Is It Time to Retire the Midlife Crisis?

This just in: Mid-life crises aren't for real. Epidemiological studies reveal that midlife is no more or less likely to be associated with career disillusionment, depression or suicide than any other life stage.
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This just in: Mid-life crises aren't for real.

In a fascinating post on the Scientific American website, Jesse Bering explores the history and mythology of the proverbial mid-life crisis. He notes that despite our commonly held assumption that middle age brings a full on melt-down replete with new girlfriend, new hair style and the requisite red corvette, mid-life crises aren't borne out empirically.

Indeed, epidemiological studies reveal that midlife is no more or less likely to be associated with career disillusionment, divorce, anxiety, alcoholism, depression or suicide than any other life stage; in fact, the incidence rates of many of these problems peak at other periods of the lifespan.

So why do we cling to the concept of a mid-life crisis? According to Israeli psychologist Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University, it's because most common notions of what midlife is supposed to be like are stuck in the past. They were constructed when life-expectancy was lower, people's health -- especially in later years -- was much worse and there was less emphasis on education and self-awareness.

"People are so used to thinking of midlife as basically a period of loss, that it often does become a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "But some people, you really see that they begin to blossom, they begin to be more fruitful. They do things on a larger scale."

In other words, now that we are living longer, middle age has become a time of reflection, growth and optimism, rather than one of stagnation and despair. According to a recent survey carried out in the U.K. by Experian Credit Expert, some 85 percent of 40-59 year olds are giving themselves a second chance at achieving their ambitions and desires -- from changing careers to learning new skills to seeing the world.

And these trends hold regardless of gender. While men have long been the standard bearers for mid-life crises, this too is apparently over-stated. According to Margie Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who lead the largest such study in the U.S., only 10 to 12 percent of men have experience anything close to a crisis.

Interestingly (to me), because middle age is often a period defined by close relationships with people both older and younger than oneself people tend to focus on making (i.e. parents and children), positive contributions to society through interactions with people of significantly different ages. Such interactions include formal and informal mentee/mentor relationships, stratified workplace relations and cross-generation family dynamics.

In that vein, I was struck this morning by an article about three highly successful, middle-aged executives who jumped ship from their respective companies in corporate America to work for a non-profit that leverages technology to solve development problems in the third world. As I go about looking for a job at 45, I find that I too am drawn to organizations that will allow me to give back and help shape other people's voices, rather than just honing my own.

This doesn't mean that there aren't any mid-life trends out there. Here in the U.K. at least, middle-aged men seem to be trading in their Corvettes for cycles. (Goodness knows it's true in our household.) Women, for their part, are looking inward: Finding meaning in things like yoga, mindfulness and home.

All of which is to be welcomed. Lord knows there are enough people losing it right now around the world on a daily basis. It's reassuring to know that some of us are managing to keep our sh#@ together.