When Does Middle Age Begin — And What Does It Mean When It Does?
When does middle age begin? It might seem easy to determine whether someone is middle aged or not. But when does someone enter the psychological middle of life?
And what happens to a person when they do? The answer to these questions involves much more than determining the person’s chronological age.
Surveys show that people generally identify the middle of life as occurring roughly between the later 30s and age 60 or slightly earlier. But what exactly is the experience of being middle aged? What is psychologically different about the middle-aged period? And what does it mean for you or I when this midlife transition begins to occur?
When Does Middle Age Begin — Mentally?
There are all kinds of information sources out there which will tell you when middle age begins physically. They will point to all the issues around physical appearance, tiredness, aches and pains, eyesight, bladder, etc. However, the best of those articles will also tell you that the fundamental part of the arrival of midlife or middle age is psychological, and has to do with a specific midlife mindset.
What really characterizes this midlife mindset? Well, we have to bear in mind that there are huge differences psychologically between those who are in the midlife years. It’s essential that we respect the individual differences between people. Nonetheless, there are certain psychological characteristics that are shared very widely (if not universally) by those who are in middle age:
- Awareness of mortality, and of the passage of time. The individual on some level comes to appreciate that they won’t live forever, and that time is passing.
- Frequent feelings of discontentment and/or restlessness. The sense of the passage of time in life can lead us to wonder about how we’re spending our time, and “whether it’s all worth it.”
- Questions of meaning and purpose. It’s not at all uncommon for people at midlife to start to ask some pretty fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives
- Experiences of depression or anxiety. Full-blown “midlife crisis” likely happens to only a minority of people undergoing the midlife transition. Yet, for all of the reasons above, it’s not at all uncommon for people to experience anxiety and depression in this phase of life.
Midlife: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
What starts to make all of this very complex is that we live in a culture that prizes. This is linked to our society-wide fear of aging. As psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, noted, our civilization really has no cultural ideal of old age, or even middle age, and so,
our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.
For many people, this can be extremely scary. With no ideals held out as we age, going into middle age, (or, even worse, the later years) can feel like slipping into a huge black hole. To use one of Erikson’s famous phrases, it can lead to a massive identity crisis. We can end up refusing to look at all he big issues described above — awareness of mortality, questions about whether its all worth it, and about the meaning of it all, and associated anxiety and depression.
We can find ourselves in grave doubt about who we are, and what our lives are worth — and, worst of all, we might not even be able to admit to ourselves that we’re wracked by fear and doubt.
When Does Middle Age Begin — For Me?
So, psychologically, middle age begins when I can accept and admit to myself that the big issues about the passage of time, and about being in the middle of life are real and alive for me. That may manifest in different ways for you than it does for me, or for someone else.
Each person will experience his or her journey through what Jame Hollis calls “the Middle Passage” in his or her own way. We can pretty much expect, though, that each of us will find that the middle of life poses deep questions to us about our own identity and the value and meaning of our lives. Finding personally meaningful answers to those questions — answers that are satisfying to you — can be a matter of vital importance.
Depth case studies can be of great aid to individuals seeking to find a direction through the uncharted reaches of the middle of life. Working with a good depth therapist or Jungian analyst to become more aware of the undiscovered self can be a key part of our journey to wholeness.