The midlife period in most advanced countries worldwide today the average life expectancy for males extends to their mid- to late seventies and for women to their early to mid-eighties. Of course, this varies from place to place and depends very much on socio-economic factors that fluctuate broadly with world historical events such as revolutions, wars, economic depressions, and so forth. But on the whole and in average circumstances, the midway point of life for both sexes falls in the period between thirty-five and forty-five years of age. Why is this noteworthy, especially for psychotherapists?
Often midlife is a profoundly transformational period in personal identity for both women and men. Sometimes this takes the form of the famous “crisis,” but often it is not something quite so dramatic. I have come to think of it instead as a potential second birth of adult identity, the first having taken place between late adolescence and the thirtieth year. And birth is sometimes traumatic, and so one speaks of it as a “crisis” with justification. But even if not a fullblown crisis, it may signal a subtle transition in a person’s sense of self and identity.
About the timing of this transformation process, one cannot be quite so precisely mathematical. Some people seem to experience this on the early end of the midlife period, and many others on the other end and in their late forties. The timing is quite variable and depends on a number of factors coalescing that bring it to a point. What happened earlier in the person’s line of development out of childhood through adolescence and into adulthood is of importance in this. Generally speaking, the storms of life catch people by surprise, and the midlife tumult is no exception even if people are somewhat prepared to expect something big nowadays due to the extensive press coverage the midlife crisis has received in the decades of the late twentieth century.
It is also the case that some people do not undergo a midlife transformation at any time, any more than that everyone achieves a solid and meaningful adult identity. This is not a given. Some people show serious developmental arrest in early childhood attitudes or in adolescence, for example, and for such people there is no midlife transformation to speak of, but rather a continuous and prolonged identity as a partially adult person with striking childish or adolescent features remaining in place to the end of their lives. For these people, aging is real only in a physical sense but not psychologically, and even at the physical level it can staved off quite well and for a lengthy period of time given enough money for cosmetic surgery and other forms of anti-aging treatment. For people who make the transitions from childhood into adulthood successfully and more or less fully, however, aging is a psychological as well as a physical process. Psychologically, as one gets older one also becomes more complex and – dare we say it? – more mature and perhaps even attains to a level of wisdom in later years. Most importantly, one achieves a defined identity that extends beyond the early one of late adolescence and early adulthood. This later form of adult identity I call the personality’s “imago.” It takes form as the result of one or more transformations in and around the midlife period.
The Two Halves of Life – Achievement of Conventionality, Development of Individuality
The midlife phase of the lifelong psychological developmental process, which in Jungian circles we refer to as individuation, marks the turning point from the first half of life into the second. The lifespan as a whole can be divided into two more or less equal (in duration) parts, a first and a second half. This is an important image to keep in mind when considering the meaning of the midlife transition. Each half of life has its own proper projects, tasks, and challenges, and they are different. The tasks of the first half have to do with growing up physically and mentally and with attaining the social stature of an adult member of one’s community, willing and able to take responsibility for the tasks of adulthood – working, raising a family, paying taxes, preparing to take care of one’s aging parents and able to care for one’s growing children, and so forth. From the psychological perspective, this calls for personal (i.e., ego) development out of a primal state of attachment to mother and parentlike caretakers and and for growing out of a sense of dependency on them in order to gain a felt degree of independence, autonomous functioning, and the ability to contribute to others rather than only to absorb and consume. This has profound moral as well as psychological features.