The term midlife crisis, or midlife transition, is generally defined as a period in an adult’s life, believed to occur at or around the age of 40, in which there is a reappraisal of life’s accomplishments, a more poignant recognition of health issues and ultimate mortality, and the potential for a change in lifestyle or behaviors. “Midlife crisis” is instantly recognized in the United States and increasingly in other Western nations. The recognition is most likely due to its prominent use in novels, movies, art, and advertising. People tend to use the term negatively, associating it with stereotypes about physical aging, career stagnation, and midlife marital boredom. The term is also most often associated with men’s experiences, although recent research on popular beliefs about the term suggests that some women also believe that they have experienced midlife crises. In the United States, therapists, popular writers, and people outside the academic and therapeutic professions connect the midlife crisis to the strong cultural expectation that a successful and self-fulfilling work career is central to achieving success in life. The assumption is that if by age 40, career growth and development has stagnated, men (and increasingly women) will experience crises.
Although there is some evidence that age 40 held special cultural significance before the twentieth century, the term midlife crisis is a recent creation first introduced in 1965 by Elliott Jaques. In his article “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” Jaques argued that there is a critical stage of development among creative male artists in their late 30s, taking three forms: the cessation of creative activities, a marked change in the quantity or quality of the creative output, or death. The term crossed quite rapidly into popular usage, applied well beyond the original sample of observation.
Another major milestone was the work of Daniel Levinson and his colleagues. Their work Seasons of a Man’s Life described a stage theory of adult development that gave prominent play to crises associated with transitions between key decades in life, including the transition into full middle age around age 35 to 40. Predictable stages of adulthood and throughout midlife were also popularized by Gail Sheehy in the book Passages.
The aging of the baby boom generation into midlife has brought the concept of midlife crisis to the fore in popular culture. It is important to note that scientific studies of emotional well-being at midlife have never established the midlife crisis as a universal or expectable stage of life in the general population. In fact, the scientific literature tends to reject the idea. There is also considerable scientific skepticism as to whether the traditional definition of the midlife crisis applies to middle-aged people at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some researchers, such as O. G. Brim and David Chiriboga, have argued that the concept may never have been an accurate description of the expectable course of midlife development. Marjorie Lachman found that the midlife crisis was reported by those who had life histories characterized by serious life events and adjustment disorders. Stanley Rosenberg has recently observed that it is more useful to think of the midlife crisis as an “ideal type” concept that has evolved into a popular myth and a staple of literary treatments of midlife. In sum, the influence of the midlife crisis in the scientific literature on adult development was relatively brief; already in the 1970s, researchers such as George Vaillant had published studies challenging the idea that midlife crises were expectable crises of life or universally experienced. The concept itself has psychiatric and therapeutic roots, and thus it was probably predictable that scientific skepticism would emerge.
Three major social trends now also tend to undercut the idea of a predictable midlife crisis connected with careers. First, the years that are popularly believed to constitute midlife have shifted upward and have extended further as longevity has increased. People believe that midlife begins at age 40, rather than age 30. Second, many more women are pursuing careers. Jaques theorized that the midlife transition would be “obscured” in women because of the timing of menopause. Women’s mixed-life paths, with child-bearing interruptions, have transformed what midlife (and midcareer) looks like for the average American woman: midcareer may be in the 40s for a man, but in the 50s for a woman who invests in her work career after having children or has her children in her 30s, interrupting early career progress. Third, the idea of a lifetime career is disappearing as well. How does a crisis involving boredom or stagnation in a “career job” apply to workers who are necessarily switching companies, careers, and work opportunities several times throughout their adult lives?
Another related issue is a theoretical one: Developmental stage theories of adult development have fallen into disfavor in both psychology and sociology. Major new works on the midlife in the United States, such as the recent work supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging (How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-being at Midlife) call the expectation of a midlife crisis into serious question. This edited volume suggests that midlife and midcareer are increasingly diverse among Americans—and that most Americans in the 1990s experienced midlife positively rather than negatively. Thus, a “crisis” model seems outdated, as researchers develop models of midlife that emphasize process, diversity, adaptation, and the effective use of accumulated resources to solve problems rather than lockstep progression through universal stages.
Because scientific research on the midlife crisis is scarce, lay definitions rule the day. Lay definitions are inherently elastic. Recent studies of midlife and attitudes toward midlife by Stanley Rosenberg and by Elaine Wethington have found that the general public defines the midlife crisis broadly: as a period of reevaluation or regret sometime in middle age. This is evidenced by Wethington’s recent study of American use of the term midlife crisis, conducted for the previously mentioned MacArthur Foundation research network. In general, the study found that people used the term as a way to explain the meaning of severe life events in their lives. People reported a fair degree of uncertainly about what the term actually meant; it was common for a respondent to ask the interviewer whether a recent life event “counted” as a midlife crisis. Equal proportions of women and men reported that they believed they had experienced midlife crises. Almost half of the self-reported crises were situations that occurred before or after the age range of 39 to 54. The types of events that were nominated as midlife crises were those that prompted a reevaluation of life priorities; however, there was no evidence that this type of reevaluation was distinguishable from the types people make at other points in the life span. Echoing Rosenberg, the popular use of the term midlife crisis is more accurately described as the appraisal people give to crises that happen to occur to them when they are in their 40s and 50s.
Does the term midlife crisis hold any future relevance for the career literature? Rosenberg makes a valid point that the term gives meaning to career and other changes in midlife. Thus, it serves as a useful heuristic for everyday people describing the meaning and impact of severe life events or career transitions. Yet the outlook for the term will probably be more mixed in the scientific literature on career development. Current scientific research embraces a process-and-continuity view of adult development through changing circumstances in adulthood. Why maintain a concept that paints a very negative view of midlife, when the reality is that at midlife, people are at the peak of their capacities to master problems in their lives?
- Brim, O. G. 1992. Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure in Our Lives. New York: Basic Books.
- Brim, O. G., Ryff, C. D. and Kessler R. C., eds. 2004. How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-being at Midlife. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Chiriboga, D. 1997. “Crisis, Challenge and Stability in the Middle Years.” Pp. 293-322 in Multiple Paths of Midlife Development. E. Lachman and J. B. James, editors, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Jaques, E. 1965. “Death and the Midlife Crisis.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 46:502-514.
- Levinson, D., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H. and McKee, B. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.
- Menon, U. 2001. “Middle Adulthood in Cultural Perspective: The Imagined and the Experienced in Three Cultures.” Pp. 40-74 in Handbook of Midlife Development, edited by M. E. Lachman. New York: John Wiley.
- Rosenberg, S. D., Rosenberg, H. J. and Farrell M. P. 1999. “The Midlife Crisis Revisited.” Pp. 47-73 in Life in the Middle, edited by S. Willis and J. D. Reid. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Wethington, E. 2000. “Expecting Stress: Americans and the ‘Midlife Crisis.'” Motivation and Emotion 24:85-101.