Hearing the phrase “midlife crisis” might evoke the cliché of a successful man, between 40 and 55, who wakes up one day and decides he’s been chasing all the wrong things: his career, family, wife, car, and possessions. Nothing provides him with the satisfaction he craves. He demands more. Suddenly, he divorces, changes career or organization, dresses differently, gets a young girlfriend, and buys a red sports car. Years later, he finds himself with the same unfulfilled yearnings. Rinse and repeat.
Some people do not buy in to the notion of midlife crises. Some regard it as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely. Some write their own narrative. Others believe they are living through a midlife crisis – sometimes over and over.
There are varying opinions based on what you read and hear. And, when. Research continues and as the data grows within each generation, opinions are reassessed. The research is topical and captures the attention of the media bringing out all sorts of anecdotal evidence to support the narrative or to present changing opinions and lifestyles.
The resources below provide a valuable example of how perspectives, perceptions, and experiences have changed within a short decade. The lesson being, be careful of what you read, hear and believe. Always ask if the narrative fits for you; or is your experience different; or do you want your experience to be different?
The Concept of Middle Age – Not a New Phenomena
While the rinse and repeat scenario described above has become a clichéd midlife-crisis narrative, the concept of middle age as a distinct life stage dates to the 19th century, according to Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012).
The term “midlife crisis” was first coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst, social scientist, and management consultant. In 1974, journalist Gail Sheehy famously depicted the midlife crisis as a life stage in her bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
Evolving Research on Life Stages
The Edmonton Transitions Study (ETS), the longest study of its kind in Canada, has shed new light on the numerous transitions we move through from leaving high school to entering midlife. In 2017, ETS participants entered midlife (age 50).
Earlier research from difference sources claimed that roughly 25% of people in Western societies “suffer” a midlife crisis. The Happiness U-Curve has been cited as evidence of midlife crises. Then, ETS presented long-term data in 2020 arguing that the Happiness U-Curve is not as robust and generalizable as often assumed2. While many of us look back on our late teens and early 20s as being the “glory days” of youth, the ETS long-term research paints a different picture. A picture that gives us reason to challenge the “predictable surprise” of midlife crisis and to write our own narrative.
As an example, a close family member recently bought the “red sports car” at age 83. A red Mustang, 5 Litre, Convertible! Why? Because he could and because he loves to drive. Some “younger” friends and family quipped that he was experiencing a midlife crisis. At 83? I don’t agree. I revere him as a role model for living his life on his terms. Not on others’ expectations or according to some clichéd narrative.
The term crisis contributes to stigmatization, as it suggests a shock, disruption, or loss of control. But the actual data on midlife experience and the relationship between life, work, and happiness points to something different: an extended adjustment and shift in expectations — perhaps unpleasant, but manageable. Back to my close family member. He continues to work as a long-distance driver for an automobile dealership.
The Happiness U-Curve
Even though earlier generations might have been born in particularly good or bad times, research has shown that our psychological well-being follows a U-shaped curve. Earlier research showed that our lowest point of happiness would be in our midlife. However, there are exceptions.
Recently, I have read articles that suggest exceptions such as symptoms of the proverbial midlife crisis appearing in younger people. In research as far back as 2008, it was noted that were already other exceptions to the typical trends in the U-curve with American men becoming progressively less content with their lives1.
Here’s the good news: Research and anecdotal evidence consistently points to increased happiness in the second half of life. Those who decide to continue working experience increased job satisfaction. In many cases, job satisfaction reaches higher levels than experienced early in one’s career, essentially forming a U-shaped curve.
In my own work with people who are assessing and creating their lifestyle after corporate employment, a few Canadian statistics remain steady: over 80% of people over the age of 65 are satisfied with their lives; close to 50% prefer to continue working depending on their ability to choose where, when, and how they work.
For some interesting observations on the reasons and symptoms of midlife crisis, read the additional resources below2,3. But remember to be careful and discerning about what you read, hear, and believe.
What do you think? How does the mid-life crisis narrative apply to your experience of happiness in life and work? Are you a role model? Please do share your story here at Amintro. Your story will add to the growing optimistic approach to disruption, transition, and being awesome at any age.
- Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? (April 2008), Social Science & Medicine
- The U Shape of Happiness Across the Life Course: Expanding the Discussion (May 2020), Perspectives on Psychological Science
- “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,”The Atlantic, December 2014)
Written by Patricia A. Muir, Maestro Quality Inc., THRIVE
Patricia’s signature program “THRIVE After 60” validates women’s choices and amplifies their voices as they remain professionally active after 60 and beyond. Visit her website at https://www.patriciamuir.com/
“Written by Patricia A. Muir, PCC. In my role as principal consultant and coach at Maestro Quality Inc. and founder of THRIVE Coaching Programs, I have worked with women entrepreneurs, executives, and highly skilled professionals who continue to enjoy their work after 60.”