The midlife crisis, a theory first devised by Elliot Jacques in 1965, is almost 50. It is planning a grand party, squinting in the mirror at the lines around its eyes, and wondering where the time went. It is reflecting upon how vibrant and fresh and controversial it used to be, and recognising with horror that it has become quite dated, a little lacklustre, and even slightly ridiculed.
Jacques published his paper, ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis’, after studying a group of artists over time and discovering that the quality of their creative output deteriorated after the age of thirty-five (that’s when midlife used to be – it’s older these days). Jacques put this down to depressive anxieties owing to an awareness of one’s inevitable death on entering the second half of life. Further research led him to deduce that, happily for the artists, this phase evolved into a new era of mature creativity – but only after a painful depressive crisis.
Artists aside, the concept of the MLC appealed to a broader audience, and it swiftly slipped into general discourse and became entrenched in modern culture. That it became something of a laughing stock only proves its worth – we tease it but with a twinkle in our eye, suspecting that one day we may well come face to face with it. The emotional commotion we feel as we approach our fifties is genuine – there is simply not as much life left anymore! Seize the day! But a sudden and unexpected reaction to midlife can be very real and tricky to deal with, and those experiencing it (straight faces please!) should to be taken seriously.
Many people, their lives more or less all sorted, will float through their middle years unscathed. But some will get stuck with the MLC at a bar, to be found looking around helplessly, trying to get away. These people may experience: sudden and unexpected feelings of restlessness and boredom with the status quo, even if they have been perfectly content; the desire to do something completely different; uncharacteristic acts of compulsion; sudden questioning of past major decisions; harking back to the past and a former self; a need to feel young and attractive; daydreaming, irritability, sadness and confusion; a desire to ‘find themselves’; scrutinising their current situation and redrafting plans for the future.
What exacerbates the muddled mind during this phase is the struggle to intertwine new-found fantastical ideals with harsh reality. When faced with our own mortality and awareness that life is half over, it should be no surprise that we suddenly want to live for the moment and feel the impulse to – Quickly! While we still can! – realise our dreams. We feel a wonderful sense of euphoria as our new hobby or project formulates in our minds, and become obsessive about it, madly researching, desperate to crack on with plans and purchases. And then we remember. We have a job to hold down, a mortgage to pay, children to take care of, a marriage to nurture. For a while – and this can last for years – we stomp around like grumpy children who can’t have their way, before (hopefully) calming down and working through the process of reevaluation and (sigh) compromise.
It may not feel like it, but our MLC is (or at least is best viewed as) a highly valuable and positive phenomenon. If by assessing our past and rewriting the next chapter of our personal story the outcome is that we are truer to ourselves, we will be better able to pursue our (notwithstanding hopelessly unrealistic) hopes and dreams, and ultimately be happier and nicer people to be around.
The MLC may be feeling mocked, jaded and unloved, but it needn’t. It has a long and optimistic future ahead. Looking for inspiration, the MLC steps away from the mirror and has a poke around for advice. One website suggests that a balanced, nutritious meal plan along with plenty of sleep and rest might help. MLC casts a derisory glance at it and smirks. ‘Sod that!’ it thinks, ‘I’m off to Glasto in a campervan’.