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The Myth of Midlife Crisis

A review of both classic and recent literature on midlife crisis reveals it as a problematic topic. Conceptually, there is much disagreement with regard to the very existence of midlife crisis, as well as the definition, characteristics, and universality of the phenomenon. This paper will present background on the historical development of the concept of midlife crisis, as well as information on theoretical positions and research relating to the phenomenon.

The Myth of Midlife Crisis

Midlife in itself is a potentially ambiguous term. Often described simply as the stage between young adulthood and old age, midlife is most commonly considered as encompassing the period between 40 and 64 years of age . Yet another characterization is that midlife denotes “the stage at which adults attain ‘full maturity,’ as their responsibilities become more complex” . Taken together, these definitions seem a reasonable description of the midlife period.  However, definitions of a more operational nature would undoubtedly help to clarify the concept. Though it is tempting to embrace the age-related definition due to its objectivity and ease of application, it is important to remember the broad range of individual differences with regard to the aging process. Thus, some people might enter the midlife period considerably earlier than 40, while others might hold old age at bay well past their sixty-fourth birthdays.

With a reasonably acceptable conceptualization of midlife in hand, however, the topic of midlife crisis can be explored. Evidently, the term was originally used by Jaques in 1965, as he described the personal experiences of a group of artists whom he studied. According the Jaques, midlife crisis involves the realization that one is mortal, accompanied by a shift in timeframe from “time since birth” to “time left to live.” Though a number of theorists and researchers have added various elements of elaboration, Jaques’ description remains germane to the midlife crisis concept as we use the term currently.

The phenomenon captured the imagination of lay readers interested in “pop psychology” to the extent that the phrase “midlife crisis” has become something of a cliché in today’s vernacular. In order to understand more fully the appeal of the concept, it is important to consider the historical context in which the public was first exposed to the phenomenon. Some theorists suggest that “[i]t was a concept reflective of the shifting ideological and explanatory frameworks characteristic of the late 1960s and early 1970s” with their emphasis on “a culture of alienation, questioning of societal norms, and a burgeoning of alternative lifestyles” . Those who approached midlife during this particular period of tumultuous social change may have experienced a sense of confusion and fear of the unknown that was essentially superimposed on the typical concerns we have at midlife –- those involving mortality, passage of time, and lost opportunities. Thus, Jaques’ original conceptualization of midlife crisis was elaborated to include intensive introspection and re-evaluation, leading to anxiety, panic, or depression.

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