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.

Of course, these soured hopes were a holiday compared to the social experiences of most people of color and other cultural minorities. The harrowing lyricism of writers such as James Baldwin demonstrated that the bleak prospects and environmental perils presented to black people tended to force the issue of their spiritual maturation (one of Baldwin’s most famous essays details a “religious crisis” he experienced when he was fourteen), precipitating different crises in those to whom extravagant social promises were never made, or were remorselessly broken. Jackson fails to fully synthesize these experiences by arguing that the immiseration and injustice endured by minorities and the consequent “cultural revolutions of the 1950s or ’60s” were deeply related to the bankruptcy of the new middle-class lifestyle, as social unrest and personal disquiet would seem to share certain emotional flavors. Nor does he address the common refrain that the midlife crisis is little more than a folktale that is undermined by quantitative analyses of midlife experiences across populations. It seems sufficient for Jackson that numerous postwar cultures persistently used this schema to conceptualize their adult miseries (see, for instance, Ada Calhoun’s 2020 book Why We Can’t Sleep, an account of the “new midlife crisis for women”), and thus help themselves gesture toward a tightly wound, terribly vague, and mysterious matrix of human suffering. For those who can plausibly imagine themselves seized in the spiritual vise at the center of Broken Dreams, or who, like me, suspect that they are already held between its plates, Jackson provides an honest reckoning with the midlife crisis and the profound choice it poses to those who might suffer one—a choice described by psychoanalysts Jane Pearce and Saul Newton as “the decision to grow or die.”

By 1965, when the term “mid-life crisis” was articulated by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, it was clear that the “climacteric” (the earlier and, to my ear, better name for the malady, if only because it avoids implying that such crises are preordained to occur precisely in middle age) presented some common symptoms in those who experienced it.

Among them was an appreciation of personal extinction and its many painful indications. Adult human beings would inevitably find that “vision, hearing, taste, and smell deteriorated; basal metabolic rate decreased; height declined, while weight increased, particularly in women; and the chronic illnesses that led to death in later life arose,” Jackson writes. The subtler foreshadowing of one’s death was itself preface to the “loss of reproductive capacity” in women especially and “declining sexual prowess” in men.

Jackson argues that a new consciousness arrayed these hard facts of life along the yardstick of advancement. “From the early twentieth century, it became commonplace not only to measure life in annual or decennial increments, but to evaluate individual and family progress against age-specific benchmarks of status and success, at home as much as at work.” These changes were largely brought about by global industrialization, which secured our “mounting dependency on clocks in offices, factories, schools and homes—clocks that not only measured time, but controlled it.” Clever and rapacious marketing firms of the twentieth century promoted the “awareness of chronological milestones” that often coincided with the consumption of entertainment products, arrangements for vacation, or the purchase of a new car or home. The death knell that clanged, however distantly, at midlife carried new emotive force proportional to one’s failure to meet certain expectations. Now more than ever, time could be irretrievably wasted.

The strict regulation of time placed growing pressures on laborers and professionals alike, who became steadily disillusioned with the “monotony of the workplace” through its classic estrangement and the tensions workers carried home with them. As work failed to meaningfully organize life, so too did leisure. Sociologist David Riesman, writing in 1960, noted that “leisure...can only be meaningful for most men if work is meaningful.” Moments of rest only exacerbated the anxieties they were meant to heal, as many people turned to what Mark Greif calls the “anesthetic reaction,” reducing or obliterating experience altogether. Sedatives and tranquilizers (given the sorry euphemism “mother’s little helpers”) were often prescribed to women “exhausted and frustrated” by the lonely and unrecognized labor of raising children, while men more often took recourse to alcohol and extramarital sex.

These troubled souls found less and less support in the extended family, which disintegrated throughout the twentieth century, eventually being reduced to what futurist Alvin Toffler called the “streamlined” family. The nuclear family, as we now call it, was better suited to a growing “need for greater social mobility to meet shifting patterns of labor,” Jackson writes. The family became yet another site for the division of work (the man holding down a paying job, the woman keeping house, and the boys and girls learning respectively to do the same one day), an efficiency that was meant to allow for accelerated social climbing. This ethos was captured in the expression “keeping up with the Joneses,” the coinage of cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand, who drew a popular comic strip by that name that ran from 1913 to 1945. A marvel of propaganda, the strip, and, more enduringly, the popular mentality it encapsulated, created motivating anxieties in American families about status and finances. Its looming presence so frequently and obnoxiously intrudes on the delicate portraits of disquiet in Broken Dreams that you can’t help but loathe its characters.

In the 1950s, British psychiatrist Henry Dicks remarked that the nuclear family was the “irreducible unit of social organization,” but the following decades would show that the family was still very much reducible, especially after the breaking of its linchpin, the conjugal heterosexual marriage. The children and grandchildren of such marriages now know that this experiment in monogamy too often failed spectacularly. (Jackson reminds us that divorce rates rose persistently in the United States and England throughout the twentieth century.) Yet much like the liberalized economy, the institution of marriage could never seem to fail its participants; rather, it could only be failed by them. In 1947, the Austrian urologist and “pioneer of sexual medicine” Oswald Schwarz proclaimed that “there is no greater happiness than a successful marriage.” As Jackson observes,

As a result, [Schwarz] advocated a policy that had already been embraced by eugenicists—but largely rejected by legislatures—earlier in the century. For Schwarz, the solution to unhappy marriages lay not in relaxing or toughening the divorce laws, but in making marriage itself more difficult—by raising the age at which marriage was permissible or by ensuring that “physically and psychologically unfit people should not be allowed to marry.”

The creeping despair beneath the idyllic image of family life became the basis for a familiar genre of bourgeois misery in American literature. Novels of the era (e.g., Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Something Happened by Joseph Heller, John Updike’s “Rabbit” series) portray middle-class people whose unaccountable misery is inflamed by its very unaccountableness, the vectors of their aimless resentment shuttling between themselves, their managers, their spouses, and their children—often with tragic results. In Revolutionary Road, April Wheeler perishes after attempting to abort a pregnancy that would have solidified an ailing marriage; in Something Happened, Bob Slocum, who grows to despise his children during his climacteric, murders his son.

In the major capitalist economies, these dejections were largely contrived as business opportunities. Many of the “solutions” proffered by celebrity clinicians, agony aunts, and other advice peddlers of the postwar era were generally uncritical, either reinforcing the supremacy of individualism in Western cultures or the timeless duties of gendered social roles. The sexes did not suffer equally. Women were commonly held to double, even triple standards, and the female climacteric was ritually denied basic recognition through conflation with menopause. The explanations and remedies for middle-age desperation reflected political priorities and, as a rule, excused men while disciplining women.

Consider Otto Billig and Robert Adams, who in 1954, as Jackson writes, “rejected the notion that the male climacteric had a physiological basis.” The two psychoanalysts, reluctant to embarrass male biology, instead argued that crises were the result of “an Oedipal syndrome triggered by Western cultural emphasis on achieving success in a competitive world.” Somehow this was less embarrassing.

The midlife turmoil of women was never so sympathetically socialized. The full character of their crises was frequently minimized as the ravages of time on female beauty. During the 1950s, women were routinely held responsible for their husbands’ infidelity, which could be explained when wives stood “in front of a mirror,” as one thirty-eight-year-old woman put it, where they might spy the triple chins, spare tires, or wrinkles that drove their husbands into another bed. Jackson writes that physicians like A.H. Douthwaite commonly advised “women who were worried about their appearance and the stability of their marriages...to use beauty products and self-care routines [often including diet pills] to preserve their complexions and figures through the travails of motherhood and menopause.”

The reluctance to biologize the male climacteric evaporated in the 1960s when it became acceptable to believe, Jackson writes, “that male infidelity at midlife was determined largely by a biological imperative,” a viewpoint that absolved men “from the guilt of betraying partners and children.” Indeed, “male menopause” came into vogue to “reinvigorate sympathy for the physical, emotional, and occupational travails of men at midlife [as] doctors and self-help authors insisted that middle-aged men also suffered from hormonal imbalances during their forties and fifties.”

Jackson counterposes these popular notions with the ideas of more earnest intellectuals who, though certainly not immune to the bigotries and contortions of their demotic cousins, were willing to confront the roles played by social norms and institutions in the midlife crises of both men and women. This group included antipsychiatrists such as R.D. Laing, Daniel Levinson (“architect of the male midlife crisis”), sociologist Margaret Mead, and Erik Erikson, a protégé of Carl Jung who came to believe that “psychological disturbances” like midlife crises were the “products of interpersonal relations and socio-cultural conditions as much as they were manifestations of inner psychological processes or biological pathways.” The climacteric, understood in this manner, arose from an interplay between the social order and the individual situated within it.

Today, as in Erikson’s era, midlife crisis remains a useful descriptor in American culture because the personal (often outlandish) expectations nurtured by individualism (through which we imagine ourselves as the universe’s principal characters, whose desires ultimately must be satisfied) continue to break against society’s inability, or refusal, to meet them.

This was certainly my experience in attempting to become a writer. When I belatedly discovered it, writing seemed nothing short of a destiny, a resonant promise from the world that my “career” would be a roughly frictionless affair. I spent my twenties learning what a stupid idea this was, working jobs I didn’t want so I could afford to pursue rewards that seemed more out of reach every year. I am now thirty-four years old, comfortably unhappy, wedged between the unacceptable possibility that my ambitions might never materialize and the haunting awareness of sunk costs of time paid to them.

Yet I have also learned that many of the ambitions that organized my early life are not only unrealistic but spiritually undesirable. The promise of comparative success and validation that animates most careers is cyclical and thus eternally unsatisfying; not accidentally, many midlife crises are initiated by getting exactly what one wants, only to realize that one’s appetites have grown or changed altogether. The true problem, Broken Dreams suggests, is not our unmet expectations, but the competitive logic of social mobility itself, the great engine of pride and jealousy that animates and distracts the middle class. I imagine this is why Jackson’s concluding prescriptions, tepid as they are, are not political in nature but are addressed to the individual to whom the task of personal transformation is left. Jackson sees perhaps the cruelest aspect of postwar liberal democracies, one anticipated by liberalism’s most exacting critics, such as Marx, in the tendency to exhaust the individual citizen while disbanding the very institutions, practices, and social units that might allow him to recover.

Midlife crises are, in this sense, a last chance to nurture the important parts of ourselves that contemporary life cannot accommodate. No writer in the American canon was more primed for a climacteric than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even he, despite his stupendous gullibility, understood that surmounting his “crack-up” would require, in Jackson’s words, “a complete breach in normal patterns of behavior,” which might have allowed Fitzgerald, had he lived long enough, to become a living repudiation of the celebrated delusions that engender such crises.

Jackson does not know how a person can do this, and neither do I. All I can do, it seems, is labor in the ruins of a fantasy that I had when I was twenty, and a child, wondering if I could dream differently, and if so, then for what, and if for that, then how? Without an alternative, I can only cling to my old illusions. Because having hopeless dreams seems better than having none at all.