This might not make you feel any better, but if you’re a man having a so-called midlife crisis, and around a quarter of men in one study do, it’s not your fault. It’s also not your spouse’s. It’s actually because of a series of unfortunate events that began nearly a hundred years ago and conspired to mess with your head. Those events include, but aren’t limited to: industrialization, the Great Depression, World War II, public health advances that have extended the human lifespan, changing timelines for marrying and childrearing, private industry, the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” the government, divorce laws, the ongoing global conflicts of the early 20th century, the American Dream and the Cold War.
Mark Jackson, an expert on aging and a professor of the history of medicine at Exeter University, just won the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal for excellence in the history or philosophy of science, and gave the prize lecture in mid-May to London’s Royal Society on the various forces that created not just the concept of middle age, but also our feelings about it. And it’s a staggeringly comprehensive yet accessible explanation of why somewhere between the ages of 35 and 60, people, often men, might despair enough to flip out and buy a Porsche, pierce one ear, start cycling and hit on the hostess at their local Applebee’s.
In short: Blame America.
More specifically, in the early 20th century, we began marrying around 20 or 21, but having fewer children, who were more clustered together, Jackson explains. So by 25, couples were raising a brood who had been produced as fast as a year apart. While a woman typically raised those children and rarely worked outside the home, a man went off to work at one job for life, retiring in his mid-50s, an age in part driven by biology, but also one set entirely by governments and private industry.
The timing of these milestones, plus an increased lifespan, began producing a unique experience in the 1930s and 1940s that took firm hold in the 1960s: Not only was there suddenly a middle age, but now there were milestones to hit around a certain time and awareness that after they were hit, there were still a few more decades to kill with no roadmap for how to drive them. “If there were standard milestones against which we could measure ourselves,” Jackson says in the lecture, “we became more conscious or anxious about whether we were hitting them. That expectation that we’d leave home, get married, have children, get a job, retire — those were raised, but if we didn’t meet them on that timetable, we could be dissatisfied with our achievements.”
Jackson says phrases like “Keeping up with the Joneses” first appear in 1913 in a comic strip, but they soon become a phrase throughout the 1930s and 1940s that acts as “a key driver of envy, jealousy, emulation and measuring ourselves.”
Men became suddenly aware of a new understanding of their place among neighbors and society at large, but also where they were failing — and all while staring down years of vague, terrifying free time post-retirement. Jackson calls it “age anxiety.” A man’s children began experiencing adolescence just as he hit middlescence, and at the same time, his parents were also aging and required more care and attention. An average man is then suddenly alive longer and retired from the workforce without the resources to deal with it, or a plan for how to spend his new free time or how to think of himself. His sense of financial security would’ve changed, too. In 1891, Jackson says a typical (Western, middle-class) man stood to inherit at 37. By the 1940s, it was 56.
The first thing to take a hit? Marriage. “Marrying for life suddenly becomes a lot more difficult,” Jackson says. “Do I really want to live like this, with this person, for the next 40 or 50 years?” became the question of the day.
Experts pitched solutions. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, as early as 1949, famously suggested that with a new lifespan there might come three different kinds of relationships: One for passion in your youth; one for raising children; and one for companionship. She saw no reason why it couldn’t be the same person having all three of those types of marriages, but she also saw no reason it had to be.
Thus, midlife crisis became a marriage crisis almost as soon as it happened, and with that, Jackson notes, came our stereotypical idea of male panic and revolt. It isn’t that there isn’t biology in play — “A biological fade begins,” he says — but what’s really going on is psychological, driven by social and cultural pressures to hit certain marks and be wildly successful at them.
Jackson cites a number of forces that instructed this new modern society on how to live with themselves as early as the 1930s. The very notion of the American Dream — coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams — was about having it all. It meant using your time and money for more leisure, pleasure and personal fulfillment, and for avoiding becoming, as Jackson puts it, “jaded and faded.” He adds, though, that all of that was dashed by World War II and global conflicts that continued through the Cold War. Instead of the good life where a guy could enjoy his money, children and leisure, he was left with nothing but a life filled with the pursuit of goods and services. And so, he looked for “happiness in a hurry,” and when he didn’t get it, he rebelled.
In 1958, psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler published The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man, exploring an uptick in anxiety and depression for men who’d realized they’d failed at life. Jackson notes a passage that sums up the midlife male’s cry of woe perfectly: “I want happiness, love, approval, admiration, sex, youth. All this is denied me in this stale marriage to an elderly, sickly, complaining, nagging wife. Let’s get rid of her, start life all over again with another woman.”
The midlife crisis was and still is, in many senses, an understandable set of circumstances solved the wrong way. Only it mistakenly threw the wife out with the wifewater. Though many experts of the era suggested counseling before getting the hell out of dodge, we know today that the divorce rate won the day. If anything, given Jackson’s historical analysis, we could view the millennial rising marriage age and reluctance to wed or breed too soon as a clever solution to the inevitable rut of going through middle age and the rest with the wrong person.
If these ideas outlined here are, in fact, the real culprit of the midlife crisis, what then is the solution? Well for starters, it’s been made clear that the midlife crisis doesn’t actually exist — or at least, most of the ink given to our popular understanding of the midlife crisis is that it isn’t actually a thing.
But that’s misleading. A midlife crisis isn’t real in the sense that it isn’t some biological, natural or inevitable fact of aging that hits like clockwork for everyone. It’s a cultural or social pressure some people experience who happen to be unhappy with their choices and feel too old to fix them in time. And even those who denounce it admit that lots of people find themselves dissatisfied with their lives at midlife, just not everyone. What’s more, it’s common sense that it’s a natural time to take stock of one’s life. After a few decades of employment and raising children, at the beginning of the signs that our youth is fading, we might stop and think about whether it’s all been worth it.
It’s not as if there’s no biology at play here either. “Aging, and losing virility, hair, muscle mass and energy,” Jackson notes, “leads him into a crisis of despair linked to death, but not entirely the same. This is a man behaving strangely.”
But again, it’s psychological despair, not a biological one. It’s the fear that a man has nothing else to look forward to but death, because he doesn’t like how his life has turned out. If you’ve failed to meet your own goals, a society’s, a spouse’s or your peers, and you’ve hit an age at which most people are celebrating those very choices, you’re naturally and understandably going to feel bad if you’re still grinding it out for nothing with the wrong partner.
Jackson’s solution to this experience is to create a medical discipline devoted to addressing that period of age that isn’t covered by pediatrics or geriatrics. It would be called mediatrics. It doesn’t really exist yet, but it would, in theory, offer support and understanding rather than mockery to tend to this delicate phase. “Many people can reach 40 and suddenly realize that all the success in relationships and jobs they once hoped for had not quite happened,” Jackson told the London Sunday Times last month. “My view is that just as we teach kids what to expect in puberty and adolescence, so we should teach adults what to expect in middle age — how difficult it can be and how to cope. It’s not your wife or husband that’s the problem — it’s in you.”
And what’s truly fucking with what’s “in you,” is really none of your doing. Or as Jackson explains in the lecture, “We are aged not just by our minds and bodies, but also aged by history and cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, norms practices that we have inherited from the past.”
So as always, you can blame your government (in the West at least). And your parents. But also their parents. And their parents. And their parents…