Starting a steampunk band, taking up quad biking or deciding to jump out of a plane—ever since Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, more and more 40-something men have claimed to have had one. Despite the fact that scientists and economists believe there’s little evidence behind it, a quick Google search will deliver hundreds — if not thousands — of think pieces, blog entries and pleading Reddit comment threads about the phenomenon (the same for the quarter-life crisis).
Similarly, pop culture pretty much only offers a romanticized version of mid- and quarter-life crises. Three quick examples: Lost in Translation, American Beauty and Fight Club — each of whose plots largely revolve around middle-aged men indulging their vices to combat existential woe.
But how do life crises really play out, and why do we still care so much about them? MEL recently asked four men of different ages about their life crises, and what they think it tells us about the mid- and quarter-life crisis in 2017.
I graduated at the top of my class at the London Business School back in the 1990s. Back then, being a broker was a big deal, because you knew that’s where the money was at. I was young, impressionable and lived in a house of 12 people. I wanted to escape. That’s why I felt I needed to make a ton of money.
I hated working in finance from the start, however. The hours were long and brutal, largely consisting of getting shouted at by your superiors and then getting pissed afterward. I remember the moment I asked myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” I was sitting on a park bench by myself, during one of the rare moments we were allowed out of the offices. My colleagues had all gone to the pub for the fourth day in a row, and I decided to go home.
I sat on that bench for hours, just contemplating life. I remember seeing these dads playing with their kids and an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand. I realized: I want that. I really, really want that.
I quit finance a year later. I knew I wanted to do something practical, something that didn’t involve looking at screens all day or shouting obscure numbers at people. So I decided to go back to a training college in South London. Eventually, I became a mechanic. It was weird at the start. I was in my late 20s doing jobs alongside 16-year-olds who had ended up as trainee mechanics because they’d messed up at school. Some of them found it bizarre that I left a high-paying job — one that they would’ve killed for — to clean out fuel tanks and polish motor casing.
But even though it was grueling work, I’ve loved every moment of it. I remember on my first day, I was so excited — more excited than I’d ever been throughout my entire time working in the city. It was a feeling I’d missed, but I’m glad I got it back before it was too late.
I’m married now, and I have a son who’s just turned 3 years old. I’m still working at a big mechanic’s shop in London, but I’m hoping to start my own business soon. I do worry that my son may end up going through what I did, but I think that’s what all parents do. I hope that if I’m able to open my own garage, that I can spend quality time teaching him everything I know.
* Name changed to protect anonymity.
David Evans, 45
I guess you could say that I’m a living stereotype. I had a very, very dull office job. I made decent money, but worked long hours, mainly making spreadsheets that took up too much time and didn’t say very much. I hadn’t been happy in that job for a long time, but I powered through it, day-by-day. Then, in the evenings, I’d usually go back to my shitty flat, smoke weed and sleep.
Things changed when my girlfriend broke up with me two years ago. I deserved it. I was a prick who barely spent any time with her. Meanwhile, I expected her to do a lot of things for me. She was on a different path — she had wanted to become a teacher her whole life and was rising up the ladder to become the head of her department. I feel ashamed now, but I resented her happiness and successes, because I was so anxious about my own. Basically, I spent most of my 30s in a life crisis and projected it onto her. She broke up with me after we had been dating for eight years. I couldn’t propose to her. I don’t know why, but I think it was because I didn’t want to get married while I was so miserable.
Have you ever seen that movie 500 Days of Summer? There’s the scene where the main guy, after having been broke up with, mopes around for days, and then suddenly gets this eureka moment, when he realizes what he has to do. Well, I WISH I’d gotten that. Even after my ex broke up with me, I stayed in the same lousy job. But I needed to get my mind off her somehow, so I ended up joining an improv class. I hadn’t considered being an actor before and I thought it sort of stupid to start, but I joined because it was free and also because I thought it might help me meet another woman.
Though the latter hasn’t come true, I did find acting to be therapeutic, and also really, really fun. So much so that last year, I quit my job and decided to try become a theater actor for real.
My family thinks I’m crazy. It’s the stereotypical midlife crisis in its most visible form. But it’s made me feel more alive than ever, and it gave me the incentive to move to Paris after years of indecisiveness. I currently work as a theater assistant for a small arts organization and act in things during my time off.
Learning scripts is hard enough — learning them in French is a whole different ball game — but I’m learning new things every day.
Even if the rest of my life is in community theater, I’d die happy.
Albert Edward-Smith, 88
People think having a midlife crisis is something new. You see it on the news a lot — that having a crisis is something only privileged people go through, the ones who didn’t have to fight in the great wars. But I’m here to say that’s completely wrong!
I had lots of life crises when I was growing up. After all, we’d grown up in the middle of the Second World War! I was technically too young to join the war effort, though my family and I did assist with the volunteer effort. My mother and my grandmother were both nurses. My father died when I was a boy, so there wasn’t a male figure to look up to, other than my uncles and their friends — most of whom had been conscripted, and many of whom died during the war. I had friends who were a bit older than me, but who looked much older, meaning they were able to join the army. That made me feel bad. It felt as if they’d been given the honor of fighting for our country while I didn’t. I remember feeling that my life didn’t have as much meaning compared to theirs.
After the war, when I was 23, I got married to my wife, who was 22 at the time. It was more common to marry younger then compared to now, mainly because you could afford to live in your own house! That didn’t mean we had our lives sorted out, though. My wife was working as a receptionist, but she very much wanted to be a painter. I had a job working at a suit shop in London, which didn’t pay well and also wasn’t what I imagined myself doing just a few years before.
Neither of our jobs were very secure, either. Back then, you didn’t job-hop much so we were both worried we’d end up stuck in our jobs until we died — or worse, that if we got fired, we wouldn’t be able to find other work elsewhere. We also didn’t have the means to have children as quickly as our friends.
We didn’t talk about feelings openly a few decades ago, but I definitely did cry in private and to my wife. I do think my friends — the ones who I’d go to the pub and to football matches with — felt the same way, too. Though there are definitely more challenges now, I also think there’s more knowledge and acceptance around things like mental health, which makes it easier to talk about these things.
In other words, quarter- and midlife crises have always been here. Only now, we have a name for it!