The Gift of Aging

The science of getting old.

The Mid-Life Crisis Does and Doesn’t Exist

The MLC might be dismissed as a media invention, but don't ignore its symptoms.

A year or so ago, I bought a Lexus. My daughter took one look at it, and, with the unwavering authority of a teenager, said ‘oh Dad, how sweet - you’re having a mid-life crisis’. I wasn’t in fact – my father had died recently [yes, I know that death of a parent can be a trigger for a crisis, thank you] and I had to sell his car and my own was getting long in the tooth, and the dealer offered me a great deal. That is my story, and I’m sticking to it.

‘The mid-life crisis’, like many a psychological and psychoanalytical term before it (inferiority complex, extravert, Freudian slip) has entered the general vocabulary and is now used by many folks to describe any quirky behaviour by middle aged people. The original meaning of the phrase was rather more tightly defined as a feeling of severe angst upon realising that over half one’s life had been lived and ahead lay the grave.  In people who lacked material success, this in turn led to feelings of inadequacy and the urge to find a younger and sexier partner, buy expensive cars, etc [I am still standing by my story that the Lexus was a bargain and that’s why I bought it].  In people who had enjoyed material success, the crisis might manifest itself as a feeling of ‘is that all there is?’ and the concomitant sense of spiritual emptiness.

I don’t think anyone has ever denied that some people experience these symptoms. Indeed, it would be bizarre if they did not. Human beings are an introspective lot, and they also are often self-critical. As we all are imperfect, when we reach middle age we are almost certain to have missed some goals or be searching for new things to achieve. We are likely to have more money than when we were young, and in a consumerist society, the societal expectation that we will spend it. Having bought life’s essentials, this only leaves luxury goods. Sadly, some people will be bored or exasperated with their existing partner and in many cases might seek someone offering more sexual excitement. Thus, people displaying so-called midlife crisis symptoms should not surprise us.

However, if the mid-life crisis is an inevitable problem for humans, then everyone should experience it. But even the most vociferous supporters of the concept have only ever claimed that a minority (e.g. a fifth or less) of the population will have it. People on relatively low incomes might not have the wherewithal to do many of the archetypal mid-life crisis behaviours. Again, people can buy fancy cars or take up a new activity without being driven by angst or a feeling of compensating for imagined failings.  The waters are further muddied by the fact that much of the literature on the mid-life crisis has been written by journalists rather than psychologists or psychiatrists and often has lacked experimental rigour. In short, the mid-life crisis is not a universal rite of passage, nor can every out of the norm activity by a middle aged person be explained away in this manner.

But this does not mean that we can airily dismiss the mid-life crisis as a product of over-active imaginations. In a limited number of people, changes in mid-life, or an awakening self-perception of life slipping away, of failure, etc, can lead to serious psychiatric problems, such as depression. In other cases, the onset of depression might manifest itself in ‘mid-life’ crisis behaviours.  Psychological and behavioural problems that arise in middle age should thus not be dismissed as ‘the mid-life crisis’ and hence manifestations of a passing phase that is of little consequence. Middle-aged people with psychological problems should see an appropriate specialist – just forget about the crisis label if you don’t feel comfortable with it, but don’t dismiss the symptoms as a passing phase.

Nor should people who are not middle aged imagine that they cannot have a crisis of identity or purpose. Doubts over career choice, the enforced change of status due to retirement or widowhood can all have similar effects.

And on that happy note I offer you season’s greetings for those who observe the religious or secular rites that as I type these words, are fast approaching. More jolliness to follow in the new year.

 

Ian Stuart-Hamilton, Ph.D. is Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Glamorgan, Wales.

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