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Who to blame for your midlife crisis?
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So, 50 hits, and people start getting antsy. To be fair, some start at the sight of the first wrinkles. But let’s stick to stereotypes, shall we? What do you do? Buy a Porsche or sit on a bench staring at the ducks in the park? Get plastic surgery and a younger person’s wardrobe, or sit at home with the curtains drawn in your pajamas watching TV reruns? You see yourself aging and your expiration date approaching. You feel the need to do all the things you didn’t do because you were busy living a life you thought you should live. That’s actually the best-case scenario. The worst is you realize you wasted your life doing things you fell into, floating around as if you’ll always be 20, and you have nothing to show for your existence on this planet for half a century.
It doesn’t help hearing clocks tick, balancing careers with family, leisure, and adventure. Everything takes time, but there are only 24 hours in a day and only so many years to accomplish it all. But how do you know what you should be doing by the time you hit the middle point in your life?
Well, society tells ya. Have no doubts about it. You actually measure yourself with a yardstick you didn’t pick. Consciously or unconsciously.
OK, biology sucks too. You get up in the morning, and things hurt. Sex may not be as fun or interesting as it used to be if you actually get any at all. Hair’s falling. Weight piles on. Vigor deteriorates. Menopause happens. Everything looks like it’s going downhill, and death awaits. Obviously, you’ve passed your prime in a culture that celebrates the years before your prime. Even filters don’t improve your social media posts. Ouch.
But the bigger ouch is realizing where you rank in the world. Let’s face it, hardly anyone ranks themselves positively. In a time of mega, uber-rich achievers, there’s always going to be someone miles ahead of you. Unless you are Elon Musk. But then Johnson & Johnson’s worth just surpassed Tesla, so probably even Elon Musk has bad days of feeling sorry for himself.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, a standardized life course emerged, and I am not sure this helped people to feel any better. We started measuring up to the Joneses, creating particular stresses on the middle-aged to accomplish and acquire certain things by certain times. A socially prescribed ordering of life events emerged – when to marry, raise a family, and retire. Plus, other stuff in between, like going to college, finding “the one,” buying a house, career achievements, net worth, travel and vacation like “everyone else” on social media and our social circles.
In other words, society prescribes the milestones of individual lives. And yes, as we grow more connected and privy to more options and possibilities, our expectations of ourselves and the goalposts can move further away, at home and at work. Unfortunately, these expectations also drive emulation, increasing striving and consumption, and even jealousy, causing much stress and unhappiness while trying to keep up.
At the same time, the world around us constantly changes.
Financially, back then, people had the luxury of holding the same job for 30 years and retiring with a pension, a security few enjoy now. The dollar stretched further, too. $1 million in the 50s has the purchasing power of $12 million in 2022, a significant increase in the cost of living. If someone’s lucky to get an inheritance, it comes much later in life for most and is a lot smaller, as folks live a lot longer than they did a 100 years ago and spend more of their savings. A young family experiencing the greatest financial challenges raising children and paying a mortgage likely won’t benefit from a cash infusion from an inheritance, setting them back financially for decades in debt. Decades of debt also represent a loss of many opportunities one regrets not having later in life.
Arriving at 50 with little saved, if anything, no financial security, possibly debt, and lots of toys and life experiences to be had but couldn’t be afforded puts people in a very foul mood. Even for those well-off, the same occurs as they measure themselves up to their more “successful” peers. That’s also the time people realize exactly how expensive their health is. Doctor visits for things going physically wrong add up quickly. Replaced knees, hips, and rotator cuff surgeries cost a fortune, especially if you don’t have insurance.
At the same time, people start reappraising their lives and achievements versus their goals and aspirations, arriving at the inevitable conclusion that they could have done better. Also, realizing that time is running out and catching up is much more difficult, if not impossible. By then, many think of all the ideas from their younger years, wondering what life would be like had they taken a different path.
If they married and had children early, they would likely end up empty-nesters early, too. With the kids as the organizing principle of their relationship out of the house, the two adults, if still together, have each other only for another 40 or 50 years. That’s a long time to be with someone you don’t like anymore. And chances are, by the time you raised your kids, you probably stopped liking each other after all the parenting conflicts.
Meanwhile, single people don’t have it any easier. The grass is always greener over the fence. Many singles begin to feel the urge to find someone, anyone. Some look for life partners to run and play with, others for someone to call 911 if they fall down and can’t get up.
Everyone starts thinking, “is this all there is” no matter their particular life situation. People begin measuring their life satisfaction vs. their expectations of their life satisfaction. Not to mention how unrealistic this is, but they still do it. At some point, the dissatisfaction, evaluation, and wishful thinking hit a crisis point. People get divorced, change careers, go on a quest to find themselves, or all of them at once. Many completely re-orient their lives, out with the old and off to a new start.
But what do people expect to gain from upending the status quo of their existence? A better life, of course! But what does that mean?
Mainly middle-aged people look for ways to end their anxieties around their performance and achievements and increase life satisfaction. Some find it in new partners interacting with them in different and more exciting ways compared to the old habits of bickering, resentment, blame, and boredom of their previous relationship. They jump onto a new train hoping to get to a different destination. Whether that’s possible or if it actually happens is another topic for discussion.
Moving to a new town, changing careers, retiring early, or a new hobby, the newness of things shifts the focus. It provides opportunities for new experiences, different problems to solve, and things to look forward to. In other words, the middle-aged want a new lease on life. They start over, hoping to avoid making the same mistakes and looking for better results. They aspire to find a richer, happier, fuller, and more meaningful life. Definitely, more meaningful and worth living.
People crave feeling reinvigorated, hopeful, and optimistic, in stark contrast to the lows of their current situation. Entire industries thrive, preying on the insecurities, hopes, and dreams of people going through a midlife crisis who spent crazy money on leisure and pleasure, attempting to look better, feel better, and live it up!
Does any of this shuffling around and spending money help? Does it help enough to be worth it? The answer will be different for every person, I suppose. But it is worth considering if internal challenges with aging, losing vigor, and feeling like a failure can truly be resolved with external changes of circumstance. At the same time, our longer lifespans afford us opportunities for more than one life with more than one partner in more than one career. So, why not, some will say. We have more time to change in more ways than we can imagine and find ourselves in situations that no longer work for us or fit our values. What then?
Here are some life insights from people way passed their midlife crises.
Thanks for reading.