Elliot Jacques coined the term "mid-life crisis" 40 years ago, when the average lifespan was 70 and "mid-life" 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 extra-marital affairs and buying a Corvette.
Not any more, says Prof. Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology. In an article co-authored with the Israeli researcher Arie Ruttenberg for the Harvard Business Review last year, and another in the journal Psychoanalytic Psychology, Prof. Strenger posits that the mid-life years are the best time of life to flourish and grow.
Citing research based on empirical evidence and studies from the field, Prof. Strenger says that adult lives really do have second acts.
"Somehow this line has been drawn around the mid and late 40s as the time for a mid-life crisis in our society," says Prof. Strenger. "But as people live longer and fuller lives, we have to cast aside that stereotype and start thinking in terms of 'mid-life transition' rather than 'mid-life 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.
Thirty-five years of learning
"If you make fruitful use of what you've discovered about yourself in the first half of your life," Dr. 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," Prof. 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 that one will have a mid-life crisis. Neurological research has also disproved the notion that the brain deteriorates after 40. "A rich and fruitful life after 50 is a much more realistic possibility," he says.
Four tips to avoid a mid-life crisis
How can you transition smoothly through the best years of your life?
"First, and most important," Prof. 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," Dr. 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, Prof. 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.
Prof. Stenger's 2004 book on the subject is The Designed Self, 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.
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