What happened to my mid-life crisis?

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.

Harley Davidson motorbike

No…still nothing!

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?

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  1. #1 by Ian on 28 January 2010 - 09:12

    Some people’s lives (including my own) could be considered to be a crisis from well before middle age, so the labelling doesn’t really wash with me. As with any issue in life, and overcoming or dealing with it in a way that is deemed to be satisfactory to the person involved, I feel it is more about the chosen response. If you want leather trousers, go and get them and then see how you feel. I’m told they are extremely comfortable, but have no personal experience. Let us know how you get on with them…

    • #2 by David Winter on 28 January 2010 - 15:10

      Hi Ian
      I can identify with that, sometimes I feel like I’m stumbling from one crisis to the next.

      I guess the whole idea of a life transition (even if it’s not a mid-life crisis) is about how you incorporate changes in your circumstances, energy-levels, priorities, etc., into your self-image. So it’s not just about coping with a difficult circumstance, it’s about dealing with the new things you learn about yourself and updating your mental picture of yourself so that you can be authentic.

      The crisis comes when you try to hold on to an outdated view of yourself. For a lot of people that I see at C2 this can be a big issue. They often need to come to terms with the fact that they are not the same person that they were when they started their career before they can concentrate on the future.

      For example, I don’t have the energy levels and concentration levels that I had when I was in my 20s. So the ways I worked then just kill me now. I can still be as productive – possibly even more so – but I have to find a different way of balancing my time. I have to incorporate a bit more planning ahead (just a bit).

      Does any of this chime with your experiences?

  2. #3 by Andrea H on 1 February 2010 - 20:34

    Your talk about mid-life crisis got me thinking, slightly off topic but I suppose that’s how blogs can go, no hard and fast rules. I was having a hair crisis at the weekend, rather than a mid-life crisis, so I deposited the children with the in-laws, screamed ‘freedom’ at the top of my voice and duly plonked myself in my hairdresser’s chair where I promptly had a hair cut and counselling session in one (bemoaning my current crisis of not being able to balance work with coursework with children with husband with dancing with other general ‘stuff’, you get the picture!). Whilst there, I picked up Red Magazine, never read it before but I found an article about working women and whether we still have to choose (work vs kids) and those who are happy, women who choose portfolio careers etc. One thing an article mentioned was not about looking for a balance – but instead accepting a ‘blend’.

    Maybe the very idea of having to create a work-life ‘balance’ (like spinning plates teetering on the edge, threatening to smash at any moment if you’re not skillful enough or dare to fail to maintain their momentum) in itself is stressful to many of us and propogates the thought of crisis (mid-life or otherwise)? Instead, is it acceptable to ask whether it’s a mixed-up-slightly-but-works-for-me blend that some people need to envisage?

    I don’t know, but thinking of not having to ‘balance’ any more gives me the freedom to ponder the notion of ‘blending’ and whether I can actually practice it…..!

    • #4 by David Winter on 2 February 2010 - 08:01

      The idea of a ‘work-life blend’ rather than a ‘work-life balance’ is a really interesting one.

      The word ‘balance’ implies opposing forces in competition, each tugging the individual in different directions.

      Whereas, ‘blend’ sounds more like a recipe. Making a tasty cake means blending together various different ingredients in the right proportions.

      I like that. I might use that with clients as a more constructive metaphor.

      Does anyone else have interesting metaphors that could replace work-life balance?

      Thanks Andrea. Keep them coming.

  3. #5 by David Winter on 12 February 2010 - 08:38

  4. #6 by aparate etichetat on 24 September 2010 - 21:37

    sweet site, I hadn’t noticed careersintheory.wordpress.com before in my searches

  1. Existential thoughts « Careers – in Theory

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