If you ask a person when “middle age” begins, the answer, not surprisingly, depends on the age of that respondent. American college-aged students are convinced that one fits soundly into the middle-age category at 35. Respondents who are actually 35, however, would beg to differ with these youngsters. Rather, for them, middle age is still half a decade away, with 40 representing the inaugural year. Such disagreement over when this term applies—perhaps it’s simply whenever one starts using expressions such as “youngsters” and “young people”—may be an entirely American affair, however. Recently, a large sample of Swiss participants spanning several generations agreed with one another that middle-aged people are those who are between 35 to 53 years of age.
Frankly, however, the precise chronological point at which we formally enter “middle age” is of little importance. What’s much more intriguing are the psychological changes thought to accompany it. (And in fact, based on our species’ average life expectancy today, most people overestimate it—technically, middle age would kick off no later than 32, at least for men.) After all, we’ve all heard of the dreaded “midlife crisis,” but what, exactly, is it? Furthermore, does it even exist as a scientifically valid concept? There’s no question that most people believe that it’s a genuine psychiatric phenomenon. In one study, University of Zurich investigators Alexandra Freund and Johannes Ritter found that 92 percent of their 372 respondents were absolutely convinced that the midlife crisis was real; 71 percent said that they’d even known someone in the throes of one.
My first encounter with this tragic illness was my mother informing me that, “your father is having a midlife crisis” after he suddenly bought a horse and left her for a younger woman (these things were related, but that’s another story). Needless to say, my mother’s diagnosis of my father wasn’t accompanied by tones of sympathy, and I’ve long feared the day when I, too, might inherit this shameful affliction, struck down by a sudden, incurable case of Joe-Shmoe hedonism. The most frequent symptoms of this disease, I gathered from television, were a shiny new convertible (or prize-winning stallion), a toupée, and the unshakable delusion that one is now attractive to twenty-year-old co-eds.
But 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. Jacques wasn’t especially interested in women’s psychological functioning as they transitioned to midlife, which, he felt, “is often obscured … by the proximity of the onset of changes connected with menopause.” In fact, the “midlife crisis” is still seen today as a distinctively male type of problem, one often lobbed at men by disgruntled women to explain the formers’ selfish, impulsive behaviors. This gender stereotype is interesting in its own right. But what Jacques, a psychoanalyst, sought originally to examine with his notion of the midlife crisis was its relation to creative genius.
According to him, the midlife crisis is such a crisis that many great artists and thinkers don’t even survive it. “I had the impression,” explains Jacques, “that the age of 37 seemed to figure prominently in the death of individuals in this category.” So he decided to crunch the numbers with a “random sample” of 310 such geniuses and, indeed, he discovered that a considerable number of these formidable talents—including Mozart, Raphael, Chopin, Rimbaud, Purcell, and Baudelaire—succumbed to some kind of tragic fate or another and drew their last breaths between the ages of 35 and 39. “The closer one keeps to genius in the sample,” Jacques observes, “the more striking and clear-cut is this spiking of the death rate in midlife.”
Yet for those of you out there still on a golden path to glory—and how many remain of Kundera’s famed immortals it’s impossible to say—the good news is that an early death is by no means inevitable. Basically, argues Jacques, around the age of 35, genius can go in one of three directions. If you’re like that last batch of folks, you either die, literally, or else you perish metaphorically, having exhausted your potential early on in a sort of frenzied, magnificent chaos, unable to create anything approximating your former genius. The second type of individual, however, actually requires the anxieties of middle age—specifically, the acute awareness that one’s life is, at least, already half over—to reach their full creative potential. Before his 38th birthday, for example, Bach was just an unusually talented church organist and music tutor; it was only in middle age, and after securing a cantorship in Leipzig, points out Jacques, that Bach’s “colossal achievements as a composer” really began in earnest. Although he’d produced Romeo and Juliet in his early thirties, Shakespeare is thought to have penned Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth all between the ages of 35 and 40. How’s that to make you feel like a sloth?
Finally, the third type of creative genius, says Jacques, is prolific and accomplished even in their earlier years, but their aesthetic or style changes dramatically at middle age, usually for the better. The “spontaneous effusions” that one produces in their late teens and twenties and which are “dictated [only] by the limits of the artist’s physical capacity” becomes more patient and refined. The work of the middle-aged artist is more “a sculptured creativity.” Dante represents the prototypical case here, argues Jacques. He began writing his sombre, philosophical The Divine Comedy at the age of 37, after his banishment from Florence. According to Jacques, The Divine Comedy is the poet’s “first full and worked-through conscious encounter with death”—his works before this reflected a more idyllic worldview.
Jacques also presented several clinical accounts from his therapist office, case studies of everyday men who weren’t part of this glittering pantheon, but who nonetheless were also grappling with the “midlife crisis.” 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. Death is now clearly on “this side” of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint. (Hence the banal over-the-hill quips often overheard at 40th birthday parties.) “For the first time in his life,” Jacques notes about the lamentations of one particularly sad middle-aged man, “he saw his future as circumscribed … he would not be able to accomplish in the span of a single lifetime everything he had desired to do. He could only achieve a finite amount. Much would have to remain unfinished and unrealized.”
Insightful as Jacques was, however, the phrase “midlife crisis” didn’t really creep into suburban vernacular as a catchall diagnosis until the late 1970s. This is when Yale’s Daniel Levinson, building on the stage theory tradition of lifespan developmentalist Erik Erikson, began popularizing tales of middle-class, middle-aged men who were struggling with transitioning to a time where “one is no longer young and yet not quite old.” This culminated in his well-known book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life. Levinson felt that midlife crises were actually more common than not and appeared like clockwork between the ages of 40 to 45. For Levinson, 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. For most men, life moves so swiftly that, by the time you look back at what’s happened, you realize you’ve already suffered an irreparable loss of chance and opportunity. This life review causes depression, anxiety, and “manic flight,” a sort of desperate, now-or-never fumbling to experience the pleasures one has long denied oneself and an escape from stagnation.
In any event, how a man resolves this fundamental conflict, Levinson argued, shapes his outlook and adjustment from that point forward. One way to address this tension between storybook ambitions and anticlimactic adult realities is to focus on the bird in hand rather than those still in the bush. Data reveal that many middle-aged adults reformulate their aspirations in the wake of such a life review, gravitating now more toward maintenance goals—essentially, keeping things status quo and safeguarding their future—rather than setting their sights on lofty new dreams. The forty-year-old libertine protagonist in Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, for instance, has become perfectly content with his unglamorous job as a civil clerk; he’s also thoroughly uninspired by political and cultural changes. “It’s not up to me to adopt or invent new attitudes or new affinities with the world,” he reasons. “I gave up all that at the same time I developed a stoop and my face started to tend toward melancholy.” Complacency sounds grim and certainly has a negative ring to it, but you can look at it another way, too. It offers a mental buffer against anxieties tied to unrealizable dreams; it can even thwart potentially ruinous decisions when we’re most vulnerable to making them, such as quitting a hard-won job or leaving one’s family.
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.
The authors conclude that although the male midlife crisis may not be supported by empirical data outside of psychodynamics, the fact that it remains so integral to Western notions of men’s development still gives it currency, since such social scripts—even if they’re not grounded in biologic functioning—can sometimes have dramatic effects. Freund and Ritter propose, therefore, a more “lenient concept” of the midlife crisis than earlier notions allowed. It may not be a “crisis” state per se, they say, but midlife poses clear challenges to people this age. “Because middle adulthood is commonly viewed as the middle of life, the change in future time perspective as the time until death is likely to highlight the limited remaining time for redirecting or correcting one’s personal developmental path.”
That’s sufficiently vague to permit your favorite middle-aged man his well-earned midlife crisis even in the absence of any rigorous empirical data supporting the existence of the construct.