Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews


Taking seriously the midlife crisis.

Trevor Quirk

Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Climacteric!

The midlife crisis has always been an embarrassment for the affluent societies that produce it. The term itself tends to evoke sad, graying men (for troublesome reasons, we picture men) who buy Porsche driving gloves to match a larger purchase, or furtively remove their wedding rings before seducing someone thirty years younger. How pathetic it seems that these naifs find dissatisfaction in contemporary bourgeois life, one of the most comfortable and privileged positions in human history, then express their desperation through its most banal trappings (conspicuous consumption, the cult of virility, etc.). To my mind, it has always been curious that the very people most eager to downplay and ridicule the midlife crisis (to wit, other middle-class careerists) must necessarily appreciate its origins in the lifestyle they share with the sad men. Otherwise, their balding neighbor’s new Boxster would call for congratulations. So what is the elusive social dysfunction that even the cynical can sense in their fortunate lives?

Mark Jackson’s study of midlife turmoil, Broken Dreams, presents the full answer to this question with a history that honors the many variations of human experience to which the midlife crisis lays claim, though at the risk of mystifying its subject. Jackson, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Exeter, finds a somewhat clarifying prototype in Reginald Perrin, the middle-aged middle manager who was the titular character of the 1970s novels of English comedy writer David Nobbs. Overwhelmed by his own midlife calamity, Perrin marches naked into the Atlantic. For Jackson, understanding even a fictional crisis, necessarily simplified, requires a trepidatious inquiry into the “economic, political and cultural, as well as conjugal contexts” that made the midlife crisis a possible and ultimately common experience.

These contexts are mostly those that developed in Europe and North America after the reshuffling of social order for which the post–World War II era is known. Jackson does not limit himself to a single culture or nation, but there is an unavoidably American pathos to the history he presents. After a stint of austerity immediately following the war, a sizable contingent of mostly white Americans would enjoy a unique degree of financial security and social mobility, as many veterans and, later, civilian baby boomers would flee cities for the cut fescue and bland palettes of suburbia. There, they would establish a uniform model of the family, while expending lifespans greatly lengthened by improvements in medicine and general economic prosperity. Such effects worked in concert to “recalibrate the life course and reshape Western expectations of adulthood.” Our suburban frogs were boiled slowly, and would realize too late that this promising lifestyle was killing them.

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