Support the news
Only one in three employees in the U.S. say they’re "engaged" with their work. In "Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife," Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s newest book, the author helps readers seek purpose in their jobs. Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Hagerty about how to find health and happiness in the workplace.
By Barbara Bradley Hagerty
A Crisis Is Born
Mom’s stroke provided the spark for a combustible collection of small despairs waiting to ignite: the unremitting daily-ness of work, the minor but scary health issues, the unpalatable fear that this is as good as it gets and that life slopes downward from here.
A few days after Mom’s stroke, I sat at my desk and pondered these suddenly urgent questions: What, exactly, constitutes a “midlife crisis,” and is that what I am experiencing? Is it unswerving destiny, or can I drive around it with the choices I make? So many people I know are struggling through midlife ennui. Yet some people flourish. How do they do it? How can I craft a meaningful middle life? And is there any science that can give me pointers?
As I mulled over these questions, I felt that tremor of elation that signals I have stumbled onto a great story. I decided then to follow my journalistic training and began to research.
Let us begin at the beginning: the moment “midlife crisis” was born.
In 1965, Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques published a study and sparked a cultural revolution. In “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, he posited that around the age of thirty-five, a man begins to glimpse the slanting shadow of death and recognizes that he would be dust long before he could fulfill the dreams of his youth. (Jaques excluded women, explaining that menopause “obscured” the midlife transition.)
Jaques’s theory rested on what he called a “random sample” of 310 “geniuses,” including composers (Mozart), artists (Raphael), and writers (Rimbaud). He noted that many of these men died around the age of thirty-seven, whether of natural causes or by their own hand, fearing that their creative abilities were waning. Jaques allowed that some geniuses were able to avert the midlife crisis and the death of their creativity. Indeed, some talents only ripened with time: Dante Alighieri did not pen The Divine Comedy until the age of thirty-seven, and Johann Sebastian Bach was still a church organist and tutor until age thirty-eight, when he began composing his most ambitious works.
Jaques also saw evidence of midlife crises among more ordinary psyches: specifically, among patients in his own clinical practice. One might ask how typical these men were, given that they were seeking psychiatric therapy, but still, Jaques detected a pattern. He described, for example, one patient who was haunted by the fear that he had crossed a threshold and that there was likely more time behind him than stretching ahead. “For the first time in his life, he saw his future as circumscribed,” Jaques wrote. “He would not be able to accomplish in the span of a single lifetime everything he desired to do. He could only achieve a finite amount. Much would have to remain unfinished and unrealized.”
Jaques’s insight was little noticed until Daniel Levinson put the midlife crisis on steroids in his 1978 book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life. (He got around to women a couple of decades later.) Levinson, a psychologist and professor at Yale University, argued that all men experience “transitions” as they move from one stage of life to another. The stages begin with pre-adulthood (from birth to age twenty-two), then move to early adulthood (from age seventeen to forty-five), on to middle adulthood (age forty to sixty-five), to late adulthood (sixty to eighty-five), and (if you’re lucky) late-late adulthood (over eighty years old). Watch out for those transitional years, he warned: Emotional turbulence strikes—and in middle age, this can trigger a full-blown crisis.
According to Levinson’s own account, the midlife transition held a personal fascination. “At 46,” he wrote, “I wanted to study the transition to middle age in order to understand what I had been going through myself.” After meeting with colleagues at Yale, it became blindingly apparent that they were all “personally struggling” with midlife. If they were struggling, these Yale professors reasoned, then surely other people must be as well.
To test his theory, Levinson interviewed forty men: ten biology professors, ten novelists, ten business executives, and ten industrial laborers. The men, all aged between thirty-five and forty-five, submitted to six to ten interviews, each lasting between one and two hours. From these exhaustive and no doubt exhausting interviews—who wouldn’t confess to a midlife crisis by the twentieth hour?—Levinson concluded that between ages forty to forty-five, a man suffers the “agonizing” process of “de-illusionment,” when he compares his youthful dreams with his present, grayer reality. This brings about a crisis for most men: “Every aspect of their lives comes in to question, and they are horrified by much that is revealed. . . . They cannot go on as before, but need time to choose a new path or modify the old one.”
A man in this state often makes “false starts,” and “tentatively tests a variety of new choices . . . out of confusion or impulsiveness,” Levinson wrote. This is the time men seem to grieve lost opportunities and desperately try to claim new ones before it is too late, in the form of a younger wife, a dramatic career shift, the stereotypical red convertible. How many men, you might wonder, experience this existential angst? Ten percent? Twenty? No, Levinson claimed that 80 percent of men suffer through a midlife crisis.
If Levinson developed Elliott Jaques’s kernel of an idea into a carefully detailed psychological state, journalist Gail Sheehy turned Levinson’s midlife crisis into a cultural phenomenon. In Passages, Sheehy wrote that men (again, the focus is on men) could expect a midlife crisis at age forty-two. The midlife crisis had made its grand cultural debut, and would come to define the psyche of an entire generation.
There was one problem: Other researchers looked and looked, but they just could not find evidence of an inevitable—or even common—midlife crisis.
From LIFE REIMAGINED: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
This segment aired on March 17, 2016.