This may produce feelings of depression, remorse, and anxiety, or the desire to achieve youthfulness or make drastic changes to their current lifestyle.
The term was coined by Elliott Jaques in 1965. More modern research has shown this is not a phase that most middle-aged people actually experience, and some have questioned the existence of this phenomenon.
When it does occur, a midlife crisis is not typically actually experienced during the midpoint of one’s life, which for most average human lifespans would be around the age of 40.
Academic research since the 1980s rejects the notion of mid-life crisis as a phase that most adults go through. Personality type and a history of psychological crisis are believed to predispose some people to this “traditional” midlife crisis.
People going through this suffer a variety of symptoms and exhibit a disparate range of behaviors.
It is important to understand the difference between a mid-life crisis and a mid-life stressor. Mid-life is the time from years 40–64. where a person is often evaluating his or her own life. However, many mid-life stressors are often labeled as a mid-life crisis. Day-to-day stressors are likely to add up and be thought of as a crisis, but in reality, it is simply an “overload”. Both women and men often experience multiple stressors because of their simultaneous roles as spouses, parents, employees, children, etc.
Many middle-aged adults experience major life events that can cause a period of psychological stress or depression, such as the death of a loved one, or a career setback. However, those events could have happened earlier or later in life, making them a “crisis,” but not necessarily a mid-life one. In the same study, 15% of middle-aged adults experienced this type of midlife turmoil. Being of a lower educational status is related to feeling stressors to a greater degree than those of a higher education level during midlife.
The condition may occur from the ages of 40–64. Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women. A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
- work or career (or lack thereof)
- spousal relationships (or lack thereof)
- maturation of children (or lack of children)
- aging or death of parents (or lack of death of parents)
- physical changes associated with aging
Mid-life crisis can affect men and women differently because their stressors differ. An American cultural stereotype of a man going through a midlife crisis may include the purchase of a luxury item such as an exotic car, or seeking intimacy with a younger woman. Some men seek younger women who are able to procreate, not necessarily with an intention to produce offspring. A man’s midlife crises is more likely to be caused by work issues, a woman’s crisis by personal evaluations of their roles. Even though there are differences between why men and women go through a midlife crisis, the emotions they both encounter can be intense.
One of the main characteristics of a mid-life crisis perspective, is one assumes that their mid-life is about to be eventful, usually in a negative way, and potentially stressful. Psychologist Oliver Robinson’s research characterizes each decade of life by describing frequent occurrences or situations particular to those age periods. He describes that a crisis can begin in a person’s early 20s, when they usually try to map out their whole life. Moreover, the later age period, between 50 and 60, may be a time of illness or even the thought of death. Such a deadline may convince a middle-aged person that their life needs to be lived as expected.
Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis may feel:
- a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished
- a fear of humiliation among more successful colleagues
- longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
- need to spend more time alone or with certain peers
- a heightened sense of their sexuality or lack thereof ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status
- ambitious to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life
Physical changes that commonly occur during these years are weight gain, wrinkles, sagging skin, hair loss. Regular exercise and maintenance of a nutritious diet may help to sustain one’s physical and mental health during these years of transition.
Significant changes made early in life may prevent one from having a mid-life crisis. An example supporting such a theory can be derived from the research conducted by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne. People who changed jobs before their midlife years had a greater sense of generativity when they reached mid-life. They also experienced a greater sense of motivation to deviate from stagnation and a desire to help the younger generation thrive. This is a psychological stage proposed by Erik Erikson that describes a normal stage adults go through during their mid-life years.
The notion of the mid-life crisis began with followers of Sigmund Freud, who thought that during middle age everyone’s thoughts were driven by the fear of impending death. Although mid-life crisis has lately received more attention in popular culture than serious research, there are some theoretical constructs supporting the notion. Jungian theory holds that mid-life is key to individuation, a process of self-actualization and self-awareness that contains many potential paradoxes. Although Carl Jung did not describe midlife crisis per se, the mid-life integration of thinking, sensation, feeling, and intuition that he describes could, it seems, lead to confusion about one’s life and goals.
Erik Erikson’s life stage of generativity versus stagnation also coincides with the idea of a mid-life crisis. Erikson believed that in this stage adults begin to understand the pressure of being committed to improving the lives of generations to come. In this stage a person realizes the inevitability of mortality and the virtue of this stage is the creating of a better world for future generations in order for the human race to grow. Stagnation is the lack of psychological movement or growth. Instead of helping the community a person is barely able to help their own family. Those who experience stagnation do not invest in the growth of themselves or others.