What Does Midlife Really Mean?

For the past 6 years as a writer, editor and conference organizer I have been talking about, thinking about and having heated debates about what exactly “midlife” is. When I Google “midlife,” the predominant word that comes up in conjunction with it is not transition or change or improvement or happiness – it is, of course, crisis. From what I have seen, and what I have experienced, the midlife crisis as it is commonly thought of – the man running off with the younger woman in a sports car, waving goodbye to his kids and wife, or the woman getting a boob job and a facelift and rediscovering her dormant sexuality – is mostly a thing of the past, if it ever really existed at all.

So what is midlife? When does it start – and when does it end? What are the experiences of midlife that are most common?

Rather than refer to the remarkable awakening that occurs when one is confronted with the midpoint of life as a crisis, I prefer the more elegant ennui, as it’s described by Elliot Jacques.

 Elliot Jaques, a psychologist often credited with coining the term “midlife crisis”, attributed [midlife ennui] to “the adult encounter with the conception of life to be lived in the setting of an approaching personal death.”

In other words, we realize that we are cresting the hill and heading down the other side.

What age defines midlife is another topic of debate, an argument I have come to believe is pointless. As I see it, midlife is not so much an age – since you cannot know when you will die, there is no way of knowing when the midpoint of your life is – as it is a state of mind. Some people, particularly those who are parents and have their children when they are young, may find they feel the creeping up of midlife angst as early as 40, while others, perhaps better adjusted or far more optimistic, may not give it a thought – if they ever do – until their 50’s.

For me, midlife began in 2007 when I was 45 years old. That was the year my father died of cancer at the age of 67. My 17 year old daughter was a senior in high school and was in the thick of college applications. My son, at 15, was learning to drive. I had no more little kids. It hit me hard that my children were nearly all grown up and that my father, who had been a big part of my life, was gone. I was a stay-at-home mom, and my home had been the place where my extended family gathered since my daughter was born. I started to realize that everything I had been doing for the bulk of my adulthood was going to be over soon. I mourned my father terribly, but in retrospect, I think some of my deep sadness was for all that was fading away in my life. In the next few years my beloved grandmother would also pass away, my father-in-law, like my father, would succumb to cancer, and I would become an empty nester.

Midlife is more about realizing that this is it – this is your life, this is what it’s been, and this is what it will, for the most part, continue to be – than anything else. So many of the exciting milestones in life have already occurred for most of us by the time we reach our personal midlife point. Midlife is coming to terms with who you are and letting go of some of the dreams you may have had that may be impossible now. Midlife is when you may be rethinking your marriage or relationship as the realization that your time really is limited becomes more profound.  Midlife is often when your parents die. It’s when you begin to see friends – people your age – get seriously ill. Midlife brings on a whole lot of moments that remind us that there is an end to all of this – not for a while, with great luck and good health – but it’s out there, on the not-as-distant-as-we’d-like horizon.

And yet – midlife is, perhaps, the best time of our lives. Unlike during adolescence, which is, like midlife, a time of great change, those at midlife are certain of who they are – if not when the ennui first hits them, then by the time they have settled into this phase of life. After letting go of youth as part of their identities, midlife men and women are able to begin to appreciate themselves – even truly like themselves – despite – or because of – their quirks and oddities, mistakes and failings, cruelties and disappointments. For many at midlife, being part of a crowd isn’t nearly as important as having a few meaningful, deep relationships to sustain them. No longer looking outwards for acceptance and affirmation, those who find themselves content at midlife have learned to give themselves the approval they need to feel confident in their choices and lifestyles, no matter what others may be doing. Finding your own sense of purpose and happiness becomes more important than ever.

While some people’s careers continue to flourish at midlife and well into their 60’s and even 70’s, and many people begin a second or third career now that they have the time and financial stability to explore their interests, for most at midlife the peak of their job trajectory has already been reached. This can be a huge factor in people’s loss of self-esteem at this point in their lives, but it can also be liberating, as they come to realize that they no longer need to work, work, work to get to the next level and can instead be content with what they have accomplished.

Most of all, if the process of going into and accepting being at midlife has gone well, people at this point in their lives will ultimately feel grateful. They will see that they have done the best they can, that they have succeeded in ways they may not have realized before this point in their lives, that being loved by others and loving others is truly what life is all about. Having awareness of the limits of time can be an exceptionally good motivator. Letting go of the extraneous, the painful, the unfulfilling – midlife teaches us to do this. More than anything else that has happened to me since the fall of 2007 when my midlife began, feeling appreciative – really, genuinely grateful – for all that I have in my life has been the most profound and important change.

Midlife is the youth of old age – a time to reflect on what has been accomplished while understanding that the future holds the certainty of, at some point, slowing down. Knowing this may at first be disturbing, but after the initial shock of no longer being young, midlife can be the most personally rewarding period life. For me, and I’m sure many others, it’s the first time we are the center of our worlds in a long, long time.

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11 Comments

  • I wholeheartedly agree Sharon. I am embracing whatever you want to call this time in our lives.. Our “me” time, our “just do whatever we want time”..but whatever it is, we need to grab it by the horns and ride it as hard as we can for as long as we can…

  • I love, ‘youth of old age’! I am in ‘old age adolescence’ and at peace with it.

  • As someone about to turn 60, I can’t even say I’m in midlife anymore, which is strange. Even stranger is I feel so good, better than I expected at this age. I’m not sure what to make of it except daily yoga and trying to eat right. It also helps to tune out all the “should’s” of this age. Attitude is everything. Think young. Be young… at least in spirit.

  • You seem to have a really good grasp on the whole midlife debacle. You explain the whole scary thing very well.

  • Hi Sharon! What a lovely thoughtful piece about the experience of midlife. While the triggers may be somewhat unique, the questions and thoughts we all have about the time are so very similar. I so agree that being willing to dive into the experience and find the nuggets of gold there are a huge benefit to how the rest of it will unfold. It really can be the best time of our lives but it doesn’t happen by accident! While I’d never heard the “midlife is the youth of old-age” before, I think I prefer to think of it as midlife is the beginning of the rest of our lives! Thanks for the thoughts! ~Kathy

  • Great post, Sharon, and so true. It’s impossible to say that midlife starts at a specific age. Love the idea of it as “the youth of old age.”

  • judy williamson

    It’s a marker for life…prompting us to see and feel our reality .
    A word that has meant a lot to me is ACT III and of course then
    there is the encore.
    I am in Act III, no longer mid life, but there is deep meaning to
    all stages of life.
    And as you know, I always liked to take a bow.
    Enjoy the journey, dear Sharon.

  • What an eloquent, thoughtful piece that puts into words what so many of us are grappling with these days. The gratitude for what is…that is truly one of the greatest gifts of this stage of life.

  • Wendy Koch

    Great article, Sharon. Like many others approaching 60 ( how did that happen when I still feel 25 in my head?) I’m focusing on what really matters to me, and weeding out the rest. I used to think my midlife years would involve a lot more traveling. My husband and I talked about Africa, India, Vietnam. But somehow the urge for that has dropped away, and it seems very sweet to stay home, close enough to the kids and good friends. We are much more appreciative of everything than we were when time seemed endless. A good lesson for us!

  • I love this Sharon and agree wholeheartedly. I have to say it is one of the BEST times of my life- the self knowledge, the wisdom, the indestructible courage I hope many of us find. I may never become that rock star I wanted so badly at 18 but I’m a pretty kickass 59.

  • So often I read your thoughts about such a transition and it’s like looking in a mirror. You nailed this period and not because of what is over -that is part one – you have beautifully described part two: turning to the unopened gifts at a party and saying, “I’ll get those later,” while you have more cake.

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