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View the documentMidlife crisis
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When I started Computists International, I was pulling myself out of midlife crisis. Through newsletters I offered career help for researchers because I had always needed and missed such guidance. I had read books about careers and relationships and everything else, but it never occurred to me to look for one specifically about midlife crisis. Well, after all these years I have finally read one.

The book is "Men in Midlife Crisis" (ChariotVictor, 1997, ) by Jim Conway, revised from a 1978 edition. Conway is a Christian minister who learned the hard way that faith and good works don't protect against the pain and depression of life's crises. Everyone expects the adolescent crisis of entering adulthood and choosing a career. There is often a re-evaluation at age 28-32, possibly tied to marriage and child-bearing choices. Most men hit another crisis -- the midlife crisis -- at 35-45, or sometimes as late as 55. Women may have similar difficulties as their children enter school or leave home and again during menopause. There is another re-evaluation at retirement, and possibly one at the death of a parent, friend, or spouse. Some people barely notice these transitions, others don't survive them.

Why does this happen? The average life expectancy was only 18 years in the Bronze Age (including infant mortality), 20 in ancient Greece, and 31 in the Middle Ages. It was still only 37 in 18th Century Europe. It climbed to 50 in the US by 1900, but with only 4% of the population then over 65. What we know as midlife used to be considered old age. Two-thirds of all who have ever lived beyond 65 are alive today. Their role in society is now commonplace rather than revered, and that's the problem.

Midlife crisis appears to be psychological rather than hormonal. After decades of increasing competence, a man (or woman) realizes that this growth can't continue. Regrets about lost opportunities and missed experience mix with fears of exhaustion, boredom, obsolescence, or death. If success has been attained, it isn't enough. The man feels trapped by his job and by his family and community responsibilities. In his depression, he will likely blame his wife for many of his problems -- alienating his best source of emotional support. (She may be going through her own crisis, especially if he no longer seems a stable provider.) He (or she) may have affairs, typically lasting no more than six weeks, or may abandon everything and try for a new start elsewhere. Whatever the choices, the healing often takes five years or more. Life takes on a new depth afterward, and surviving marriages are said to develop a new richness. Life begins again at 40, or thereabouts.

Conway wasn't expecting a crisis, but it hit him anyway. His faith in God was severely shaken, as he has seen in other pastors at this age. It helped that his church supported him, but he says that one good friend can be more helpful than general prayers and good wishes. Intimate discussion with a spouse is particularly healing, although difficult. He also found help from nature walks and changes of scenery, physical exercise and getting his body in shape, rest (and breaking his workaholic routines), meditative music, and books suitable for men's retreats. He also took on new challenges, including doctoral work and then the researching and writing of his book.

Of all the advice in these 350 pages, the key is that midlife is a time of changing purpose. After decades of taking on more and more individual responsibility, it is time to train others to take over. Let someone younger have your job, as you work to guide and educate those coming up. Not every company supports such roles -- a pity, which society may need to address -- but you can no doubt do volunteer work, teach classes, or write books. If you can't break free immediately, changing your outlook may be sufficient. Start reading books and articles that lead where you need to go. Talk to a minister or counselor if you are depressed or having marital problems. And pick up a book like Conway's, for reassurance that your feelings of panic are normal and temporary. That may give you the confidence for a self-directed career change, as recommended in books such as Richard Bolles' "What Color is Your Parachute" ().

Conway lists many other books that may be helpful. He and his late wife Sally have also published books for women about surviving their own or their husbands' midlife crises, including "When a Mate Wants Out: Secrets for Saving a Marriage" (). Poke around at and you'll find many books on related subjects.

----- "Twenty-five years ago a dumb 18-year-old college kid made up his mind that I was going to be a dentist. So now here I am, a dentist. I'm stuck. What I want to know is, who told that kid that he could decide what I was going to have to do for the rest of my life?" -- From Barbara R. Fried, "The Middle-Age Crisis." -----