What Makes You Think You're Having a Midlife Crisis?

Stereotypes about middle age continue to feed the midlife crisis frenzy.

Posted Jan 25, 2020

The idea of a midlife crisis has become one of the stalwarts in popular psychology, permeating everyday conversations and magazine articles. Oddly enough, academic psychology largely ignores the concept, as reflected in a search of behavioral and social science’s largest online database of published articles.

Out of the nearly 117,000 published articles on aging, there are a mere 126 that touch upon the midlife crisis, with one of the latest (Lachman, 2015) serving as a critique of the concept. Related to the midlife crisis is the concept of the “U-shaped” happiness curve in adulthood, suggesting a dip in happiness during the broad swath of years from the 30s to the 60s. Recent coverage involves a working paper by Dartmouth College economist David Blanchflower. Released via the Cambridge, MA-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), this new document summarizes data on happiness and life satisfaction across 132 countries and 109 data files. Another published paper (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2016) covers the inverted U of age and antidepressant use, a related but somewhat different concept.

People seem to resonate with the idea that when they hit a certain age, they will be temporarily miserable until they manage to survive for another 10 or 20 years or so. Perhaps the question we should be asking about the whole matter is not whether the data show a “U” or a wobbly line in happiness across the 30- to 60-year age period of “midlife,” but why it’s such an appealing concept.

It may be possible to gain some insight from the recent “OK Boomer” fad that hit the media in late 2019. This derogatory notion has now become applied to anyone in the Baby Boomer generation (born in 1946-64), including, very inappropriately, Alex Trebek, who was 79 years old at the time. Imagine if such a stereotypical and patronizing phrase were levied at any other demographically defined group.

As noted by the University of Akron’s Michael Vale and colleagues (2019), even if ageism is intended to be “benevolent,” its victims may suffer negative physical and mental health consequences. Indeed, as Vale et al.'s analyses suggest, the “good” form of ageism (older people are wise, kind, and sweet) makes older adults the subject of pity, not high regard, when combined with the belief that they've lost their mojo. Benevolent ageism, as Vale et al. point out, can lead to “overaccommodative” behaviors in which you offer help when none is needed.

If you’ve ever seen an older adult decline the offer of a seat by a younger person while on public transportation, you’ve witnessed this form of benevolent ageism. The negative consequences of this seemingly helpful gesture are to trigger self-referential, ageist beliefs within the older individual: "I'm old; therefore, I need help." More about this point later.

What might make ageism the cause of the midlife crisis (mis)conception? First and foremost, and what psychologists object to the most about the idea, is that it lumps people together on the basis of age and age alone. The U-shaped researchers do attempt to disaggregate age from other demographic factors, but these nuances are lost in attention-grabbing media headlines.

The idea of individual differences is fundamental to developmental science, and most theorists and researchers in the field take the position that age cannot be used to predict an individual’s psychological characteristics. People show both intraindividual differences, or distinctions within their own abilities and qualities, and interindividual differences, which lead people of the same age to show large variations.

You may agree that these distinctions make sense, especially if you compare yourself to others who are the same age as you, and who are involved in different stages of parenting, look younger or older than you, or have chosen an early retirement (interindividual variability). Within yourself, think about how you may be a fast runner, but very slow when it comes to solving math problems (intraindividual variability). Despite these obvious facts, you may still often define yourself by your chronological age, perhaps even determining who you socialize with on the basis of a shared year of birth. In part, this may be where the midlife crisis idea gets its appeal because it allows you to label the way you’re feeling by referring to your age rather than some other more complex issue that’s going on with you at the moment.

The idea that the midlife crisis may receive its support from ageism provides a new take on the issue. Ageism is, by definition, based on the idea that your attributes (and those of other people) are a function of age. Whether you like it or not, people apply ageist stereotypes to you whether they call you a "Millennial" or a "Boomer” or those poor in-betweeners known as "Gen X."  Against this backdrop, the midlife crisis becomes part of that stereotyping process and thus fits into the general category of ageism.

Think about the related term, “senior moment.” The “senior” in this term is not being used as a token of respect for one’s elders. Instead, it is shorthand for the idea that loss of cognitive capacity is an inevitable feature of aging. As an example of ageism, the term involves a combination of pity and fear. “There, there,” you might say to the self-proclaimed victim of the process, even while you fear that this will be the path along which your own mental abilities will soon descend.

What is perhaps ironic, but understandable, is the fact that when people apply these age-based terms to themselves, they tend to laugh, “Oh, it’s just a ‘senior moment,’” or “I must be having a midlife crisis.” As noted by communications researchers Craig Fowler and colleagues (2015), using age-based stereotypes to describe yourself only reinforces those age-based stereotypes within your own identity and in the way others treat you. 

As Fowler et al. point out, “Negative stereotypes of older adults are so widely held that middle-aged and older adults readily draw on them to explain their experiences. Although this may seem a good-humored way of responding to frustrating events, making age-related excuses can be risky.” The risk, specifically, is that you succumb to those very stereotypes that label you as losing your grip on your health and cognitive abilities.

From an ageist perspective, then, the focus in the media on the midlife crisis can be seen as another example of the stereotyping that continues to follow middle-aged and older adults. This stereotype may be so prominent in the media that it becomes the basis for self-fulfilling prophecies. Fowler et al. argue, in contrast, that it’s time for you to look to defining your self-concept on the basis of qualities within yourself other than your age.

To sum up, individual trajectories of development can go in many directions. By avoiding harmful stereotypes based on age, yours will become a more fulfilling pathway.

References

Vale, M. T., Bisconti, T. L., & Sublett, J. F. (2019). Benevolent ageism: Attitudes of overaccommodative behavior toward older women. The Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1080/00224545.2019.1695567

Lachman, M. E. (2015). Mind the gap in the middle: A call to study midlife. Research in Human Development, 12(3–4), 327–334.doi: 10.1080/15427609.2015.1068048

Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2016). Antidepressants and age: A new form of evidence for U-shaped well-being through life. Journal of Economic Fowler, C., Gasiorek, J., & Giles, H. (2015). The role of communication in aging well: Introducing the communicative ecology model of successful aging. Communication Monographs, 82(4), 431-457. doi: