Is midlife the prime of life or time of crisis? Asses these claims with reference to theory and research.
This essay will explore the following aims; it will determine what is meant by midlife; identify some of the issues associated with the concept of midlife, evaluating evidence for and against some of the claims associated with this concept and finally it aims to identify some of the common difficulties of midlife.
Midlife is seen to be one of complexity with the ‘juxtaposition of peaks and valleys across the social, psychological and physical domains’ (Lachman, 2004). With the transition in to midlife come physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and although these can be treated with medications, they do trigger distress as they signal ageing which is neither desirable nor valued in our culture.
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This can be seen to contribute to the concept of the ‘Midlife Crisis’. However, the psychological and social changes experienced in midlife are usually associated with positive changes. These may include increased wisdom and practical intelligence (Baltes et al., 1999), better emotional regulation (Magai & Halpern, 2001) or a strong sense of mastery (Lachman & Bertrand, 2001). This adds to the debate of whether midlife is the prime of life or the time of crisis?
One of the most common expectations of midlife is that there is a crisis. Rosenberg et al. (1999) identified the characteristics of a midlife crisis. These include the following; midlife only applies to males, it involves dramatic personality changes and life review, an increased introspection, a realisation of time passing and finally the mourning of lost opportunities. Similarly, recent research shows that major life events such as divorce or illnesses are the most common sources of crises, although these are not necessarily associated only with the midlife period (Lachman et al. 1994, Wethington et al. 2004). It has also been found that one third of the time a midlife crisis is described by events such as job loss, financial problems, or illness (Lachman & Bertrand 2001, Wethington et al. 2004), which supports Rosenberg’s characteristic of the mourning of lost opportunities. However, although events such as job loss, divorce and illnesses can occur at any time in adulthood, these events seem to be more prominent during the midlife period as maybe the midlife crisis is driven by a fear of impending death according to Jacques (1965). On the other hand, another explanation for adults experiencing a midlife crisis may be down to personality, which has been identified as a key factor predisposing some to experience crises at transition points throughout the life course. It has been found that individuals who are more neurotic are more likely to have a midlife crisis (Costa & McCrae 1980, Lachman & Bertrand 2001, Whitbourne & Connolly 1999).
Furthermore, turning points have been found to contribute or trigger a midlife crisis. Turning points are significant changes in the trajectory of life or an experience or realization that causes someone to reinterpret the past, similar to a midlife crisis (Clausen 1998, Rosenberg et al. 1999). Wethington et al. (2004) examined in what areas of life turning points occurred and whether they clustered in midlife. The most common turning points involved the work domain, usually a change in job or career. They were most likely to occur at midlife for men but earlier for women (Clausen 1990, Moen & Wethington 1999). Wethington et al (2004) claimed that entering the thirties may be more disruptive than turning 40. This seems to be consistent with the idea that a “quarter-life crisis,” can occur for those in their mid-twenties and early thirties as they struggle to find satisfaction in work and meaningful relationships (Robbins & Wilner 2001). Furthermore, the conceptual frameworks of midlife are based on Jung’s theory (Lachman & James, 1997). According to Jung (1971), the individuation process is a major goal of midlife. Individuation is the balancing of all aspects of the inner self. Jung (1971) stated that midlife must be approached with a different set of goals than earlier adulthood and the failure to deal with the psychological and physical changes in middle age could lead to difficulties and then to a midlife crisis.
Furthermore, it has been claimed that from a lifespan perspective, the dynamic nature of changes in the middle years can be represented as both gains and losses (Baltes 1987, Eichorn et al. 1981). The midlife experience is determined both biological factors, such as menopause for women or chronic illnesses for both males and females and it is also determined by cultural influences. Although midlife does not exist as a concept in all cultures (Shweder 1998). When life events such as divorce or chronic illnesses are experienced, the middle life adults are faced with finding ways to cope or compensate for the losses. The middle-aged adult may be frequently forced to balance the negative and positive aspects of relationships and other aspects of life. Although this may lead to increased stress, it may also serve as a training ground for emotion regulation in later life (Magai & Halpern 2001). This can be seen as a turning point in middle life and not a midlife crisis.
Furthermore, Neugarten & Datan (1974) found evidence that supports the notion that midlife is the prime of life. They found that midlife was a time of peak functioning in psychosocial competence. Other evidence suggesting that midlife is the prime of life come from key longitudinal studies on cognitive functioning, which have found that cognitive functioning are maintained or even improved in midlife (Eichorn et al. 1981, Hultsch et al. 1998, Schaie 1996). These include the pragmatic aspects of functioning, such as tacit knowledge (Baltes et al. 1999, Sternberg et al. 2001), that depend on experience. Although some aspects of cognitive functioning may show declines, the middle-aged adult typically has the resources and experiences to compensate for them (Miller & Lachman 2000). Furthermore, personality is prominent in deciding whether midlife is the prime of life. It has been found that the self plays a vital role in midlife as it serves as a resource for negotiating the physical changes and social stresses that may arise.According to Lachman & Firth (2004) no one is immune to the complexities of midlife, yet those who feel a sense of mastery and control are better able to meet the challenges head on and find effective strategies for reducing or dealing with stress.
Moreover, social relationships have been found to influence whether midlife is the prime of life or a time of crisis. Markus et al. (2004) states that positive relations with others, such as parents, spouse and offspring is the one major component of well-being at midlife. Social relations bring a major source of satisfaction and contribute to wellbeing and health in midlife, but also can be a source of stress (Rook 2003, Walen & Lachman 2000). Furthermore, the role of work is seen to be central during the middle years (Sterns & Huyck, 2001). An individual is seen to be defined by their work so a large part of their identity lies in their career. It has been found that cognitive capacity and intellectual flexibility can be affected by an individual’s work (Kohn & Schooler, 1978). The progression of career trajectories during midlife is diverse (Barnett 1997). Therefore, many individuals may have stable careers, whilst others may not and there is a higher chance of midlife adults may find it very difficult to find a job due to many factors such as skill and pay demands. Furthermore, health and physical changes can also influence whether midlife is a crisis or the prime of life. One of the major issues in midlife is that of reproduction, especially menopause for women. The median age of the last menstrual period is typically 50–52 years, although there is wide variation in the menopause experience (Avis 1999, Rossi 2004). Avis (1999) found that there is no evidence for a universal experience of distress associated with menopause. Research shows that the transition in to menopause is somewhat exaggerated as according to Avis (1999) it is possible that the association noted between depression and menopause is based on clinic/patient populations who self-select into treatment.
The claims about whether midlife is the prime of life or a time of crisis are quite unclear. The majority of people tend to free associate the word ‘crisis’ to the word ‘midlife’. This reflects a widespread cultural stereotype about the midlife period but not an accurate portrayal, as only a small percentage seems to experience a midlife crisis (Wethington et al. 2004). However, middle age is also associated with positive descriptors such as competent, responsible, knowledgeable, and powerful (Lachman et al. 1994). Therefore, although midlife is referred to as a crisis, it is also described as an age period with desirable characteristics. There is some empirical support for both of these views, as those in midlife may experience turbulence as well as success (Eichornet al. 1981). Midlife seems to be unique to every individual during the transition from adulthood to midlife.
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