Do you know the answer to the following questions?
- How many life stages are there?
- When does the midlife crisis begin?
- What is the structure of a “life course”?
Read on, and you’ll find out.
When you think of the word “stages,” what comes to your mind? One image I have is of the melancholy Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who declares: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” then lists the seven stages of a man’s life: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantalone, and old age, facing imminent death.
By the time we reached the 20th century, these seven stages had been whittled down to three: education, work, and retirement. But when it comes to thinking about a concept like life stages, is anything that simple? Indeed, in the 1950s eminent psychologist Erik Erikson upped the number of stages to eight, while still maintaining that personality and life develop in a predetermined order. In his view, each stage built upon the previous one, an idea shared by Freud and many others.
One of the most signifigant problems with the life “stages” notion that I see, however, is the expectations and “rules” that go along with them: I’m an adult now, I should act grown up; I have a family, I should be responsible; I’m old, so I should act my age and move to a retirement home. Isn’t it about time the idea that life revolves around a set of rigid, linear, predetermined stages, offered up by scholars and scientists and swallowed too readily by society, is examined more closely?
Let’s look at one of the biggest social constructs of all time: the “midlife crisis” is a term invented by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques for a theory he presented to the British Psychoanalytical Society in London in 1957. He proposed that the period of midlife (then 35, as average life expectancy was 70) is ignited by the awareness that your life is halfway over, and death imminent. So, not surprisingly the likes of you and I may be compelled to take measures to attempt to remain young.
I prefer Joseph Campbell’s definition that midlife crisis is the realization that you’ve climbed the ladder of success only to realize it was up against the wrong wall! Because that’s what’s the issue, isn’t it?
When Jaques’ paper was published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1965 under the title, “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” the idea jumped into the popular culture. The midlife crisis now became an inevitable part of life, not just some academic’s theory. It morphed into the cliché of men in their thirties or forties purchasing a shiny new sports car or fantasizing about vivacious younger women; while women opted for a face-lift and lusted after toy boys. Picture Marilyn Monroe in Seven Year Itch standing on the subway grate with her white dress billowing around her while being ogled by her neighbor. Or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, boiling the pet rabbit because she was having issues getting her man.
The midlife crisis became woven into every aspect of the fiber of our culture – all based on a term invented for a theory. And the clichés persisted until the 1990s when scientists and researchers began to reassess the validity of the concept of the midlife crisis and determined that it wasn’t biologically induced, but just a social construct or theory. This sticky idea, so embedded into our youth-obsessed culture, persists even now.
So, what’s the latest social construct or theory for a midlife crisis? A relatively new branch of economics referred to as “happy economics” in some scientific circles proposes the “Happiness U-Curve”. Based on the findings from many global surveys, it appears that in early life our life satisfaction or happiness level is high. However, in midlife it takes a noticeable dip for the first couple of decades of adulthood and then increases again with age, thereby creating the “Happiness U-Curve”.
What will academics think of next to have us worry and obsess over?
So, are we all doomed to move like automatons from one rigid life stage to another, as we head toward an inevitable midlife crisis? Or are there other options for living a more meaningful life? I believe strongly in the latter, which is why I hope we can be much more adventurous and “rebrand aging.” Because, yes, there are alternative options!
Your Life Course
In many scientific disciplines, human development is viewed more as a “life course” or a sequence of socially defined events and roles that we enact over time. These events and roles do not necessarily proceed in a given sequence, but rather constitute the total of the person’s experience. The concept of the life course implies a more fluid, resilient model, distinctive from the rigid, uniform, predetermined concept of life stages. After all, there’s been a reduction in the number of old folks banished to nursing homes or herded in droves to retirement communities because they’re in the last “stage” of their lives. Thankfully, the focus is shifting to “aging in place,” encouraging people as long as it’s practical to stay in their homes; even creating “intergenerational” communities.
More older adults are returning to school or attending workshops to continue lifelong learning. I was one of them. I returned to university many years ago as an adult to complete my undergraduate degree and enjoyed the journey so much I went on to earn my Master’s in my mid-fifties. The trajectory of my life soared to new heights of delight and wonder as a result, and it continues to do so.
As Doris Lessing, the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature asserts: “The great secret that all older people share is that you really haven’t changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all.” Thus, our core essence remains intact. Yes, we are all aging, but let’s shift from a chronological mindset to one of an ageless self so we can continue to live our lives with purpose and enjoyment.
Let’s not relinquish those things that brought us the most joy when we were younger: our dreams, our passions, our crazy ways of youth. The essence of who we are will always be with us. The key is to carry that “best part” along with us and say “screw it” to the expectations of others. That’s the legacy that life stages tend to deny those who fall into its trap. And, not surprisingly it’s taken the new worldview of the Boomers, together with our extended lifespan, to see the fallacy in that earlier thinking, at least when it comes to the sense that most people can enjoy a wholly satisfying and meaningful life, regardless of age.
So what about that quiz at the top of this article?
- All answers are correct – depending on whose theory you prefer. But then again, do we care?
- 35 is the correct answer; however, keep in mind that the average life expectancy in the mid-20th century was 70. But can real life ever be reduced to a scientific formula in which “midlife” categorically starts at a specific age?
- And finally, the structure of a “life course” is resilient. Wouldn’t you agree that this sounds more flexible and fun than the rigidity of the life stages? There are so many myths regarding aging that we buy into. Isn’t it time we looked at them more closely and if they don’t fit the lifestyle we want, discard them?
Ultimately, we don’t have to settle for the idea of life stages, midlife crises, and other negative social theories and miss out on a life that can be full of new adventures. As Dr. Laura Carstensen, founder of the Stanford University Center on Longevity suggests: “Rather than growing old, live long” and love it! Be bold! Challenge the stereotypes! Let’s “rebrand” aging! What say you?