What comes to mind when you hear the term mid life crisis?
Buying a new sports car?
Having an affair?
Quitting your steady job to join a rock band?
These are some of the classic tropes. And when you bring these examples to mind, who exactly do you picture? Most likely it’s a middle-aged cis-gender man. While midlife crises may not always follow the grandiosity of the stereotypes above, they are a very real experience for many people of all genders. However, it seems to hit men especially hard. Let’s discuss what a midlife crisis is exactly and what cultural and gender elements contribute to this phenomenon.
What is a mid life crisis?
Mid life is defined as the developmental period in a person’s lifetime from their early 40s through their mid-60s. This can be a time of major transition. Parents may become “empty-nesters” as grown children move out of the house. Retirement is inching closer, which may bring questions about one’s identity and financial concerns. Health issues associated with aging may arise. Depression and anxiety symptoms can worsen as many people start to ponder existential concerns, including their mortality. Roles shift and people may reflect on their purpose or accomplishments. This is the mid life crisis: a time of turmoil, sadness, and stress where people grapple with many changes and big questions.
Research has shown that happiness over the lifetime tends to follow a U-shaped curve, with happiness peaking earlier and later in life with a low point in the 40s-50s. Of course, this is not everyone’s experience, but the U-shape model is based on averages from participants from 145 countries. With all that said, no wonder some people seek fulfillment and joy in a new car or wild new hobby.
Now let’s explore some of the nuanced aspects of the midlife crisis.
Western culture is ageist, placing excessive value on youth and beauty. We are inundated with advertisements for wrinkle creams and weight loss programs promising to make us look and feel 10 years younger! When youth is highly glorified, it isn’t all that surprising people feel anxious and depressed about aging. Interestingly, participants from non-Western nations included in the study above reported a similar dip in subjective well-being during middle age, despite a generally more positive society-wide perspective on aging. So Western ageism alone cannot be to blame for the mid-life crisis, but it likely is one puzzle piece among many.
While both men and women experience mid life turmoil, the stereotypical, often impulsive behaviors seem to be more associated with men. Hence, mid life crisis in men is more rampant. Gender differences bring unique challenges when it comes to aging. For example, women may face menopause on top of general misogyny and ageism. But sexism and strict gender roles have negative consequences for men as well. Here are some potential contributing factors for the gender difference in the phenomenon of the mid life crisis:
*To preface, these are broad generalizations based on how many people were socialized around gender, but these do not represent everyone’s experience.
- Men are not able to engage in self-expression and play the way women are
As children, we felt uninhibited in our play, curiosity, and exploration. After a certain age, this often gets stifled. There are fewer arenas in adulthood where play and creativity are accepted in similar ways to childhood, and many of these are gendered spaces. For example, the world of fashion and make-up allows for play. Similarly, the areas of performing arts and decorative arts are creative and exploratory. Due to norms of patriarchy and masculinity, many men were not encouraged or allowed to explore self-expression through fashion, make-up, performance, etc. Some of this is tied up in overlapping systems of heteronormativity and transphobia.
- Men tend to be socialized to not be emotionally vulnerable
We all know the phrases like “be a man” and “toughen up” that teach boys from a young age that expressions of emotion, like crying, are not acceptable. Mid life can bring big feelings of anxiety and depression that some men may not have the emotional vocabulary and (internal and/or external) permission to share honestly with others. It may feel uncomfortable to admit insecurities or vulnerabilities. It’s easier to buy a car that “makes you feel like a man.”
- Along with less vulnerability, men are more likely to lack close friendships
A lack of intimate relationships can lead to feeling isolated or lonely. The actions of a mid life crisis, such as having an affair, may highlight an underlying desire for closer connections.
I’m reaching mid life. Now what?
You may feel slightly resigned to the fate of this transitional period, but here are some quick tips to combat the midlife slump and avoid crisis:
- Lean on community, preferably others who are at the same life stage, to fight off feelings of loneliness or isolation.
- Reflect on things that have brought you joy over the years and modify them or explore them in ways that suit your current situation.
- Reassess your definition of beauty and what the aging process means to you.
- Explore play. This is especially helpful for men. Seek out arenas that feel safe and comfortable to express yourself in authentic and creative ways.
- Normalize the ebbs and flows of happiness. It’s okay to feel your full range of emotions.
- Prioritize your physical and mental health. Seek professional help if needed.