Midlife crisis is a term coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques and used in Western societies to describe a period of dramatic self-doubt that is felt by some individuals in the "middle years" or middle age of life, as a result of sensing the passing of their own youth and the imminence of their old age. Sometimes, a crisis can be triggered by transitions experienced in these years, such as extramarital affairs, andropause or menopause, the death of parents or other causes of grief, unemployment or underemployment, realizing that a job or career is hated but not knowing how else to earn an equivalent living, or children leaving home. The result may be a desire to make significant changes in core aspects of day-to-day life or situation, such as in career, work-life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, big-ticket expenditures, or physical appearance.
Academic research since the 1980s rejects the notion of midlife crisis as a phase that most adults go through. In one study, fewer than 10% of people in the United States had psychological crises due to their age or ageing. Personality type and a history of psychological crisis are believed to predispose some people to this "traditional" midlife crisis. People going through this suffer a variety of symptoms and exhibit a disparate range of behaviors.
Many middle aged adults experience major life events that can cause a period of psychological stress or depression, such as the death of a loved one, or a career setback. However, those events could have happened earlier or later in life, making them a "crisis," but not necessarily a midlife one. In the same study, 15% of middle-aged adults experienced this type of midlife turmoil.
Some studies indicate that some cultures may be more sensitive to this phenomenon than others, one study found that there is little evidence that people undergo midlife crises in Japanese and Indian cultures, raising the question of whether a midlife crises is mainly a cultural construct. The authors hypothesized that the "culture of youth" in Western societies accounts for the popularity of the midlife crisis concept there.
Researchers have found that midlife is often a time for reflection and reassessment, but this is not always accompanied by the psychological upheaval popularly associated with "midlife crisis."
For the approximately 10% of middle aged adults who go through an age-related midlife crisis, the condition is most common ranging from the ages of 30-60 (a large study in the 1990s found that the average age at onset of a self-described midlife crisis was 46). Midlife crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women.
A midlife crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
Midlife crises seem to affect men and women differently. Researchers have proposed that the triggers for mid-life crisis differ between men and women, with male mid-life crisis more likely to be caused by work issues.
Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis have some of these feelings:
They exhibit some of these behaviors:
Although mid-life crisis has lately received more attention in popular culture than serious research, there are some theoretical constructs supporting the notion. Jungian theory holds that midlife is key to individuation, a process of self-actualization and self-awareness that contains many potential paradoxes. Although Carl Jung did not describe midlife crisis per se, the midlife integration of thinking, sensation, feeling, and intuition that he describes could, it seems, lead to confusion about one's life to date and one's goals. Later, Erik Erikson held that in life's seventh stage, middle adulthood, people struggle to find new meaning and purpose to their lives; their questioning, he believed, could lead to what we now call a midlife crisis.
Some psychologists believe men's midlife crisis is a psychological reaction to the imminent menopause and end of reproductive career of their spouses. Their genes may be influencing men to be more attracted to reproductive women, and less attached to their non-reproductive spouses.
Some people have challenged the existence of midlife crises altogether. One study found that 23% of participants had what they called a "mid-life crisis," but in digging deeper, only one-third of those—8% of the total—said the crisis was associated with realizations about aging.
The balance (15% of those surveyed) had experienced major life experiences or transitions such as divorce or loss of a job in middle age and described them as "midlife crisis." While there is no doubt these events can be traumatic—the associated grief reactions can be indistinguishable from depression -- these upheavals aren't unique to middle age and aren't an age-related midlife crisis.
University of California - Davis researchers Carolyn Alwin and Michael Levenson presented the current view of midlife crisis in a 2001 article:
Costa and McCrae (1980) found little evidence for an increase in neuroticism in midlife ... While they did find that some people were likely to experience such crises, ... these individuals were likely to experience crises in their 20s and 30s, and these experiences were not unique to midlife. ...Robinson, Rosenberg, and Farrell (1999) reinterviewed (500) men. Looking back over their midlife period, it became evident that while not necessarily entailing crisis, it was a time for re-evaluation."
Wrapping up their review of men's midlife crisis, Alwin and Levenson wrote that "... Given the bulk of the data, it is likely that, for most men, midlife is a time of achievement and satisfaction. For a certain proportion of men, however, the passage is not at all smooth." They found a similar pattern when they reviewed research on what are commonly thought to be triggers for women's midlife crisis: menopause, children leaving home, the "sandwich" of caring for both parents and children. Most women navigated those periods without a traumatic psychological "crisis."
The enduring popularity of the midlife crisis concept may be explained by another finding by Robinson et al. As Alwin and Levenson summarize: "... younger men, now middle-aged Baby Boomers, used the term "midlife crisis" to describe nearly any setback, either in their career or family life."
Levinson's findings were research about the possible existence of a mid-life crisis and its implications. Whereas Levinson (1978) found that 80% of middle-aged participants had a crisis, and Ciernia (1985) reported that 70% of men in mid-life said they had a crisis (Shek, 1996) others could not replicate those findings including Shek (1996), Kruger (1994), McCrae and Costa (1990), and Whitbourne (2010). The debate of whether or not there is a mid-life crisis is being answered through recent research that attempts to balance such factors as response bias and experimenter effects in order to establish internal validity. The above mentioned research does not support Levinson's model of a single age in the middle years that is a designated time of transition and potential "crisis." Instead, changes in personality can occur throughout the adult years with no peak in general distress or psychosocial crisis (Whitbourne, Sneed, and Sayer, 2009).
For the most part, at all ages researchers in Positive Adult Development have found improvement or at worst, stasis for most of the population.
The midlife crisis has been the subject of many television series and films, often the source of amusement in sitcoms, soaps and other television productions. The 1970s Polish television series, Czterdziestolatek meaning (The 40-year-old) was entirely geared towards covering midlife crisis issues in a comedy series. In the Australian television series, Neighbours, Karl Kennedy went though a midlife crisis dating young women and changing his appearance. The Academy Award-winning film American Beauty also deals with this subject. The main character of the movie Lost in Translation also goes through a midlife crisis. While the 1955 classic movie The Seven Year Itch deals with the supposed decline of marital quality after 7 years of marriage, the protagonist Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) is obviously going through a mid-life crisis. In fact, the book that proposes the seven-year-itch hypothesis (a psychological study that Sherman reads as an editor for a publishing house and believes directly describes his erotic dreams and flirtation with the young woman upstairs) connects it to the mid-life crisis in men. The book, entitled "of Man and the Unconscious", has a chapter on "The Repressed Urge in the Middle-Aged Male: Its Roots and lts Consequences". English progressive rocker, Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, had a solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking, which explores a man and his mid-life crisis as he dreams of having an affair and tries desperately to find solutions to his problems.