Crisis or just stress? Cornell researcher finds the midlife crisis is less common than many believe

Although more than 25 percent of Americans over age 35 think they have had a midlife crisis, more than half of these were no more than "stressful life events," says Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington.

And contrary to the traditional view, she says, women are just as likely as men to believe they have had a midlife crisis.

The associate professor of human development bases her conclusions on the largest study ever done on midlife, funded by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development. Her research, based on the study's midlife crisis section, which she conducted, is based on intensive follow-up surveys of 724 respondents aged 28 to 78 years and is published in the October 2000 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion. The larger study is called the "Midlife in the United States Study."

A midlife crisis is defined by researchers as personal turmoil and coping challenges in people age 39 through 50 brought on by fears and anxieties about growing older. Most people who told the researchers they had had a midlife crisis, however, were describing stressful life events that had occurred before age 39 or after age 50, rather than the type of turmoil defined as a midlife crisis. Wethington notes that the stressful life event identified by many respondents is a challenging situation brought on by specific transitions or events that may or may not be associated with typical aging, such as a life-threatening illness or job insecurity.

Wethington reports that one-fourth of her adult population sample said they had experienced a midlife crisis; of those aged between 40 and 53, however, about one-third thought they had had one. The average age of the "crisis" was 46. About one-fifth of those who said they had suffered a midlife crisis said it was the result of their awareness that they were aging and time was passing them by. Few connected the crisis to feelings of impending mortality or approaching death.

Nevertheless, the midlife crisis is not universal for either men or women. "Most Americans readily recognize the term 'midlife crisis' and pretty much agree that such a crisis occurs on a widespread basis in people's 40s," says Wethington. "Yet, previous studies, including our own, debunk the midlife crisis as an inevitable, nearly universal experience of psychological turmoil in the 40s or at any age, for that matter."

She notes that although most people characterize a midlife crisis as a negative thing, many responses hinted that the myth of the midlife crisis has its good side. "Many people at midlife use the so-called midlife crisis as a tool for constructing meaning in their lives. They see this time as a time to catch up to where they would like to be or expected to be when they were younger," says Wethington.


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