What midlife crisis?
Research is revealing the bright side of modern maturity

From the Star-Ledger
Sunday, February 24, 2002
BY CARRIE STETLER, Star-Ledger Staff

When we think "midlife" we think "crisis": The CEO who runs off with his secretary. The suburban wife takes up sky-diving. The family man who blows junior's college money on a convertible.

Once you hit 40, this is what's supposed to happen, right?

Wrong.

A Cornell University researcher has found that middle age is usually a happy time in people's lives, and midlife crises aren't nearly as common as people believe.

'Its really the rare person who has a lot of difficulty turning 40," says sociologist Elaine Wethington, who, in the fall of 2000, conducted the largest study ever done to address midlife. "What really happens is that most people's 40s aren't awful. Most people said, 'I sailed through my 40s.' Your life is in control, you have resources to solve problems and you've still got your health."

Wethington found that, of more than 700 people surveyed between the ages of 28 and 78, only one-fifth had a midlife crisis, defined by researchers as personal turmoil prompted by fears and anxieties about growing older. (In Wethington's study, midlife was defined as 39 through 50.)

Fear of a midlife crisis is more prevalent, it seems, than the crisis itself.

"It seems to be more about anticipating that your 40s are going to be awful," said Wethington. "I think its a cultural thing. We're afraid of aging. It's the expectation of aging, not the reality of aging that's bad."

Which isn't to say that life is always a bowl of cherries for midlifers. Fertility and sexual potency are on the wane; career and family life can seem entrenched. For many, its natural to question their choices in professions, partners and lifestyles.

"We don't know whether midlife crisis exists in other cultures or in this culture in previous centuries. But we do know that some people reach a point in life and say, 'Is that all there is?' And to me, that personally signifies that they're experiencing a challenge," says Sumru Erkhut, a social psychologist who is associate director of the center for research on women at Wellesley college.

"Midlife crisis is not a myth," says Lenore Pomerance, a Washington-based therapist. "Not everyone's going to have it, but those who find themselves at an age when they thought they'd' have it all together and their lives are coming apart, that's a crisis."

According to Pomerance, who specializes in transitions associated with midlife, such as menopause, divorce and empty-nest syndrome, a midlife crisis can be like a second adolescence. Along with hormonal changes, midlife meltdowns can bring mood swings and "escape behaviors" like sexual-acting out and drug addiction.

"I call it 'mid-adolescence,'" says Pomerance. "A person could predict that if they had a tumultuous adolescence, they could have a tumultuous midlife change."

On the bright side, midlife can be compared to a "do-over" of adolescence, a chance to rectify old mistakes, says Pomerance. "Think of it as a chance to do it differently or better," says Pomerance, who took up the sport of crew rowing in midlife and is now on a champion crew team.

"You have more resources than you do as a teenager. You have more experiences than you did. Here's a chance to change directions or realize a dream," she said. "There're always the roads you didn't take because you couldn't take them all. This may be a chance to check them out."

Respondents in Wethington's study also believed that a midlife crisis could be used as a "tool for constructing meaning in their lives," according to Wethington. At worst, it was viewed as an excuse for shirking responsibility. At best, it was seen as a chance to meet unmet expectations of oneself.

Denise Lapnow, of Bridgewater, is 47 and has never had a midlife crisis. In fact, this is the best time of her life, she says. "A lot of people look at life in three sections. A beginning, a middle and an end," says Lapnow. "I don't look at it that way. I look at it as a continuum and it's moving from one place to another."

A former middle manager at AT&T, Lapnow, along with her husband, Richard, is recently retired and plans a move to Florida soon. For her, it's a time of new possibilities. She's considering a second career -- possibly teaching math or economics at a community college, or maybe founding her own catering business.

After considering it for years, she finally entered the Pillsbury Bake-off contest this year and was selected from thousands of entrants as one of 100 finalists. She's proud of the fact that she was selected as a finalist and will soon compete in the upcoming bake-off championships.

"I did it to make me feel good," she says. Although she's retired, Lapnow still feels young. She believes that midlife lasts until age 70, and in that she's not alone.

"The average Baby Boomer thinks it ends in their early 70s," says Wethington. "They expect to live into their 80s. For the past 25 years in the Gallup Poll, the definition of when it ends has been pushed further and further."

According to Wethington, over the past 25 years, the public's notion of midlife's onset has changed from 30 to 45.

In the 1930s, author Walter Pitkin coined the phrase "life begins at 40," said Wethington. But this optimistic view of midlife didn't last.

The term "midlife crisis" was coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliot Jacques, who theorized that it was triggered by the realization of mortality, said Wethington.

In the 1970s, the idea of midlife crisis took hold among the public, with works by developmental psychologist Daniel Levinson, who wrote the self-help book, "Seasons of a Man's Life" and Gail Sheehy's popular book "Passages," Wethington said. Both characterized each decade of adulthood as presenting certain challenges, with midlife defined by a "crisis of reassessment," said Wethington.

Early research on midlife seemed to buttress the notion, but only because it was compiled from people already seeking help from psychiatrists or psychologist. And they comprise only 10 percent of the population, according to Wethington. Later research refuted the notion of mass suffering during midlife, but never made an impact on the public.

"Midlife crisis became an institutionalized entity in self-help literature," said Wethingon. "Researchers were debunking it left and right, but no one noticed."

In her own study, Wethington discovered that while 25 percent of Americans over the age of 35 believed they'd had a midlife crisis, what they were actually referring to in her survey was a stressful event that simply happened in midlife -- a job loss, a death of a spouse -- but didn't necessarily have to do with fears of aging or mortality.

And even these were in the minority.

"In general, looking at our data, people were more likely to talk about events that happened before they were 35 or after they were 55," said Wethington.

Although divorce is considered a hallmark of midlife crisis, Wethington says that wasn't the case in her study. Divorce usually occurs within the first five years of marriage, when most people are in their 30s, she said. Yet Wethington finds that most people, including herself, know someone who has had a midlife crisis, even if they haven't experienced it first-hand.

"Maybe there's a bit of self-congratulation in that. 'I didn't have one. I'm not going to,'" said Wethington. Even she acknowledges feeling a "twinge" of it now and then. "I'm 51," she says. "I wake up in the morning and say, 'How did this happen?'"

Erkhut has some advice for staving off midlife blues. "There are things that sound like homilies and your mother's wisdom," she says. "Live a balanced life. Take care to have few regrets. Those are good, common-sensical ways of valuing each day. You have to find meaning in what you do have or go after what you want. It's not going to be in material goods, but in relationships," says Erkhut.

"If we can live every day as if we're going to live forever, and also that we could die tomorrow -- if we could combine those feelings, then we'd have no midlife crisis."


Copyright 2002 The Star-Ledger.

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