Living life by numbers … and the midlife crisis
May 7 2016
Conveniently, for lovers of statistics, the Canadian-born psychologist and social analyst Elliot Jaques – who coined the term “midlife crisis”* – died at the age of 86. I say ‘conveniently’ because his lifespan correlates so well with modern statistical expressions about the mid-point of life. As examples of this, the World Health Organization revealed in 2013 (the most recent figures available) that life expectancy for the average UK citizen is 83 years, and a 2015 report from the Economic Journal revealed that life satisfaction gradually declines throughout the early part of adulthood, reaching a low between the ages of 40 and 42 – so close to Dr Jaques’ midlife point.
The difficulty with reporting averages and statistics about human life is that it can obscure life-lived experience and meaning. If we expect a ‘midlife crisis’ to occur at a certain age, then we will be likely to attribute all negative experiences and challenges to that age rather than to the actual experience triggers and events we are living through at that point in time.
Our later 30s and 40s can be especially difficult times, not particularly because of our age, but because of the responsibility life tends to have assumed. In contrast to childhood – a time when the vast majority of people will have been nurtured, protected and cared for by other people – 35 to 50 year-olds generally have to work hard to support themselves and other family members. And with these struggles come other issues – including depression, anxiety and the realisation that time is passing quickly.
It seems that headline statistics as reported in the media tell us very little about the real nature of a person’s issues – although they do appear to make people feel unhappy when they don’t live up to the ideal average. And how do we, as individuals, ever know when midlife will be? For some, 50 will be the figure they never reached; for a few – take, for instance, therapist Hedda Bolgar** who, aged 102, still worked four days a week – that midpoint would not yet have been reached.
I remember sitting on the sofa with my mother listening to the radio on the eve of my 10th birthday, feeling sad that it didn’t matter how long I would go on to live “I could never count my life in single digits again”. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was actually making an observation that the middle of life can only be seen on reflection, since the truth of it all is that we are actually continually positioned at the extreme end of our lives. This is as true today at the start of my 51st year as it was at the conclusion of my ninth.
Crises can happen at any time of life and it’s important to see each crisis for what it is – and act accordingly. Then, perhaps we can aim for 45 joyous, rather than a total of 90 miserable, years.
* Elliot Jaques (1965) Death and the Midlife Crisis