Searching for Meaning Beyond the “Midlife Crisis”
The search for meaning is a lifelong quest
Posted January 30, 2018
In my article “Onward and Upward”, I suggested we innovate how we look at the category of “seniors”. Instead of lumping all people over age 50 into one category, commonly referred to as seniors, I suggested that we adopt four new categories, devised along the chronological phases one may pass through over a lifetime. These categories are: Freshman (50 to 64), Sophomore (65 to 79), Junior (80 to 94), and Senior (95+).
What’s important about this innovative idea is that it forces us to no longer look at ages 50 and beyond as one long phase in our lives, but as a continuum along which we might encounter many different experiences over the span of, on average 30 years, to possibly, up to another 50 years. Additionally, setting the goal of becoming a true senior, aged 95 and up, can act as a magnet to pull us into the future, versus feeling that life is over for us, once we are "over the hill" at age 50.
One of the key challenges for the Freshman phase (ages 50 to 64) is the incidence of a “mid-life crisis”, a term coined by Elliot Jaques in a 1965 article in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.1 Midlife is a time when many adults take on new job responsibilities, begin caring for elders, face relationship challenges, experience the “empty-nest” syndrome when their grown children leave home, and struggle with the onset of traditional retirement. These events lead many people to reassess where they are and ideally, where there would like to go in the future.
Midlife is also a period of time when people realize that how they are living their lives no longer suits them nor gives them a sense of meaning. The symptoms associated with this midlife crisis most often shared by my clients include:
- Feeling discontent with one’s life or lifestyle including people and activities which may have, at one time, provided more fulfillment
- Questioning decisions made years earlier
- Confusion about one’s achievements and questioning why “I failed to manifest the life I thought I would have by now”
- Confusion about “who am I” beyond the roles assigned by others, both in the workplace and in one’s personal life.
- Anger, expressed or hidden, over trying to fulfill the expectations of others or wanting their approval, in lieu of pursuing one’s own wishes or dreams
- Yearning for the early years, wanting to retreat rather than move forward
When I reflect upon these symptoms and even the term “midlife crisis” itself, I reach two key conclusions:
#1 I believe that we may be placing too much emphasis on the word “crisis” -- a word derived from the Greek word krisis meaning decision point or turning point. Considering that during our lifetime, we will experience many decision points or turning points, the focus on just one big crisis, specifically the mid-life crisis, is misleading. It is a fallacy to believe that once we have solved the dilemmas in midlife, we will be all set for the next 30 or 50 years. We must prepare to face many crises on our path to living a long and truly meaningful life.
#2 We may be overlooking the growing psychological support and assistance needed in the later years. Much focus has been placed on addressing issues faced by our youth as they adjust to leaving school and the safety of their parent’s homes to forge a life on their own and to adjust to the demands of the workplace. Much focus has also been placed on addressing issues at midlife, including the confusion surrounding relationships, career changes, and identity. However, not much focus has been placed on addressing the issues facing people beyond mid-life.
The triggers or catalysts for crises change throughout the years. Based on my experience, I have witnessed people’s search for meaning intensify with age. Perhaps, it’s a growing realization of their mortality and that time is running out. Perhaps it’s the shift from a focus on the external – wanting acceptance and approval from others, to the internal – wanting to understand their life’s journey. Perhaps it’s the uneasiness when faced with the question, "is that all there is"?
Older people must prepare to face the upcoming challenges in their lives, such as:
- being tasked with caring for friends or loved ones who are ill
- struggling with the decisions of where they and their partners should live – independently, with family or friends, or in an “old age” home?
- learning to cope with death, including death of loved ones
- struggling with social isolation and loneliness, and questioning where they belong and “who needs me”?
- with work no longer the primary source of identity, facing the question, “who am I without my work”?
- wanting a new challenge, struggling with which direction they should choose in terms of full time, part time work or volunteering
- dealing with day-to-day decisions, especially health and financial issues
Once again, I suggest that we move beyond labelling a senior as anyone from the age of 50 to 100. I also suggest we put the concept of the mid-life crisis in context. Life is not a straight line. We all will face a lifetime of challenges--times to reflect upon who we are and how we are living our lives. Expecting that these challenges will continue to arise throughout our lifetime, especially in the later years after the age of 65, is part of living a long and truly meaningful life.
1. Jaques, E. (1965). "Death and the mid-life crisis". The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 46(4), 502-514.