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Why the midlife crisis may be the only one that millennials manage to avoid

The myth of the midlife crisis remains very much alive in the collective imagination, but sociologists and historians question whether it is still relevant

Crisis de los 40
From left: Adam Brody, Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Eisenberg in the series 'Fleishman Is in Trouble.'Disney+

In a few weeks, Patricia will turn 40, so she has started to take stock. For a little over a year, she has had a contract as an IT specialist, the first stable job she has ever had in her life. She is saving to buy a house and still lives with her mother. She doesn’t have a partner or any prospect of starting a family (nor does she want to). “A midlife crisis? Not at all. I can’t be tired of a stability I’ve barely achieved. My parents did it when they were 25. I’m taking much longer,” Patricia replies.

The only crisis that millennials may be able to avoid is the midlife crisis. The oldest members of this generation are just beginning to reach middle age, and they have no bourgeois stability to rebel against. Some economists and sociologists question the survival of a phase that has been sold to us as biological and universal, much like adolescence or old age, when it is really just a social and cultural construct. Culture has always been especially important in talking about the midlife crisis, from modern novels like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina to authors from the Middle Ages such as Dante Alighieri. In The Divine Comedy, Dante recites the following poem: “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/ for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

The myth of the midlife crisis has survived to this point in its entirety. The success of series like Fleishman Is in Trouble and films like Not Such an Easy Life prove its survival, at least in pop culture. Reactions to Pantomima Full’s famous viral video about conformism confirm that the notion continues to fascinate and polarize. The midlife crisis is understood as a critique of conformity, the last adolescent rebellion before — or after — jumping through hoops and accepting adulthood.

Ignacio Conde-Ruiz, a professor of economics and the co-author of the book La juventud atracada [Youth on the Hook] is 53 years old. Only now, with his daughters grown up and his career on track, is he beginning to feel something similar to a midlife crisis. Life phases have been slowing down, which is apparent among millennials. “It’s a generation that has been hit twice, at key moments in life,” the economist points out. The first one was when they entered the job market amid the onset of the Great Recession. They saw their wages dwindle as rents and mortgages soared. The childbearing age was pushed back, and work was no longer stable. “And then, just when there seemed to be the promise of stability, the pandemic broke out,” Conde-Ruiz recalls.

The economic context has shaped millennials, but the political and demographic contexts have also defined them. “It is a generation that is already… smaller than the previous ones, although it is not as small as the ones that follow,” reflects the economist. “That makes them almost invisible to politicians. Their problems aren’t the focus of attention in elections.”

For all these reasons, millennials have been slower to embrace adulthood. Moreover, adulthood has become richer and does not present a single monolithic model. Eighty-five percent of the silent generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) were living with a family in 1968, defined as a spouse, children or both. Only 55% of millennials were in that situation in 2019. Marriage rates have declined significantly in recent decades; those who do get married do so later. According to the Spanish Statistical Office (INE), the average age for getting married is 35 for women and 38 for men. In Spain, the average age for buying a house is 41 years old. Millennials become parents at rates similar to previous generations, but on average they have their children later: at 32.6 years of age. In 1980, they did so at 25. Given this data, the bourgeois life that supposedly suffocates those suffering a midlife crisis has barely even begun at 40 for millennials.

The feminist origins of the midlife crisis

The reductionist caricature of a midlife crisis is of a man who buys a convertible and takes a young mistress. But a woman helped popularize this concept. In the 1970s, Gail Sheehy rescued the ideas of psychologist Elliott Jaques (which he had articulated in Death and the Mid-life Crisis, 1965) and others. Sheehy reread them through a feminist lens. In so doing, she turned an obscure psychological theory into a social phenomenon. Passages chronicled maturity and sold very well. It became one of the most influential books of its time, and the concept of the midlife crisis took hold in society forever.

“According to Sheehy, it was a way of breaking the straitjacket of traditional gender roles,” Susanne Schmidt says in a video call. The 35-year-old historian — who has not experienced a midlife crisis herself — set out to investigate the feminist origins of what has become an essentially male myth. The result was her book Midlife Crisis: The Feminist Origins of a Chauvinist Cliché. “Gender roles played and continue to play a key role in this. At that time women were supposed to stay at home [and] take care of the children. Men were supposed to go to work, generate some family income and adhere to these ideals of masculinity. But, as they reached middle age, many people wanted to express the parts of themselves that they were unable to express outwardly because of gender roles,” Schmidt explains. Thus, many housewives started or resumed their careers, while some men took a step back from theirs or asked for shorter working hours.

But in addition to gender, race and class also inform this phenomenon. In 1995, the National Institute on Aging in the United States began collecting data on 7,000 adults between the ages of 25 and 75. The Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study lasted for over 20 years. According to the results, older adults show higher levels of psychological well-being than younger and middle-aged people. But this study cast doubt on whether that was a universal feeling. “It showed that only 10% of Americans suffer [a midlife crisis],” notes Schmidt, who points out that in disadvantaged African American communities, the midlife crisis is anecdotal or nonexistent. “It’s a niche phenomenon that is presented as something akin to adolescence, as if everyone is going through this phase, and they’re not. It’s mostly men, mostly white, mostly upper and middle class. This is a story about privilege,” Schmidt argues.

A philosophical approach

Macarena is 41 years old and has a stable job as a doctor. She has a husband and “three beautiful children.” They live in a villa in Pozuelo, an exclusive neighborhood on the outskirts of Madrid. She is happy, but sometimes she wonders: “Could my life have been different? Because there are not so many decisions anymore and because the most important ones (what to study, whether to get married, whether to have children, whether to buy a house, etc.) have already been made,” Macarena admits. She adds that “the midlife crisis is a mourning for [one’s] lost youth, for the person you could have been [but] weren’t.”

“That feeling of loss is inevitable,” Kieran Setiya, a 47-year-old American philosopher, explains via video call. “And it’s the side effect of something good. It’s a way of appreciating the diversity of the world and our ability to choose,” he adds. A decade ago, Setiya was relatively happy with his career and family. Things had been going well for him, but he began to feel overwhelmed. He experienced a midlife crisis and, to work through it, he wrote a book.

In his work Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, he scientifically and philosophically reflects on an idea that science and philosophy have long taken as a joke. “There is a caricatured idea of [the midlife] crisis,” Setiya says. “But it involves grappling with really deep philosophical questions about how to deal with the fact that life is necessarily finite. That no matter what we do in our lives, there are all sorts of things we won’t get to do.”

Setiya does not believe that this feeling is conditioned by privilege. He supports that claim by pointing to a Dartmouth College study conducted in 132 countries. People living in developed countries experience the worst time of their lives at around age 47; that also happens in developing nations, around a year later. The happiness curve over time is U-shaped; or smile-shaped; childhood and old age are at the edges and our 40s are the lowest point.

This kind of existential questioning may sound remote and incomprehensible to people in their 20s or 30s, but Setiya argues that everyone, regardless of age, recently experienced it firsthand. It happened three years ago, when Covid-19 confined us to our homes. “The pandemic made us perceive life as limited and repetitive, which is basically what happens with a midlife crisis. It induced an experience in people who otherwise would not have had it so intensely or so early,” he explains. It resulted in the Great Resignation: In 2021, 50 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. “They did so based on questions like, ‘Is this it? Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?’”

In the wake of this global crisis and its resonance in politics, Setiya began to wonder about the social structures that push us into a midlife crisis. “It’s a personal crisis, but the social and political structure in which we live tends to exacerbate those kinds of experiences. The obsession with failure, success and social achievement and the comparative structures on social media lead us to constantly measure our happiness with respect to others,” explains Setiya. He refers to Instagram as a carousel of false emblems of happiness where no one changes diapers, no one works or rides the subway. He believes that, after observing others’ vibrant lives, it only makes sense that our own seem drab in comparison.

That’s why Kieran Setiya defends the legitimacy of this type of crisis. He encourages individuals to take it as an opportunity to reflect on their own lives. But, on a social level, he advocates approaching the midlife crisis as a political project. “It is about restructuring society to give us more space [and] valuing the process of what we do, not only [our] accomplishments… Our lives are not totally consumed by the need to survive and deal with the problems around us.”

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