My beloved wife and I agreed many years ago that if I suddenly encountered a personal midlife crisis, such that I felt a desperate need to either a) buy a red sports car or b) run away with a 20-something blond, I had her advance permission to go ahead and buy the sports car. But the original meaning of “midlife crisis” was somewhat different than our formulation. The term seems to have originated in an essay by Elliott Jaques called “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” which appeared in the International Journal of Psycho-analysis in 1965.
This article–and in fact the journal as a whole, as far as I can tell from a quick glance–is not a place for describing research that uses a control group and a treatment group, with statistical comparisons of before-and-after results. Instead, the articles tend to be more conceptual, in an area of knowledge where I’m both skeptical and badly out of my depth. But it also offers some room to think about life patterns, then and now, as 2022 ebbs away. Let me describe a bit of the thesis from Jaques, and then offer some thoughts of my own.
In the course of the development of the individual, there are critical phases which have the character of change points, or periods of rapid transition. Less familiar perhaps, though nonetheless real, are the crises which occur around the age of 35–which I shall term the mid-life crisis–and at full maturity around the age of 65. It is the mid-life crisis with which I shall deal in this paper.
Those who know me will be relieved and heartened to know that in just a few short years, at age 65, I will attain full maturity. Jaques begins his article with a few pages ruminating on the midlife crisis for famous creative geniuses: Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe, and many others. .
I first became aware of this period as a critical stage in development when I noticed a marked tendency towards crisis in the creative work of great men in their middle and late thirties. … This crisis may express itself in three different ways: the creative career may simply come to an end, either in a drying-up of creative work, or in actual death; the creative capacity may begin to show and express itself for the first time; or a decisive change in the quality and content of creativeness may take place.
We then get very brief comments on what Jaques calls a “random sample” of “310 painters, composers, poets, writers, and sculptors, of undoubted greatness or of genius.” And yes, indeed, some had a burst of creativity into their late 30s that then ebbed, some began a new surge of creativity in the late 30s for the first time, and some had a major shift in their creativity. (This approach to gaining insight is pretty far from how economists approach questions, but I am always trying to expand my personal horizons beyond economics approaches!) Jaques then turns to applying these insights to the rest of us:
Although I have thus far taken my examples from the extremes of genius, my main theme is that the mid-life crisis is a reaction which not only occurs in creative genius, but manifests itself in some form in everyone. What then is the psychological nature of this reaction to the mid- life situation, and how is it to be explained? The simple fact of the situation is the arrival at the mid-point of life. What is simple from the point of view of chronology, however, is not simple psychologically. The individual has stopped growing up, and has begun to grow old. A new set of external circumstances has to be met. The first phase of adult life has been lived.
Family and occupation have become established (or ought to have become established unless the individual’s adjustment has gone seriously awry); parents have grown old, and children are at the threshold of adulthood. Youth and childhood are past and gone, and demand to be mourned. The achievement of mature and independent adulthood presents itself as the main psychological task. The paradox is that of entering the prime of life, the stage of fulfilment, but at the same time the prime and fulfilment are dated. Death lies beyond.
I believe, and shall try to demonstrate, that it is this fact of the entry upon the psychological scene of the reality and inevitability of one’s own eventual personal death, that is the central and crucial feature of the mid-life phase–the feature which precipitates the critical nature of the period. Death–at the conscious level–instead of being a general conception, or an event experienced in terms of the loss of someone else, becomes a personal matter, one’s own death, one’s own real and actual mortality.
As I have suggested several times, the style of argument from Jaques offers little attraction for my economics-brain. There are substantial quotations from Freud, as well as comments taken from the literary geniuses previously mentions. The patient reader will need to persist through discussions of the “infantile unconscious relation to death,” which includes “unconscious infantile fantasies equivalent to death–the fantasies of the destroyed and persecuting breast.” There are case notes about interpreting the dreams of patients, like one who dreamed of waking up in a coffin. Here, I’ll push this method of (psycho-) analysis off to one side, and instead just offer some thoughts about the modern version of the mid-life crisis.
The ages that Jaques uses for major life changes seem peculiar from a modern view: indeed, given changes over the centuries, the age of, say, 35, presumably means something rather different at present than it did to Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe, Poe, Rimbaud. Even in 1965, the median age of first marriage in the US was about 22; now, it’s about 30. Jaques writes that people in their mid-30s, “children are at the threshold of adulthood. My first child was born when I was 37. I suspect that “threshold of adulthood” also happened earlier. I’m 62, and my youngest is a junior in college, which seems like the “threshold of adulthood” to me. In short, the entire life chronology assumed by Jaques seems out-of-date.
Jaques seems to see life as a path from “growing up” to “growing old.” My sense is that for a lot of modern people in the modern era, there is a considerable chunk of middle-age life–without any particular crisis–that is lived between growing up and without an acute personal sense of growing old and and the approach of death. For many people I know, it’s the death of parents that brings an awareness of one’s own mortality–and even then, there’s often a sense that death is not personal until you reach the age where your parents’ died. I just don’t see a lot of 35 year-olds in modern life who feel as if death is looming at their shoulder.
People do go through changes as they age. I suppose that some people can have a crisis at any age and for a wide range of events: adolescence, birthdays ending in zero, marriage, divorce, parenthood, career changes, geographical moves, and others. But not every change is a crisis. Here’s Jaques on the change in creative processes among his “random sample” of the geniuses he decided to look up.
The creativity of the twenties and the early thirties tends to be a hot from- the-fire creativity. It is intense and spontaneous, and comes out ready-made. The spontaneous effusions of Mozart, Keats, Shelley, Rimbaud, are the prototype. Most of the work seems to go on unconsciously. The conscious production is rapid, the pace of creation often being dictated by the limits of the artist’s capacity physically to record the words or music he is expressing. … By contrast, the creativity of the late thirties and after is a sculpted creativity. The inspiration may be hot and intense. The unconscious work is no less than before. But there is a big step between the first effusion of inspiration and the finished created product. The inspiration itself may come more slowly. Even if there are sudden bursts of inspiration, they are only the beginning of the work process. The initial inspiration must first be externalized in its elemental state. Then begins the process of forming and fashioning the external product, by means of working
and re-working the externalized material.
Or here’s Jaques on how the outlook of ordinary folks changes in the “mid-life crisis”:
For everyone, the on-coming years of the forties are the years when new starts are coming to an end. This feeling can be observed to arise in a particularly poignant way by the mid-forties. This sense of there being no more changing is anticipated in the mid-life crisis. What is begun has to be finished. Important things that the individual would have liked to achieve, would have desired to become would have longed to have, will not be realized. The awareness of on-coming frustration is especially intense. That is why, for example, the issue of resignation is of such importance. It is resignation in the sense of conscious and unconscious acceptance of inevitable frustration on the grand scale of life as a whole.
It’s true that time’s arrow flies in only one direction. But describing this process as one of “no more changing” and “inevitable frustration” seems to me a considerable overstatement, at least as applied to the typical modern person. Most of us, it seems to me, do not live in a continual state of frustration over the fact that time passes. Jaques seems to be imagining a person who, if it was possible, would like to live a life like the movie “Groundhog Day”, in which you live in an endless time loop and can keep rethinking, reliving, and repolishing every day until all your desires and expectations are fulfilled. Yes, a person does not get to live out multiple lives, see how each one turns out, and then choose between them. And that not only just fine, but ultimately preferable.
I suppose all of this is just a way of saying that I’m not having a Jaques-style “mid-life crisis.” Of course, I do have friends who made major changes in their lives: divorce, remarriage, careers, locations. But I don’t think most of them would say that these changes happened because they felt the lurking presence of death in their late 1930s. They made changes because they were unhappy, and because they were living at a place and time where a wide array of changes were possible. What Jaques calls “mid-life crisis” is closer to what I would just call “living.”
Thinking about whether middle-age should be expected to cause a “crisis” reminded me of Mark Twain’s 1909 meditation in “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”–the last story that Twain published during his life. Captain Stormfield flies across the universe to Heaven, and Twain’s insightful comic inventiveness takes over from there. At one point, the Captain is discussing the aging process in Heaven with a friend named Sandy, who is showing him the ropes. Here’s what they say:
“About how old might you be, Sandy?”
“I judged so. How long you been in heaven?”
“Twenty-seven years, come Christmas.”
“How old was you when you come up?”
“Why, seventy-two, of course.”
“You can’t mean it!”
“Why can’t I mean it?”
“Because, if you was seventy-two then, you are naturally ninety-nine now.”
“No, but I ain’t. I stay the same age I was when I come.”
“Well,” says I, “come to think, there’s something just here that I want to ask about. Down below, I always had an idea that in heaven we would all be young, and bright, and spry.”
“Well, you can be young if you want to. You’ve only got to wish.”
“Well, then, why didn’t you wish?”
“I did. They all do. You’ll try it, some day, like enough; but you’ll get tired of the change pretty soon.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. Now you’ve always been a sailor; did you ever try some other business?”
“Yes, I tried keeping grocery, once, up in the mines; but I couldn’t stand it; it was too dull—no stir, no storm, no life about it; it was like being part dead and part alive, both at the same time. I wanted to be one thing or t’other. I shut up shop pretty quick and went to sea.”
“That’s it. Grocery people like it, but you couldn’t. You see you wasn’t used to it. Well, I wasn’t used to being young, and I couldn’t seem to take any interest in it. I was strong, and handsome, and had curly hair,—yes, and wings, too!—gay wings like a butterfly. I went to picnics and dances and parties with the fellows, and tried to carry on and talk nonsense with the girls, but it wasn’t any use; I couldn’t take to it—fact is, it was an awful bore. What I wanted was early to bed and early to rise, and something to do; and when my work was done, I wanted to sit quiet, and smoke and think—not tear around with a parcel of giddy young kids. You can’t think what I suffered whilst I was young.”
“How long was you young?”
“Only two weeks. That was plenty for me. Laws, I was so lonesome! You see, I was full of the knowledge and experience of seventy-two years; the deepest subject those young folks could strike was only a-b-c to me. And to hear them argue—oh, my! it would have been funny, if it hadn’t been so pitiful. Well, I was so hungry for the ways and the sober talk I was used to, that I tried to ring in with the old people, but they wouldn’t have it. They considered me a conceited young upstart, and gave me the cold shoulder. Two weeks was a-plenty for me. I was glad to get back my bald head again, and my pipe, and my old drowsy reflections in the shade of a rock or a tree.”
“Well,” says I, “do you mean to say you’re going to stand still at seventy-two, forever?”
“I don’t know, and I ain’t particular. But I ain’t going to drop back to twenty-five any more—I know that, mighty well. I know a sight more than I did twenty-seven years ago, and I enjoy learning, all the time, but I don’t seem to get any older. That is, bodily—my mind gets older, and stronger, and better seasoned, and more satisfactory.”
Says I, “If a man comes here at ninety, don’t he ever set himself back?”
“Of course he does. He sets himself back to fourteen; tries it a couple of hours, and feels like a fool; sets himself forward to twenty; it ain’t much improvement; tries thirty, fifty, eighty, and finally ninety—finds he is more at home and comfortable at the same old figure he is used to than any other way. Or, if his mind begun to fail him on earth at eighty, that’s where he finally sticks up here. He sticks at the place where his mind was last at its best, for there’s where his enjoyment is best, and his ways most set and established.”
“Does a chap of twenty-five stay always twenty-five, and look it?”
“If he is a fool, yes. But if he is bright, and ambitious and industrious, the knowledge he gains and the experiences he has, change his ways and thoughts and likings, and make him find his best pleasure in the company of people above that age; so he allows his body to take on that look of as many added years as he needs to make him comfortable and proper in that sort of society; he lets his body go on taking the look of age, according as he progresses, and by and by he will be bald and wrinkled outside, and wise and deep within.”
“Babies the same?”
“Babies the same. Laws, what asses we used to be, on earth, about these things! We said we’d be always young in heaven. We didn’t say how young—we didn’t think of that, perhaps—that is, we didn’t all think alike, anyway. When I was a boy of seven, I suppose I thought we’d all be twelve, in heaven; when I was twelve, I suppose I thought we’d all be eighteen or twenty in heaven; when I was forty, I begun to go back; I remember I hoped we’d all be about thirty years old in heaven. Neither a man nor a boy ever thinks the age he has is exactly the best one—he puts the right age a few years older or a few years younger than he is. Then he makes that ideal age the general age of the heavenly people. And he expects everybody to stick at that age—stand stock-still—and expects them to enjoy it!—Now just think of the idea of standing still in heaven! Think of a heaven made up entirely of hoop-rolling, marble-playing cubs of seven years!—or of awkward, diffident, sentimental immaturities of nineteen!—or of vigorous people of thirty, healthy-minded, brimming with ambition, but chained hand and foot to that one age and its limitations like so many helpless galley-slaves! Think of the dull sameness of a society made up of people all of one age and one set of looks, habits, tastes and feelings. Think how superior to it earth would be, with its variety of types and faces and ages, and the enlivening attrition of the myriad interests that come into pleasant collision in such a variegated society.”
For Twain, people keep gaining knowledge and experience, enjoying the stages of life as they come, and recognizing that you need to live through each one to reach the next. Heaven would be the place where this progression need never end. There seems to me more wisdom about the aging, midlife, and the human condition in Twain than in Jaques.