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26 Jul 2013

How Real is a Midlife Crisis?

Is the midlife crisis a real and definable syndrome, or nothing more than a modern myth used to excuse questionable behaviour? While age-based transitions occur throughout adult life, according to some experts, the midlife crisis is over-generalised and poorly understood. While lots of people do make life-changing decisions during their 40s and 50s, the term 'midlife crisis' was only coined in 1956 and is very much a product of the modern age.

The term 'midlife crisis' comes from Elliot Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst and follower of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, many of our life decisions are based around the concepts of sex and death, with the middle of life being the first time people truly realise their own mortality. This period of life is often marked by physical changes such as menopause and balding, and influenced by personal changes such as the death of parents and children leaving home. Often thought to be the domain of men, both sexes can experience some form of crisis during this time of their lives.

Whether it is buying a convertible, running a marathon, or flirting with people much younger, according to Freud, many of the cliche activities associated with the midlife crisis are best understood as a yearning for youth based on a heightened fear of death. However, while things definitely seem to happen during the middle years of adulthood, the term crisis has a number of negative connotations that not everyone is ready to accept. According to David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, the crisis part of the equation is often defined by other people and largely based on myth.

"Many of the stereotypical hallmarks of a mid-life crisis, such as the sudden purchase of the expensive sports car, likely have more to do with middle-age financial status than with a search for youth," says Almeida, adding "Middle age is generally when wealth begins to increase. Mid-life is often a time when people can literally afford some finer, more expensive pleasures."

According to other experts, even though the midlife crisis is a real experience for roughly 10 percent of the population, it is more of a transition period than a crisis for the vast majority. For people who do suffer from depression, anxiety, and confusing life choices during these years, however, sympathy from others should not be expected. In a recent poll conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair in the United States, six out of ten respondents believed a midlife crisis was nothing more than an excuse for bad behaviour.

Like many things in life, the decisions made during the middle adult years will depend greatly on past experiences. While an unhappy early adult life might be the catalyst for outrageous life choices later on, people who already lead fulfilled lives are less likely to fit the stereotype. Crisis or not, the midlife transition is very much a normal part of modern life, with the physical changes experienced by everyone simply dealt with in different ways depending on circumstances.