Psychologist Busts Midlife Crisis Myth

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Elliot Jacques coined the term midlife crisis 40 years ago, when the average lifespan was 70 and midlife came at age 35.
Individuals could expect their quality of life to decline from that point forward, Jacques argued, so some extreme reactions to encroaching mortality were to be expected, such as having extramarital affairs or buying a Corvette.

Not any more, says Professor Carlo Strenger, of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology. In an article coauthored with the Israeli researcher Arie Ruttenberg for the Harvard Business Review last year and another article in Psychoanalytic Psychology, Strenger posits that the midlife years are the best time of life to flourish and grow.

Citing research based on empirical evidence and studies from the field, Strenger says adult lives really do have second acts.

"Somehow this line has been drawn around the mid- and late 40s as the time for a midlife crisis in our society," says Strenger. "But as people live longer and fuller lives, we have to cast aside that stereotype and start thinking in terms of 'midlife transition' rather than 'midlife crisis.'" He dismisses the prevailing myth that reaching the years between the 40s and the early 60s means adapting to diminished expectations, both internally and from society.

"If you make fruitful use of what you've discovered about yourself in the first half of your life," Strenger argues, "the second half can be the most fulfilling."

Most people make many of their most important life decisions before they really know who they are, he says. By age 30, most Americans have already married, decided where to live, bought their first home and chosen their career. "But at 30, people still have the better part of their adult years ahead of them," Strenger says.

The good news is that extended life expectancy, better health practices, education and a greater emphasis on emotional self-awareness and personal fulfilment have reversed the chances one will have a midlife crisis. Neurological research has also disproved the notion the brain deteriorates after 40. "A rich and fruitful life after 50 is a much more realistic possibility," he says.

How can you transition smoothly through the best years of your life?

"First, and most important," Strenger suggests, "invest some sincere thought in the fact that you have more high-quality adult years ahead of you than behind you. Realize what that means in planning for the future."

Second, he says, think about what you've learned about yourself so far. Consider what you've found to be your strongest abilities and about the things that most please you, not what your parents or society expected of you when you were young.

Third, don't be afraid of daunting obstacles in making new changes. "Once you realize how much time you have left in this world, you will find it is profoundly worth it to invest energy in changing in major ways. A new career choice is not an unreasonable move, for example," Strenger advises. And you may now have a better chance of succeeding because your choices will be based on knowledge and experience, rather than youthful blind ambition.

Finally, Strenger says it is absolutely necessary to make use of a support network. Individuals should discuss major life changes with their colleagues, friends and families. The people who know you best will best be able to support you in the new directions you want to take, he advises, and a professional therapist or counsellor can also be helpful.

Stenger's 2004 book on the subject, The Designed Self, was published by The Analytic Press. His latest book, Critique of Global Unreason: Individuality and Meaning in the Global Age, will be published by Palgrave this year.

Barbara Schreibman

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 21, 2010