By Kate Schaefers
Midlife, that hard-to-define life stage between youth and old age, is finally getting some respect. Long the butt of jokes and stereotypes, midlife is now fodder for research, partly driven by the sheer number of baby boomers moving through midlife, but also shaped by our expanding understanding of the aging process. New knowledge is coming from many fronts, including psychology, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and even gerontology. This multidisciplinary approach allows us to take a nuanced view of midlife, and deepens our understanding of the joys and challenges that help shape the midlife experience. Of the many midlife myths, I’d like to dispel four of them.
Myth 1: Midlife Crisis is a common event. Pervasive in the popular psyche, “midlife crisis” is defined as a time of conflict and desperation, where aging is denied and defied. Research shows that this kind of crisis is not prevalent. For most, midlife continues to be a time of development, well-being, and resilience. Instead of a crisis, we tend to experience turning points – events such as death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, or illness - that compel us to reevaluate and perhaps shift direction. Turning points wake us up to our lives and motivate us out of complacency, but aren’t necessarily experienced as crises.
Myth 2: It’s all downhill from here. Midlife is seen as a time of loss – of physical vigor, and mental acuity. In reality, medical advances and preventative care have dramatically expanded life expectancy, and midlife can be a time of health, wellness, and heartiness. With respect to the aging brain, we now know that the brain continues to re-sculpt itself, creating new cells and developing new pathways. Adults in midlife and beyond actually perform better at some mental tasks, especially those that require complex problem solving. This is partly due to the influence of experience, but also due to the older brain’s ability to draw from both hemispheres. Our emotional circuitry also matures, so we become more adept at filtering emotions through the lens of experience.
Myth 3: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Many people go through major retooling at midlife, with still plenty of time to build a significant career. A career launched at age 45 will mean 20 years of contribution, assuming a traditional retirement age of 65. In today’s standards, 20 years is a long time for any career! Millions of people are making these kinds of moves. In the 2008 Encore Careers Survey, an estimated 5.3 to 8.4 million people shifted into an Encore career – a career that combines income, meaning, and social impact in the second half of life.
Myth 4: I have to have it all figured out before I take action. Traditional career counseling starts with self-knowledge, usually through some kind of assessment of skills, interests, values. The next step is to explore the world of work. Through a systematic, matching approach, viable options are identified and weighed against each other. While there’s lots of merit to a planned approach, people sometimes get stuck here. They assume there is one right option to uncover. Or they try to discover a true “calling” that will fulfill a life mission and provide purpose. Worse yet, they angst over the fact that they don’t have a “calling” and believe there is something wrong with them. The planned approach needs to be balanced with a willingness to try new experiences and take some risks. Instead of waiting for clarity from within, take small steps. If things don’t work out, no worries!
Career paths are rarely linear, and experimenting allows us to playfully try on new hats while limiting risks. Midlife can be a period of tremendous growth and potential. By embracing the shifts and opening ourselves to new experiences, we can create and recreate ourselves throughout the lifespan.
Brim, Ryff & Kessler (2004). How healthy are we? A national study of well-being at midlife.
Cohen, G. (2005). The mature mind. Basic Books.
Metlife Foundation/Civic Ventures (2008). Encore Careers Study.
Ibarra, H. (2003). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Harvard Business School Press.
Lachman, M.E. (Ed) (2001). Handbook of Midlife Development. New York: Wiley & Sons.