According to a survey carried out in 1994, 86% of the young people consulted (out of an average of 20 years) said they believed in the existence of the so-called “maturity crisis” , also known as the mid-life crisis . This is a concept that has been known for a long time, although it was in 1965 when someone decided to give it a name.

Specifically, it was the psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques who christened as a maturity crisis certain patterns of behaviour that he had observed in many artists as they entered the life stage that goes from 40 to 50 and beyond, something that could be interpreted as an attempt to revive the university age, something that went hand in hand with the frustration produced by not experiencing authentic youth.

Today, everything seems to indicate that the concern about the mid-life crisis is no less widespread . In an age in which the reign of appearances has become even more totalitarian and in which the idealisation of youth and aspectism covers practically all marketing products, a large part of artistic expression and even political communication, being over 40 could almost seem like a crime, and we seem condemned to suffer an extra bit of discomfort when passing through that phase of life. But… Is the midlife crisis really widespread?

The crises of the 40s and 50s

Within the broad umbrella of possibilities that encompasses such a generic concept as the midlife crisis, a distinction is usually made between one that appears around the age of 40 and another related to ages around 50. In both cases, similar situations arise.

On the one hand, each time a decade has passed since birth, a threshold is crossed which, although not in all cases it implies a qualitative change in biological development (as is the case with puberty, for example), has a strong psychological impact. Artificial and socially constructed, but no less real for that reason.

On the other hand, in middle age there is a greater awareness of one’s own mortality, partly due to the signs of physical wear and tear that are beginning to be noticed in one’s own body, and partly due to elements in the environment, such as the fact that at this stage the expectations of major life changes are greatly reduced and the greatest novelty that remains is retirement, or the possibility that during these years more loved ones, such as parents or uncles, will die and one will have to go through grief.

Thus, it is easy to imagine that the nostalgia of youth will grow, but a priori that does not mean that this will happen or that it will be such a strong blow that it can be called a “crisis”; it is only a theoretical, hypothetical explanation about elements that could propitiate this psychological phenomenon. Let’s now go to what we know about the mid-life crisis thanks to empirical contrast. To what extent does it exist?

Midlife crisis: reality or myth?

In their excellent book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology , Scott O. Lilienfield, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry Beyerstein offer significant amounts of data according to which this catastrophic notion that most people will go through a mid-life crisis is exaggerated, although it has a grain of truth.

For example, in a study conducted with a sample of 1501 married Chinese between the ages of 30 and 60, psychologist Daniel Shek found no significant evidence that most participants experienced a growth in dissatisfaction as they moved through middle age.

In terms of people linked to Western culture, the largest study conducted on people in the vital stage of maturity (over 3,000 interviews), men and women between 40 and 60 years of age generally showed higher levels of satisfaction and control over their own lives than they had experienced during the previous decade.

In addition, the concern and discomfort generated by the idea of suffering a mid-life crisis was more frequent than the cases in which this phenomenon was actually experienced. Other research has shown that only 10-26% of people over 40 say they have experienced a mid-life crisis.

Maturity can also be enjoyed

So why has this phenomenon been so exaggerated? This may be partly because what is meant by a mid-life crisis is very ambiguous, so it is easy to use that concept when calling what makes us suffer.

For example, a qualitative leap in consumption patterns, such as starting to travel at the age of 41, can be attributed to the need to live again the adventurous spirit of youth , but it can also be understood, simply, as the fruit of years of saving during a period when luxuries were out of reach.

It is also possible that problems of communication with teenagers or boredom caused by a more stable work context generate an unease that we associate in an abstract way with ageing, although technically it has nothing to do with that process.

In any case, everything seems to indicate that in most cases the worst thing about the mid-life crisis is its anticipation and the unjustified concern it generates. Maturity is usually a moment in life that can be enjoyed as much or more than any other , and it is not worth creating artificial problems by waiting for a crisis that will probably not come.

Bibliographic references:

  • Brim, O. G. and Kessler, R. C. (2004). How healthy are we? A national study of well-being at midlife . The John D.and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network of Mental Health and Development. Studies on Successful Midlife Development (R. C. Kessler, Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lilienfield, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. and Beyerstein, B. (2011). 50 great myths of popular psychology . Vilassar de Dalt: Buridán Library.
  • Shek, D. (1996). Mid-life crysis in Chinese men and women. Journal of Psychology , 130, pp. 109 – 119.