New sports cars and kept women aren’t the only bellwethers of a midlife crisis. There’s generally a secret checking account, suspicious credit card, and overtime that never shows up on the paycheck. There’s the gym, of course, and the plugs and the rugs and the shameless if not convincing shrugs. But while these are the first in a tranche of tale-tell signs observed in men 45 to 65 years of age, it may surprise you to know they might be doing more than simply reclaiming their youth. For the Midlife Crisis may coincide with something far more primordial.
In 1965, Elliott Jacques, a renowned Canadian psychotherapist, published an essay on working patterns of creative geniuses in which he coined the phrase — Midlife Crisis. Born in Toronto, Jacques studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University and social relations at Harvard. But it was a last-minute enlistment in the Army during WWII where he used that education to establish the Canadian War Office Psychiatry Division, and to apply his gaze to new recruits, enlisted soldiers, and decorated officers. Moreover, he was able to follow and observe these seasoned armed services veterans throughout the course of their lifetime.
Shifts in their behaviors at midlife were so pervasive they became predictable; feelings of dissatisfaction, nostalgia, and depression all coincide with a sudden inability to enjoy life. Concerns over health and appearance, and compulsive attempts to remain youthful, attempt to dial back the inevitable trajectory into the twilight. Even promiscuity during midlife was so common it became a cliché. Considered a psychological theory, rather than a medical diagnosis, Jacques’ Midlife Crisis was manifesting in a plethora of different ways with a single constant. Each and every impulse seemed to connect the middle aged with the young.
Youth > A Gift of Nature
Sigmund Fraud, the father of Psychoanalysis, believed we’re subconsciously driven by the fear of death at middle age. Carl Jung, the father of Modern Analytical Psychology added “... It is when our projected hopes and promises fail to live up to expectations, and the means of our salvation collapses, that the substantive inner conflict of midlife occurs.” But it was the Father of Psychosocial Development who went further still. In the seventh of eight stages, Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development squarely coincides and attempts to explain the midlife crisis.
In this stage, men between the ages of 45-65 slowly realize they’re neither young nor old and irrelevant and begin to accept their own mortality. For Erikson, realization and acceptance would trigger a reaction he called Generativity or Stagnation. Those who become stagnant weren’t investing in the growth of either themselves or others, while the generative adult stays engaged. Volunteerism, religious awakenings, and coaching are all venues in which middle aged men seek renewal, whilst depression and descending into mental illness are the consequences of stagnation. These are the two trailheads before the elder man, but Erikson held that the primary psychosocial path is generativity; the desire to engage, extend and expand one's influence in society.
Aging > A Work of Art
The key achievement of middle age, according to Jacques, was to move beyond youthful idealism to what he called “contemplative pessimism” and “constructive resignation.” He argued midlife was when we reach maturity by overcoming our denial of death and human destructiveness.
Less profound explanations have also been offered for midlife dissatisfaction. It’s when children may be leaving the family home and when adults are generationally sandwiched; required to care for children and ageing parents. Chronic illnesses often make their first appearance and losses accelerate. Workplace demands may be peaking.
While age, gender and sexual orientation have all been offered as triggers of a midlife crisis, it seems patently obvious they’re all conspicuous anecdotes that coincide with circumstance. It may be something far and away more basic and biological. Chimpanzees and orangutans aren’t known to suffer from existential dread, empty nest syndrome, gender bias or job stress. Still, they show the same midlife dip in well-being as their human cousins.
Recently, economists and behavioral scientists have studied the pattern of human well-being over the lifespan. They found in dozens of countries well-being is high in youth, falls to a nadir in midlife, and rises again in old age. The reasons for this U-shape is speculative. However, a recent study at least hints at an explanation.