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The myth of the male midlife crisis

The origin of the term "midlife crisis" had nothing to do with buying a sports car.
Flickr/CC/Dave H.
The origin of the term “midlife crisis” had nothing to do with buying a sports car.

It’s always illuminating to go back and identify the historical origins of scientific concepts. What you frequently find is that the evidence at the birth of the concept was weak or even entirely speculative. Yet, for a variety of reasons (often, but not always, commercial ones) the concept has become embedded in our collective belief system. We accept it as fact.

The concept of the midlife crisis is a case in point, as Jesse Bering (“The Belief Instinct”), a psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition & Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, explains in his most recent “Bering in Mind” blog for Scientific American. Its origins had nothing to do with the stereotype of a balding man in his 40s or 50s buying a red sports car and ditching his wife of 20-plus years for the lithe arms of a woman half his age.

“This popular image of the ‘midlife-crisis’ is a far cry from what the scholar Elliott Jacques originally had in mind when he first coined this term back in 1965,” writes Bering. “…[W]hat Jacques, a psychoanalyst, sought originally to examine with his notion of the midlife crisis was its relation to creative genius.”

Jacques had become intrigued by how many famous male artists and thinkers (he saw this only as a male issue) seemed to either die or stop creating meaningful work between the ages of 35 and 39. After a “random study” of the lives (and deaths) of 310 famous men, he came up with the theory that genius could take one of three paths at midlife. One path is death (literally). Another is a sort of creative death in which the artist or thinker never produces anything of much note again. The third path (and, let’s face it, the one everybody hopes will be theirs) is one in which the creative output continues, but in a different — and improved — way.

An issue for ordinary men, too
You didn’t have to be brilliant, however, to experience a midlife crisis. Jacques argued that ordinary men also grappled with the same issue — and at the same time in life.

“The heart of the matter, Jacques believed, is in the discomfiting realization that one’s remaining time on earth is less than what they’ve already lived,” writes Bering. “Death is now clearly on ‘this side’ of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint.”

Jacques’ newly coined term, “midlife crisis,” did not become part of the general vernacular, however, until the late 1970s, when Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson published the “The Seasons of a Man’s Life.” But Levinson had a different take on the concept.

“Levinson felt that midlife crises were actually more common than not and appeared like clockwork between the ages of 40 to 45,” writes Bering. “For Levison, such crises were characterized primarily by a stark, painful ‘de-illusionment’ process stemming from the individual’s unavoidable comparison between his youthful dreams and his sobering present reality.”

Enter the red sports cars and the trophy wives.

Based on evidence? Not much
But how evidence-based are these concepts of the male midlife crisis? Not very, as Bering points out:

In the decades since Jacques and Levinson posited their mostly psychoanalytic ideas of the midlife crisis, a number of more empirically minded psychologists have attempted to validate it with actual data. And with little success. 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.
Adolescence isn’t exactly a walk in the park either — as a teen, I’d worry so much about the uncertainties of my future that I vividly recall envying the elderly their age, since for them, no such uncertainties remained. Actually, old people — at least Swiss old people — aren’t fans of the “storm and stress” of adolescence, either. Freund and Ritter asked their elderly respondents which stage of their lives they’d prefer to return to, if they could. Most said middle age.

You can read Bering’s essay on the Scientific American Blog Network.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by W Walker on 10/10/2011 - 11:45 am.

    I think the basis for Levinson’s theory is probably based on Jung’s theory on the stages of life developed in the beginning of the last century.

    I think those of us who are 50ish can look no further than ourselves for empirical evidence of whether or not the thery is true. I, for one, continue to search for meaning and relevancy in the face of the yawning chasm of meaningless I stare at each day. However,getting behind the wheel of an eight cylinder muscle car from time to time does take the edge off though.

  2. Submitted by Dike Drummond MD on 10/10/2011 - 05:31 pm.

    Nice Article Susan !

    One of the midlife crisis challenges is the Hollywood stereotype of the red sports car driving “men behaving badly”. That is NOT a midlife crisis, it is a midlife catastrophe.

    The word crisis comes from a greek root that simply means “decision”. And a real midlife crisis is something we will all go through multiple times. It is that point where you (finally) make a decision to change your life. A functional midlife crisis is where that change is focused on bringing you more meaning, fulfillment and passion.

    It is NOT a psychological diagnosis or disease … it is a natural life transition. You choose to take your life on a different path. Crisis over. And it is NEVER that easy.

    When done well, a midlife crisis is actually a shortcut to the life you deserve.

    My two cents,

    Dike Drummond MD

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/10/2011 - 10:10 pm.

    I believe what some people call a mid-life crisis and all the associated sterotypical behavior is nothing more than a plateauing effect in your chosen field (“a sort of creative death in which the artist or thinker never produces anything of much note again”) due to boredom.

    This happens to all men (and women, I presume) but it’s most noticeable in people who work in more creative fields where for most of their career, their work is marked by noticable continuous improvement. When a job screener would tell me that an applicant had ten years’ experience, I would ask whether it was really ten years experience or one year of experience ten times.

    But career continuous improvement requires continuous interest. And continuous interest requires continuous change. Without it, work quality eventually plateaus.

    I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve always worked with bleeding edge technology in a field awash in new ideas that I find interesting. It would be impossible to get bored with what I’m doing.

    But most people aren’t that lucky. I have several friends and relatives who have worked in the same job, doing essentially the same thing for 40 years. They spend most of their time thinking or talking about their retirement plans. Their sad circumstances are that since they don’t work in a creative field, they’re not even afforded the claim of a “mid-life crisis” because no one would notice.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/11/2011 - 09:31 am.

    I have worked in the same field for the last 30-35 years, progressing but with no big event that fits here. But in my personal, mental and spiritual life I hit my crisis at the age of 39. The need for anonymity forces me to say no more but I was able to move forward with option 3 here. Unfortunately when my younger brother hit the same crossroad he wasn’t able to adjust and he fell victim to option 1.

    Just a reminder that these issues fall into more areas than just our work life.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/11/2011 - 09:36 am.

    An interesting piece, Susan…

    Whatever it is, I survived it, and though I don’t agree with any of the first 3 comments in total, I do agree with each of them in part.

    My first inclination was to dismiss #1, but I’m an old amateur racer, and I still like to occasionally wring out the car’s capabilities. Something about the interaction of reflexes (mine are deteriorating with age), motor skills and machine is both unpredictable and appealing at the same time. I had much the same sensation this summer with my first experience of actually flying a plane. It wasn’t so much a “joy of flight” moment as a case of “This is really cool” to be able to combine the senses and motor skills in a kind of technical way to get the plane to go where I wanted it to go. Very interesting, very visceral, and I do understand Mr. Walker’s apparent affection for muscle cars – I had one myself back in the day.

    I also liked Dike Drummond’s description of a “natural life transition.” I’m not sure it’s always something we take on purposefully, or that it necessarily has the drama quotient implied by “bringing you more meaning, fulfillment and passion,” but change is among the constants of life, and thinking about what it involves and how it affects you, and your relationship with people and things around you, strikes me as both worthwhile and also a natural part of the proceedings.

    The pleasant surprise here was finding that there was at least one area where I might have something in common with Mr. Tester. Politically, we’re diametrically opposed, but his points about “continuous improvement” requiring both “continuous interest” and “continuous change” are well-taken. My first college summer job was in the office environment of a big corporation, where I worked with some people who were in just the position that Tester described – they’d been doing essentially the same thing for decades, and spent a lot of time thinking and talking about that point in the future when they could escape that routine. I quickly realized that it was not something I’d enjoy.

    I never worked with “bleeding edge” technology – schools are usually at least one generation behind, and often several generations behind in that area – but I found high school teaching to be a career of, as he puts it, continuous interest and continuous change. Adolescent human beings are infinitely variable, and not only was each day different, each day varied by the hour, and sometimes by the minute, so I was very much engaged throughout the working day, and no two days, weeks, months, semesters, years were alike. Technology or not, I was never bored with what I was doing.

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