Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Midlife crisis: Existential crises in disguise?

In this entry of his weekly blog, Jesse Bering looks at the notion of a "midlife crisis." He first mentions that the definition of a "midlife crisis" has shifted over the years. First, it meant a crisis of creative potential. Now, it commonly refers to that awkward age in which a man's fancy turns towards thoughts of sports cars and younger partners.

(Two parenthetical things I want to mention about this piece. First, I can't ignore Bering using the term "co-eds" when used to refer to female students, as though male students are somehow the default "eds." But then, Jesse is a psychologist and not a social worker, and we social workers are more likely to be concerned with such things as gender equity. I am willing to overlook it, but I did have to mention it. Second thing: I have seen plenty of gay men who have turned their thoughts to young men suddenly in their middle years. So while this may not be the kind of thing that Queer liberation activists want to fight for, I do not think this phenomena, if it existed, is limited to heterosexuals.)

In that last line where I write "if it existed" I betray the conclusion of Bering's article: The existence of the midlife crisis is not supported in the research. Bering reviews the literature, so I'm not going to summarize it here.

Instead, I want to mention that a mid-life crisis is fundamentally an existential crisis--a questioning of meaning, of purpose, of relationships, and an awareness of impending death. And existential crises can occur at any age, certainly, and there is no reason to assume that midlife would be any more likely to produce such a crisis than any other point.

Of course, that knowledge will not likely stop anyone from labeling their crisis of meaning/increased fear of death that occurs between 35 and 50 as a "midlife crisis." Call it what one wants--I can emphatically state that I've seen plenty of people in my office who reach a point in their lives somewhere between 35 and 50 and start to wonder, "What am I doing with my life, really?" And, in my opinion, that is a question worth exploring. And so I wonder if having the cultural concept of a "midlife crisis" could give people an opening to normalize some of these questions. I am not certain that it does, by any means, but I wonder what effect being able to say, "It's just a midlife crisis" has on any kind of existential concerns that a man who fits the definition of "midlife" might be feeling.

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