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Are Mid-life Crises For Real?

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...

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 with it 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, then, do we cling to the concept of a midlife crisis? According to Israeli psychologist Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University, it’s because most common notions of what mid-life 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 mid-life 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% of 40-59 year olds are giving themselves a second chance at achieving their ambitions and desires – from changing career or 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 headed up the largest such study in the United States, only 10 to 12 percent of men have anything approaching a crisis.

Interestingly (to me), because middle age is often a period defined by close relationships with people both older and younger than oneself (i.e. parents and children),  people tend to focus on making 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.

Which 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.



Image: Standing at the Gates of Hell by country_boy_shane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.



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  1. daryl boylan October 10, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    While your comments & those referenced are unquestionably true of many, I fear that more people struggle with mid-life depression than your piece indicates. No doubt despair is much too strong a term, but many who have not achieved what they want or thought they deserved or might have had, must come to terms that it’s too late to change careers or whatever. Certainly the constructive changes you mention would be good solutions, at least in part. But too many try to “succeed” by dumping spouses or other committments in the belief that this will solve the problems. If that doesn’t work out, what then???

  2. Patricia October 10, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    I think you need to move the mid-life crisis/depression/change period of life out of the 40s. 60 + year old women are having a very hard time getting into the work force and many are being driven out…Agism is alive and well and women’s health care is being attacked in the USA by the conservatives right and left.
    Not only were the women of this age group expected to do it ALL, but they also did the majority of the parenting and household tasks – many women are fed up and trying to figure out how to find some space for themselves…but so many of these studies look to young for the answers or the changes that are taking place…..Employers expect one to be 40 when they are 60+ women.

    I was hoping for all my years of working, career on hold, caring for a special needs child to success, and then parents 24/7 I would at least get medicare health care….Nope it looks like I will have the same $5,000 deductible..and my investments are nearly all gone since 2008 and unemployment. I can’t get medical help now…and wow am I NOT alone. I think we burned ourselves out protesting in our youth and teaching our kids to understand the environment.

    I think if the studies looked older they would find many, many of the same problems they say are not a mid-life crisis….

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