When the sports car turns up on the drive, or the order goes in for the new Harley Davidson, or the letter of resignation is tendered in order to start up an Alpaca farm, or the man who has loved his wife for the past 25 years finds his affections wandering. It’s the mid-life crisis.
Well known, frequently observed, caricatured across popular culture it’s a phenomenon that hits at a certain point in life. Usually sometime in their late forties a person wake up one morning and wonders what they are doing with their life. They have gone through the phases of life set out in the manual, they’ve climbed the rungs of the career ladder, they’ve got married, had kids, those kids have grown and are becoming more independent. And they realise the things that have anchored their life for so long do not provide satisfaction.
It’s the reach for something to provide the thrill which they have suddenly realised is missing that is most notable. Whether it is the fast car, the off beat adventure, the marital infidelity, it is the desire for something greater which gets the attention. But that desire does not emerge out of thin air.
The search for something more, something to bring satisfaction, give meaning, provide fulfilment is not restricted to middle aged men. And maybe I’m imagining it, but the dissatisfaction seems to be coming earlier in life. The disappointment that things are not the way they hoped they would be; that the promises they lived for turned out to be illusory. This is the quarter life crisis.
Frustration that life hasn’t worked out how we want is not enough by itself to spark this crisis, what is needed is the opportunity and the capacity to do something about it. So the mid-life crisis came at a stage after the busyness of life has subsided and due to increased time and resources living with the apparent inadequacies of life was not unavoidable. What enables the mid-life crisis to occur is dissatisfaction and the capacity to choose something different.
And for many people the same two things now exist at a much earlier age. Maybe life is, as was suggested to me, just lurching from one age related crisis to the next, but I think there is something specific that hits people in their mid to late twenties.
Maybe I need to add a caveat or two. No one is the same as anyone else and the life experiences we have will vary. So what I’m saying is a generalisation, it may will apply to some people and not others. You may think I’m speaking precisely to you or think I’m spouting nonsense. The second caution is that there are many different causes that lie behind any particular action or train of thought. So my analysis of dissatisfaction and opportunity is simplistic and of course misses the many personal goings on that will be at play.
But there is a conveyor belt that pushes us through life for the first twenty or so years. There’s childhood when you’re dependent, there is adolescent when we strive for independence but with the safety net of family and community reigning us in. There is the freedom granted when we leave home, head to university but there is a purpose that under-girds that free form explosion of individuality. We leave university for the world of work with ideas of changing the world, of hopes and dreams and a complex assortment of desires to make something of ourselves. And it’s easy to get to 25 without having thought very hard about why we are doing what we do.
This is not new, the progression of life has always had templates and norms to follow. What is novel is the absence of the constraints in this next phase of life. Some people still get married at this stage in life, have kids, and are in a chosen way constrained. Yet for many people the choices are kept open and the options remain on the table.
The promises of changing the world do not always turn out the way that we hoped. The people we imagined living our life with do not fit the form we choose. The jobs that we do pay us a wage but do not provide the satisfaction we think we want. It is the sudden overflow of options that creates a crisis. As Don Miller says in the film Blue Like Jazz “You wake up everyday lost in a sea of individuality”. We want to make something of ourselves and we feel like we should be able to. With the time, the flexibility and the disposable cash we want to attain something that is missing, something that will make our life more worth living. But it doesn’t, so we hit a crisis.
All this week I’ll be writing about how this plays out in various areas of life. I’d love your input, have you hit such a crisis point? What causes it and what does it look like? How can it be resolved?