April 7, 2002    Psychology

Postmodern Mid-life Crisis

It seems that as we live longer physically, we age quicker mentally. Especially now with our technologically driven economy, we are made to feel that the people in their late 20?s through early 30?s run the world; everyone else is riding on their wagon. I notice now that any inadvertent implication of someone being “old” is swiftly followed by an apology or by an attempt at an explanation of how it was meant “in a good way.” I wonder if this perception of age has always existed, or if this is a recent phenomenon.

In the romantic movies of the 40?s and 50?s, the heroes were usually much older than the heroes of today’s movies. Cary Grant, for instance, was in his 40?s or 50?s when he appeared in many of his well-known romantic films where he was referred to as a “young man”. Certainly we see old actors in romantic movies now, like Harrison Ford or Richard Gere, but who were the equivalents of Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Leonard DiCaprio back then? It may be just my own perception, but it seems that 50 years ago, men in their 20?s or even 30?s were perceived as being naive and inexperienced, often dismissed or not taken seriously. The perception of age in women, on the other hand, seems to have remained unchanged for all those years.

The term “mid-life crisis” was apparently coined by Elliott Jaques in his book “Death and the Mid-life Crisis” published in 1965. His claim was that people encounter a crisis as they realize their own mortality and a change in time frame from “time since birth” to “time left to live”. (References: here and here) According to this definition, “mid-life” means essentially the same as “the hill” in the expression “over the hill.” “Mid-life” is a point at which one feels that one is at the height of one’s life in terms of one’s ability and capacity. It is a realization that things will no longer get better, only worse. In this sense, in today’s society, a mid-life crisis should happen much earlier. I would say in our early 30?s.

I recently started noticing people around me who were developing a certain negative attitude towards their own age that can be described as a complex. They talk often about how they lie about their own age, express a sense of bitterness towards those who are young, become defensive about their age, or take joy in pointing out others who are aging in a much worse way.

Perhaps the fact that we face our “mid-life” much earlier now, is a good thing. No matter what sort of society, culture, or time period you live in, sooner or later you will have to face the sense of being “over the hill”. If we are to have a crisis, the younger we have it, the easier it is to deal with.

Say, your life and career keep on flourishing through your 50?s, and suddenly realize one day that you have finally reached the top of the hill. Whether you have a crisis or not will depend on how realistically you have perceived your own life. If the success of your life was helping you to deny your own mortality, even at that age, a crisis will be unavoidable. After reading his biography, I got a sense that Alfred Hitchcock was in this category.

Unfortunately it is very difficult to realize one’s own denial of mortality. It is, for the most part, an unconscious process. A large part of what “mid-life crisis” is, is to realize that you have been in denial. The longer you are in denial, the deeper the crisis will tend to be. In that sense, the earlier you can have it, the better off you will be. If you have a complex about your age, it is a good sign that you are still in denial. Once you face it and get over it, it is a whole new life starting all over again. A mid-life crisis is a good thing. It means that you are old. And, I mean that in a good way.