Why the 'midlife crisis' is a myth

While many report feelings of life dissatisfaction as they grow older, there's little evidence that we usually experience a crisis in middle age.

Nick Haslam is a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

(CNN)Middle age is often seen as life's pivot point. A hill has been climbed and the view over the other side is unsettling. As Victor Hugo said: "forty is the old age of youth" and "fifty the youth of old age."

The idea adults in midlife face a dark night of the soul -- or desperately escape from it, hair plugs flapping in a convertible's breeze -- is deeply rooted. Studies show the great majority of people believe in the reality of the so-called "midlife crisis," and almost half of adults over 50 claim to have had one. But is it actually real?
There is good evidence a midlife decline in life satisfaction is real. Population surveys typically find both women and men report the lowest satisfaction in middle age. The Australian HILDA survey locates the lowest life satisfaction at age 45, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics singles out the 45-54 age bracket as the glummest.
    Middle age may be dislocating for some but there is little evidence it is usually a period of crisis and despondency. Psychologically speaking, things tend to get better. If there is a small dip in how people evaluate their lot -- even if it is objectively no worse than before -- this is understandable. Our attention shifts from time past to time left, and that requires a process of adjustment.

    When is midlife?

    Clearly there are many grounds for being unsatisfied with life during the middle years. But does that make the midlife crisis real, or just an intuitively appealing phantom? There is good reason to be sceptical.
    For one thing, it's hard enough deciding when the midlife crisis should occur. Concepts of middle age are elastic and change as we get older. One study found younger adults believe middle age stretches from the early 30s to 50, whereas adults over 60 saw it as extending from the late 30s to the mid-50s.
    In one US study, one-third of people in their 70s defined themselves as middle-aged. This research accords with the finding middle-aged people tend to feel one decade younger than their birth certificate.
    However we define midlife, do crises concentrate in that period? One study suggests not. It indicates instead that self-reported crises simply become steadily more common as we age. Among study participants in their 20s, 44% reported a crisis, compared to 49% of those in their 30s, and 53% of those in their 40s.
    In another study, the older the participants, the older they reported their midlife crisis to have occurred. People aged over 60 recalled theirs at 53 while those in their 40s dated theirs to 38.
    Arguably there is no distinct midlife crisis, just crises that occur during midlife but might equally have occurred before or after.

    What the theorists thought

    The psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques, who coined the term "midlife crisis" in 1965, thought it reflected the dawning recognition of one's mortality. "Death," he wrote, "instead of being a general conception, or an event experienced in terms of the loss of someone else, becomes a personal matter."
    The key achievement of middle age, according to Jaques, is to move beyond youthful idealism to what he called "contemplative pessimism" and "constructive resignation." He argued midlife was when we reach maturity by overcoming our denial of death and human destructiveness.
    Carl Jung presented a different view. He argued midlife was a time when previously suppressed aspects of the psyche might become integrated. Men could recover their