Clichés abound about fortysomething men who leave their wife to elope with a lady 20 years their junior or who get into debts buying a luxury sports car. These clichés might be exaggerations but many researchers found that most of us, men and women, do seriously take stock of our life at some point between the ages of 40 and 60.
What’s going on?
There are many theories of human development attempting to explain what typically occurs in the middle of our life. These include perspectives based on life stages (i.e.: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc.), lifespan or events that typically occur in the course of life, biology and genetic, chaos theory, historical and social contexts, to name a few.
One of these theories is the stage-based model, developed by the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson. He is also renown for labelling the “identity crisis” of adolescence. In fact, Erikson observed eight life stages, all being preceded by an inevitable crisis that, when successfully resolved, is presumed to foster personal growth and maturity. Amongst these, is the middle adulthood stage with its accompanying “generativity vs. stagnation” crisis.
Other theorists contend that it is not necessarily one’s age or life stage but life circumstances that trigger crises. For example, events such as forming an intimate relationship, getting a first paid job, parenthood, children leaving home, retirement, and so on, are often times of heightened self-reflection, change and growth. They estimate that viewing life changes in a linear or “stage-based’ fashion is too limiting and underestimates the complexity and unpredictability of life events.
Others argue that life changes happen in both predictable and unpredictable manners. For example, we tend to form intimate relationship in young adulthood, retire around the age of 60-65, etc. These are predictable changes. But we might also review our life following a traumatic event or the diagnostic of a chronic illness, which are unpredictable events.
Finally, some authors complain about the highly individualistic view of stage-based approaches like those of Erikson. They contend that we change through our relationships with others not independently due to our age of even life circumstances alone. So, life changes are complex and we have to consider multiple factors when analysing them.
A Time for Taking Stock
However, middle age is typically a time when most of us have been in an intimate relationship and/or a career for a while. Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, argues that we experience a “U-shape” job satisfaction curve across our working life. He also found that it is then unsurprising that we review our career when at the “bottom” of this curve, which happens around midlife.
For those who have children, the middle of life generally coincides with their children being in their teens or young adulthood, often in the midst of their own “crisis”, triggering inquiries about the impact one’s parenting.
Given the constellation of life events typically occurring in midlife, it is then unsurprising that many of us would stop to reflect on and take stock of our life. This review does not happen in isolation either. Even though it is primarily deeply personal, our reflection takes place within our social and cultural contexts, i.e.: it is based on our own and the expectations and those of our family, including our children, community and social network.
Overall, this period of self-absorption makes us wonder whether we “generated” something meaningful in our life or have “stagnated”, to use Erikson’s terms. Some of the questions that we ask ourselves include:
- “Overall, am I happy?”
- “Am I in a loving and supportive relationship”?
- “Have I raised my children well?”
- “Have I been doing a job that I am truly passionate about?”
- “Who’s life have I been living, mine or the one that my father (or mother or other person of authority) wished for me?“
- “Did I make a difference in the life others?”
- “Have I led a meaningful life so far?”
- “Is my life well-balanced?”
- “Is this it?”
- “Will I ever…do, achieve, become….?”
However, not everyone will take the time to reflect. Some are happy with their life as it is – period. Others will avoid self-reflection altogether or not until they’re on their deathbed. It’s just too hard or confronting. Others might experience a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that they can’t just pin down and that they will seek to appease by working longer hours or going shopping or drinking (or having an affair or getting the new sports car!). Others are just too busy to ponder right now. They might be caught in the “sandwich” where they are caring for both their children and their elderly parents for instance. For others, midlife will be a time of self-reflection followed by adjustment or change.
Gains & Losses
For those for whom the midlife reflection opened the door to a world of new possibilities, making a life change might still be a challenging thing to do. Firstly, a multiplicity of choices tends to generate anxiety. Secondly, we can anticipate gains but also potential losses. These include the loss of a well-constructed identity, loss of status, skills, relationships such as professional networks, and financial stability, to name a few. It can be humbling to return to “school” or start a new career and one can become riddle with doubts. A “change honeymoon” can also be followed by feelings of isolation, as it might take much longer than expected to rip the benefits of the change.
I often joke that when I left my high-status “frequent traveller” role I was stunned to be “demoted” from the Qantas “Platinum” status back to the “Silver” one within a matter of weeks. My phone also immediately stopped ringing and most of my emails, which used to be over a hundred per day, turned overnight to a trickle of “spams”. I might have been joking, but the losses kept creeping on me and I did wonder after a few months: “What have I done?” Now, I have absolutely no regrets, but it was definitely a time of deep and longer than expected reflection and adjustment.
- Questioning yourself in the middle of life is normal and healthy!
- Get clarity about your values and passions.
- Make a list of the various dimensions of your life (e.g.: family, work, health, hobbies, spirituality, etc.) and rate how each is important to you and then how satisfied you are with each of them today. See if there are any gaps that need attention.
- Write your own eulogy…what legacy do you wish to leave? Are you on the right track to do so?
- Talk about it to a trusted friend, pastor (if you are religious), counsellor or coach.
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Bussolari, C. A. (2009). Chaos theory as a model for life transitions counseling: Nonlinear dynamics and life’s changes. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 87(1), 98-107.
Goodman, Jane, Schlossberg, Nancy K., and Anderson, Mary L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition: Linking practice with theory (3rd Edition). New York, NY, USA: Springer Publishing Company.
Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.
Oswald, A. P. (1996). Is job satisfaction U-shaped in age?. Journal Of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 69(1), 57-81.
Weaver, Y. (2009). Mid-life: A time of crisis or new possibilities? Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 20(1), 69-78.
Weinberger, M. K. (2008). Intimacy in young adulthood as a predictor of divorce in midlife. Personal Relationships, 15(4), 551-557.
Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved