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Midlife Crisis: A Myth or a Reality in Search of a New Name?

How the midlife crisis has changed over time.

Although originally used by psychologists to describe a transitional stage in adult development, today the midlife crisis is often associated with the guy in his 40s who finds a young girlfriend and runs off in his new sports car; or the woman, about the same age, who reinvents herself, buys a new wardrobe, and sometimes buys a new face. Is it a myth? An excuse for impulsive, bad behavior and unrealistic transformations? Or is it a reality in need of a new name, given changes in contemporary culture?

First identified by Elliot Jacques in 1965, the term "midlife crisis" became popular after it began to be used by Freudian psychologists. Among them was Carl Jung, who first described it as a normal part of adult maturation—the time during which people took stock of themselves. He placed it midway between adulthood and the end of life. Erik Erikson, the theorist known for creating the Eight Stages of Development, explained it as a transition during the stage he called "middle adulthood"—when people naturally struggle with questions about their meaning and purpose. With necessary adjustments made at midlife, he believed, people could achieve long term satisfaction by the last stage of life, called "late adulthood."

Although viewed as a normal transition in adult development, psychologists believe it often starts with an overwhelming "uh-oh" moment—when we first become aware that life is passing us by. Those who have made dissatisfying life choices feel especially troubled as they realize there is a finite amount of time left. They reflect back and see goals unattained, risks not taken, and bucket lists unmet. Confusion, doubt, boredom, and anger arise. There is often a wish to return to one's youth or do life over again. Sometimes it leads to more extreme reactions, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, increased alcohol and drug use, with relief sought through psychotherapy or medication.

More recently, researchers have questioned the validity of a true midlife crisis, wondering whether is it misleading to attribute this dilemma to a particular age. Some believe that people—at various ages, for variable reasons (e.g. serious illness, loss of a parent or spouse or financial security)—reflect back on their lives and wonder, "What's next?" Others question if midlife angst is truly a crisis—a sudden experience, like the person who seems to change overnight. Or perhaps it is an emotional response to an accumulation of stresses—unhappy marriages, job dissatisfaction and financial troubles.

There is also debate over whether this crisis is biologically or environmentally based, some believing it is primarily triggered by signs of physical aging—loss of potency for men and the end of reproductive years for women.

Which brings me back to the most intriguing issue: How have changes in our culture influenced the way we view the midlife crisis? Specifically, do our longer lives and what we now expect from them bring new meaning to the term? My answer is yes. Not only do we need to rename this phenomenon so that it accurately describes what is really going on today, but by doing so, we may be better able to resolve it when we experience it ourselves or see it in others.

Here are three reasons to rename the midlife crisis:

Longer Life Span

No doubt, our longer life span means adjusting the midlife point—think halfway through "The Great Gatsby" versus "Great Expectations." When Jung first studied the midlife crisis, he placed it at about age 40, then considered halfway between adulthood and the end of life. With life expectancy shifting from 55 to 78 and people now living well into their 80s and 90s (potentially longer as time goes on), midlife today would hit closer to age 55 or 60.

Interestingly, although the midpoint has shifted forward, "uh-oh" moments have not. Psychologists find these moments of awareness are experienced at about the same age as they were decades ago, when people enter their 40s. There are two probable explanations for this. First, signs of aging continue to make their appearance at around 40—graying, balding, wrinkles, and decreases in endurance, visual acuity, and libido. It's also possible that awareness of these changes has been heightened by our youth—and beauty-obsessed culture, an issue I wrote about here in my post, "Too Young to Feel Old." "Uh-oh" moments are hitting even earlier, many say by age 30 to 35 (this group makes up 30 percent of all botox use).

With angst about aging starting younger and younger and the years ahead stretching longer and longer, we have the perfect storm: a culture that virtually programs us to have a crisis at some point. People are stopping in their tracks, looking back, and then forward, wondering, "Do I want to live out my life with the choices I have made? Will I be able to remain vital, visible, and satisfied for the next 50 or 60 years if I continue as I am?" Clearly, this is no longer the same midlife point that psychoanalysts identified years ago. But the crisis not only exists—we are seeing more and more people struggle with it.

Expectations Of Happiness

Up until rather recently, the primary purpose of work and marriage was to create and care for our families. Deriving fulfillment and happiness played only a secondary role. John Jacobs, M.D., author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage, says, "We are burdened today by the notion that our jobs and marriages will provide significant gratification or contribute dramatically to personal and emotional happiness." Whereas frustration and dissatisfaction were once assumed to be part of these life commitments, today they are barely tolerable. "Finding happiness," Jacobs says, "has become the default expectation."

Add to that the realization that we now have many more options available when dissatisfaction hits. Therapists see men and women who, in the past, might have remained at jobs and in relationships for a lifetime, even if they were dissatisfied. Remember, a lifetime was much shorter then. Now they want out. Even in today's recession, jobs are left. And one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. As people face 30, 40, even 50 years of life ahead, the chance to achieve greater satisfaction is a driving force (or fantasy) and a difficult one to resist.

Changing Roles

The conventional image of the midlife man leaving his family to go off to have a wild adventure or a sordid affair is as clichéd as the idea of a woman replacing her empty nest with a rocking chair to start knitting for her grandchildren. Scenarios commonplace in the 1950s or 60s simply no longer apply. Women now make up the majority of the workforce, not only supporting themselves, but sometimes their families as well, as men are losing jobs at a faster pace since the recession began. About 25 percent of wives today earn more than their husbands. Clearly, some women can now afford the kind of life changes only their male counterparts once could.

And let's not forget that many men are more involved in parenting today, some even choosing to be stay-at-home dads. These are not the kind of men who run off for a midlife adventure without great misgivings about separating from their kids. Nor can they confidently count on their mates (or soon to be ex-mates) to care for the nests they leave behind. In any case, statistics show that women are nearly as likely to be unfaithful today as men are, with 45 to 55 percent of married women and 50 to 60 percent of married men engaging in extramarital affairs. Add to that the fact that two out of every three divorces are initiated by women, and we see that the traditional family model has vastly changed. When faced with "Uh-oh, what's next?" there is now equal opportunity for men and women to act-out, reinvent and move on.

Emerging Maturity

So perhaps it's time to replace the traditional "Midlife Crisis" with a new, more appropriate name: "The Emerging Maturity Crisis." While the word "crisis" may sound overly dramatic, those who experience it continue to say it is exactly that—a crisis. But it no longer is a true "midlife" event, erupting a good 10 years before what is now the midpoint of adulthood. Nor should it be viewed pejoratively, equated with reckless and reactive behavior, as it has so often been in the past.

The good news is we have many years ahead before our actual endpoint. The bad news is that those years ahead can feel like an eternity when living an unhappy or unfulfilled existence. By calling this experience a crisis of "Emerging Maturity," we can view it less as a flight from life as we knew it and more as a sobering emergence into mature adulthood. Although complicated by the many options in our ever-changing current culture, this event may propel us toward new opportunities and second chances—or however many it takes to get it right—to achieve long-term fulfillment.

In the next few weeks, I will follow this piece with one describing the psychological steps that help navigate an "Emerging Maturity Crisis." Meanwhile, tell me if you know someone in the midst of one. Do you view it as a crisis or a transition? Share your thoughts, so we can give this phenomenon a more accurate identity.

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