Why do people have midlife crises? The term itself was only coined in 1965—it appears to be a phenomenon of modern life. Here’s my unfounded hypothesis: midlife crises arise when a person’s self-concept of growth meets the cold water of reality. This model explains some stereotypical midlife-crisis behavior like switching careers and buying expensive things. It explains why quarter-life crises have become increasingly common. It even hints at which sets of people are more likely to experience crises.
We start our indoctrination into the cult of growth young. It’s a compelling story, and fits the facts: every year, a child builds physical and mental ability, gains knowledge, and literally grows larger. Before leaving elementary school, we can cogently answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” (I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. I didn’t have a lot of friends in elementary school.)
Video-games help push the growth narrative as well: player characters literally gain levels with experience. Leveling up comes with more power, skills, equipment, and money.
By high school, we’re fully bought in: we’ll get good grades, get into a top college, graduate, land a job with good career prospects, and land our climb up the corporate ladder. As long as we work hard enough and keep on growing, nothing can stop us from summiting the mountain and reaching our goals. Each time we look up from our striving, the top of the mountain looks a little bit closer.
Reality strikes back
Then one day, it stops. We look up and realize that the next step isn’t achievable anymore. Our self-concept of growth, cultivated over decades, shatters. It’s crisis time! We’re faced with a choice: we can find a new mountain to climb or rebuild our self-concept, this time not centered around external growth. The former is much easier, so most choose that path.
This model explains some stereotypical midlife-crisis behavior:
- Switching careers to follow your dreams? You’ve found a new mountain to climb!
- Bought a fancy car? Started dating younger, more attractive people? You’ve started up the mountain of status and appearance-of-wealth.
- Going back to college to get a new degree? You guessed it—another mountain.
Losing your growth mindset
What does rebuilding your self-concept look like? It’s coming to terms with where you are—matching your internal map of the world with reality. I have little to say about this, because I’m still happily deluding myself—I, of course, am different and won’t have a midlife crisis, because I’m special and will summit every mountain I climb.
In recent years, the idea of a “quarter-life crisis” has grown in popularity, especially among millennials. This too can be explained by our model:
- In the Internet age, careers have accelerated. Some lucky few millennials have rocketed through job titles until hitting an early plateau. Crisis time!
- Other, less fortunate people, burdened by student debt, a useless college degree, and poor career prospects, look up and see nothing at all. Staying on their path means resigning themselves to decades of gig labor and financial instability, followed by not being able to afford retirement.
No wonder quarter-life crises have become more common. As long as late-stage capitalism continues to separate those who have from those who have not, and as long as educators continue to feed white lies to their charges, crises of self will happen more often and earlier in life.
Escaping crises of self
Not everybody has a midlife crisis. Depending on which study you believe, 23%, 70%, or 80% of participants report a midlife crisis. Our model hints at which groups are more likely to have a crisis of self: you have to have a self-concept of growth to be susceptible to a crisis of self.
- The history of progress goes back thousands of years, but “anybody can be President” seems to be a uniquely American post-WWII perspective.
- The middle and upper classes are much more likely to have this perspective on growth. Working- and lower-class people, for better or worse, are less likely to develop this mentality.
Midlife crises are crises of self, caused by self-concepts of continuous growth and progress failing to match reality. This model explains many features of midlife crises, including who is most likely to have them, why quarter-life crises are becoming more common, and stereotypical behaviors associated with midlife crises.