For several years now I have been expecting something to happen. I’ve been looking out for an unexpected attraction to leather trousers and a hitherto unexpressed fascination with Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
As each birthday passes and I discover I still haven’t given up all of my worldly possessions and trekked off to the Himalayas to ‘find myself’, I increasingly wonder what’s wrong with me.
Now it appears I have missed my chance. The mid-life crisis no longer exists (if it ever did)!
The term ‘mid-life crisis’ was introduced to the world in 1965 by Elliott Jacques, a Canadian psychoanalyst and organisational psychologist (what a combination!), but the notion of something significant happening to people in their middle years has been around for a while.
Carl Jung’s theory of personality hints strongly at the idea, especially in what he describes as the process of ‘individuation‘ (developing into an integrated individual). In this process, the first half of life is about engaging with the world and finding your place in it often through suppressing parts of yourself. The second half is about becoming your true self and shaping the world around you. This may involve engaging with the parts of yourself that you neglected in your earlier life — the unexplored aspects of the self or, more dramatically, the shadow. He also talked about later life heralding the rise of the anima persona (feminine spirit) in men and the animus persona (masculine spirit) in women. Perhaps this just relates to the age-related decline in levels of testosterone or oestrogen leading to a diminishing of typical gender characteristics and behaviours. Again, successful individuation involves incorporating these aspects of the opposite gender into your personality. Failure to do so can result in crisis — such as men desperately trying to bolster their masculinity through the purchase of fast cars. [Listen to an interesting This American Life programme on the subject of testosterone.]
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed a series of stages that we pass through in our life journey (as developmental psychologists tend to do). The seventh stage, Middle Adulthood (35-55), is characterised by a recognition of the limits to what we can achieve in our finite lifespan and a desire to pass something of significance to the generations coming after us as a way of achieving some kind of immortality. Failure to engage with this task of ‘generativity’ can lead to self-absorption or stagnation.
Following on from Elliott Jacques and the others, another developmental pscyhologist, Daniel Levinson, incorporated the mid-life transition (40-45) into his stage theory along with a whole set of different transitions, such as the Early Adult Transition (17-22 — popularised as the Quarter-Life Crisis), the Age 30 Transition (28-33), the Age 50 Transition (50-55) and the Late Adult Transition (60-65). Interestingly, in our career changer service, C2, we do tend to see slightly more clients at these landmark ages.
Many of these theories and developmental models have been criticised because they were mostly based on the experiences of white, male, middle-class managers. In recent years, different models have been proposed to describe the transitions experienced by women (see for example the Kaleidoscope Careers model).
In a 2008 paper for the Harvard Business Review, Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg argue that, far from being a crisis, mid-life can be ‘a period of unprecedented opportunity for inner growth’. They are not the first to make this point. In fact, I think Carl Jung beat them to it, because individuation is all about inner growth, and that’s what should happen if you successfully navigate the various changes in your life as you age.
So, will I get my much anticipated mid-life crisis? Perhaps I’ve already got in touch with my feminine side by developing my caring empathy skills as a career coach. Perhaps I’m already engaged in generativity by writing this blog and getting involved in training newer careers advisers. I’m not sure if I have opened the door to my shadow self yet — so maybe I’ve still got potential.
Does anybody know where I can buy leather trousers?
- Are you, or any of your colleagues, showing signs of a mid-life crisis?
- If you deal with mature clients and career changers, do any of these themes ring true in your experience?
- Do you think modern attitudes to masculinity and the development of viagra have reduced the danger of a mid-life crisis in men?
- What about women, does any of this sound familiar?