Do you remember the moment when you turned from a child into an adolescent, or from an adolescent into an adult? Probably not. Yet, we do recognize that at a certain moment in our life the part of population we mostly identify with, changes. So, what is midlife? How is this stage different from youth and from the old age?
Both psychology and medicine have been intensely interested in this question. Nowadays that we live longer than any of our ancestors this question is becoming more important. And whichever angle you decide to look from, midlife is definitely a life stage defined by subtle but substantial mind and body changes.
Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com) defines midlife as a “period of human adulthood that immediately precedes the onset of old age.” This in itself somehow implies that it is just a transition from youth to old age. However, numerous examples show that many people have done their most important and ground breaking work after they have reached midlife. This just proves that the typical notion that aging is primarily a descent of our physical and cognitive abilities is a little too harsh of a view.
Erik Erickson, a developmental psychologist, has divided human life into 7 stages. Among the Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, the 6th stage, the one between ages of 40 and 64, is defined as the second stage of adulthood, preceded by young adulthood, and marked by the following characteristics:
Predominant virtue: Care.
Psychosocial crisis: Generativity vs. stagnation.
Significant relationship: Household, workmates.
Existential question: Can I make my life count?
Erickson outlines that in each life stage an individual has a purpose to fulfill and failing to fulfill it provokes a crisis, while achieving it creates the predominant virtue. In case of adulthood, the burning existential question of our midlife is: Can I make my life count? If we are unsatisfied with the answer to this question a crisis will ensue. In the opposite case it becomes the virtue of care.
A good and simple summary of Erickson’s theory can be found here. Of course, just like any theory, this one has many weak points and flaws. But since we are looking into understanding midlife here, Erickson gives a good basis for it.
Many other sources define the middle part of human life through the crisis that may happen in that stage of life. Despite being an endless source of jokes, midlife crisis is only a symptom of the transition to a different life stage. But what if this crisis does not include a Ferrari, plastic surgery or a garage band? What if it there is not a crisis at all? Is it still midlife? The answer is yes.
Just like each of us is unique, so are our live stages. And each of us will live the same life stage our own way. For some, midlife will be a “coming to your own self”, for some it will be an unwelcome step towards old age. For others it will be a turbulent period of questioning yourself and your existence, or maybe it will be a period of denial about ageing. There are countless other ways to spend those few decades.
With our youth-obsessed modern culture, getting older and aging is not a welcome stage in life for many. Bombarded by subliminal messages on how we should put a lot of effort and money into keeping ourselves looking as young as possible, most people don’t welcome the midlife as a period of strength and stability. The storms and insecurities of youth are over, families are growing, careers prospering. Or not. But whether we embrace the process, or not, nature runs its course and our bodies change daily. You look yourself in the mirror and you are still the same you, but it only takes one look at a photo of yourself from 20 years ago to realize that the tiniest daily changes have transformed you into a middle-aged person.
Midlife is inevitable. Whether it is predominately a crisis or a blissful state of maturity, or both, it definitely is not just a transition from youth to old age. The good news is that there is no good or bad way to spend your midlife. There is only your way, your choices and your past and future. Embracing it is the sign of maturity. And if there is one word to define midlife, I would choose maturity over crisis.