Being in your 40′s or 50′s isn’t usually associated with a lot of positive vibes in our culture. It’s the age where mental and physical powers are palpably declining, when lofty goals have long given way to harsh realities. It’s the time when men are supposedly falling into a midlife crisis and women mourn the end of their ability to have kids.
But middle age is more than the end of youth. An increasing number of researchers stress how, due to our increased longevity, middle age is turning more and more into the phase of life where hard work comes to fruition and the angst and insecurities of earlier stages fall away.
This perspective is aptly summed up in the new book “In Our Prime” by New York Times journalist Patricia Cohen, where she chronicles her own experiences with facing her 40ies, and how different they feel compared to those of her parents and grandparents. She quotes the American psychologist Stanley Hall who commented back in the 1920ies: “Modern man was not meant to do his best work before 40.”
Our prime years provide a new stability especially from an emotional perspective. I can observe a new level of confidence in myself, now that I am in my mid-fourties. Much of the shyness and self doubt that has plagued me in my younger years has disappeared. I can finally look at my personal and professional achievements with pride, and I am not afraid of people anymore. It’s not an easy road to travel, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Cohen writes about the American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who in 1950 published “Childhood and Society” where he suggested a different approach to the traditional views of life span. In Erikson’s view, people moved through what he described as a “life cycle” of eight stages, including midlife — “a phase,” Cohen explains, “as momentous in character-building as adolescence.”
The results of these years of character building can be found in an ambitious research project called “Midlife in the United States” (MIDUS), undertaken by the MacArthur Foundation. MIDUS explores the psychological makeup and development of more than 7000 Americans throughout their middle years, and concludes an overall heightened sense of well being.
Among the findings: On average, older Americans feel better about their marriages, have a sense of control over their lives and feel altogether calmer in the face of stress than younger cohorts. Yes, we do slow down a tad compared to younger generations, but slowly but surely we do start to feel just a little bit wiser.
There’s no need to fear middle age.
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Last reviewed: 27 Jan 2012