Middle-age can be a time of fulfilment and contentment. Indeed, for many it is a golden period, especially if they enjoy a happy family life. But for others middle-age means fear, depression and loss. Either way, people certainly feel different.
Psychological and emotional change cannot be separated from physical change. People often complain that as they move into middle-age they feel flat and empty, that nothing seems real anymore. But is this a consequence of physical changes (declining testosterone, aching legs, fading energy) or a result of psychological change (bitter experiences, loss of innocence, awareness of time, etc.)? If, as some predict, we find ways of slowing ageing and rejuvenating the body, would that alter the way a 50-year-old thought and felt? In his book The World in 2030, Ray Hammond predicts that by 2030 a 70-year-old who’d been through a course of regenerative medicine would look and feel like a 20-something. They would have a younger body, but the body would still house 70 years of experience. Would they experience the world like a 20-something again? Should Hammond’s predictions come true, it will be interesting to find out.
Of course, when middle-age begins is up for debate. Some put it as low as 36, some as high as 55. Thanks to the increasing lifespan (and healthspan), the entry point has certainly risen, and not only because we live longer. In countries like the USA, UK, or Germany, post-war teenagers laughed at their parents’ generation; in musical tastes, political views, even fashion, they were worlds apart. This has all changed. Today, a 55-year-old wears designer T-shirts, goes on anti-war demonstrations and listens to Radiohead.
Still, in spite of research, little can be done to slow ageing. By 40 or 45 one’s legs and shoulders begin to creak and ache. If you get drunk, it takes all next day to recover from the hangover. Your looks also fade. Hair thins and grays, or falls out altogether (this alone can have a devastating psychological effect), the face wrinkles and sags, muscle mass declines, and people gain weight. Not only do they feel less energetic and less attractive, libido also falls, especially in men. For most people middle-age is a time of loss and decline.
As everyone over 40 knows, as you age time speeds up. When you are eight or nine, a summer vacation lasts a lifetime; by 45, no sooner have you cleared away the Christmas decorations than you must put them up again. Often, people assume only they feel this way. In fact, whole books have been written on the subject, such as Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older by Dutch Psychology Professor Douawe Draaisma.
One explanation is that the young experience everything for the first time, and they do so with an intensity impossible to recapture. The most obvious example is relationships, but it is true of almost everything. As people age they become jaded. Physical changes add to this. To take a trivial example, taste buds lose sensitivity (which is why people who were fussy eaters when young find they grow to like spicy food). Hearing also declines, along with sight, testosterone and numerous other things. The young not only experience things for the first time, they are more sensitive to those experiences. And intense experience slows time – as anyone involved in a car crash soon discovers.
People also settle into a routine. In youth, as they try out different careers, or search for a life partner, more seems to happen. Once you settle on a career and come home to the same person every evening, the days blur into one another. And as they do, time slips away.
The increasing speed at which time passes often triggers a so-called “midlife crisis”. In essence, you realize life is no longer all ahead of you, that this is it. In their teens and 20s, even when deeply unhappy, people have a sense of boundless hope: life stretches away to the distant horizon, and ageing and death are no more than abstract facts. The young acknowledge that they will age and die, but they don’t feel it. By midlife, death has ceased to be an abstract fact and has become all too concrete and real.
The different attitude to time also affects openness to experience. When young, people hunger for new experience because they hope it will provide useful lessons. College, for example, is seen as a place to experiment with drugs, sex, fashion, etc. Almost any new experience is embraced, even unpleasant ones.
In middle-age, this changes. Odd and unusual experience is no longer an opportunity to learn but a mere inconvenience or trauma. You also become aware that people have little interest in your life. When someone is 18 or 19, they are still the center of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Your family want to hear about your backpacking trip through Asia, or what you did at your college Christmas party. Once you reach your mid to late 30s, this changes. In Afternoons, a poem about young mothers taking their children to the park, Philip Larkin writes “something is pushing them/ To the side of their own lives.” Obviously Larkin means their children, but even the childless recognize that the focus has shifted to a new generation.
Restlessness and the Hunger for Change
This sense of time speeding up, especially when combined with fading looks and creaking knees, often triggers panic. Inner tension builds, and this leads in turn to anger and even depression. People say things like, “I don’t know what I want anymore,” or “I used to be clear where I was going and who I was…now I haven’t a clue.”
When people say they want a change, what they often mean is they want to feel different. To be more precise, they want to be thrilled and excited about something, to “feel the way I used to,” as they often put it. Again, this can lead to affairs. For example, a woman feels flat, jaded and old, and she cannot understand why. What happened to the 25-year-old girl who hitchhiked around India? Life was so much more exciting and intense back then. Even colors seemed brighter! When she looks at her life, her partner is the obvious culprit. So she has an affair with someone younger, moves out and finds that parties and nightclubs make no difference. On the contrary, they make her feel even older.
Others blame their job, their children, their friends, even the house they live in. Sometimes people really are having problems. Often, however, it is because they are happy and settled that the fear and panic begin. They love their partner, enjoy their career and have settled into the family home. But when you have the things you yearned and fought for in your teens and twenties, what do you do next? When there is nothing left to strive for, it can seem like you are just waiting to die.
That attitude may seem crazy, but it is true of many people, especially in rich, developed countries like the USA, Canada, the UK, etc. In Carl Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes visiting an old Native American Indian. Jung asked the man how white Westerners appeared to him, and he replied, “they are always seeking something…they always want something. They are always uneasy and restless.” And people are most uneasy and restless when there is nothing left to strive for.
Fear and the Craving for Order
In some, middle-age produces the opposite effect, and they crave order and stability instead. Many do so because they feel increasingly isolated and afraid. In John Lennon’s song Help, he writes “when I was younger so much younger than today/ I never needed anybody’s help in any way/ But now those days have gone and I’m oh so insecure…help me if you can I’m feeling down.” Eric Carmen echoed this, singing “When I was young/ I never needed anyone/ And making love was just for fun/ Those days have gone…All by myself/ Don’t want to be all by myself.” Larkin (a master of middle-aged angst and gloom) put it more starkly: “life is first boredom then fear.”
But fear of what? Fear of being old, isolated and alone. When a young person announces they do not intend to have children, older people smile and assure them that they’ll change their mind. And they are often right. At school or college, and even in the first years of a career, people in your age group are usually single, childless and relatively free of responsibility. They are also open to new friendships. By the time you reach your 30s or 40s, this has changed. The majority of your peers are settled with a life partner and children, and weighed down with mortgages and bills. They haven’t the time, energy or inclination to see old friends let alone make new ones.
Once people settle they tend to close themselves off, spending their evenings in front of a screen or playing with the children. Those who don’t have children, or whose relationship has broken down, often feel an increasing sense of fear, intensified by fading looks and physical decline.
It is often said that we become more conservative with age. But it would be more accurate to say we become more skeptical, cynical and afraid – and frightened people crave order. The philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked on this in an essay. He believed that such fear intensifies when people have children. In spite of the advances we’ve made, the fear of social breakdown, of some kind of catastrophe or upheaval, is deeply embedded in the human mind. And you can see this reflected in popular movies: Hollywood blockbusters frequently center on an ordinary family struggling to survive amid apocalyptic disaster.
On a more mundane level, people feel threatened by social and technological change. The British author Douglas Adams joked that there are three kinds of technology: the stuff invented before you were born (which you just accept), the stuff invented when you are young (which you embrace enthusiastically) and the stuff invented when you reach middle-age (which is scary, annoying or just a waste of time!).
Caring What Other People Think of You
Another major change is that you stop caring what other people think of you. The British novelist Diana Athill, who turned 100 in 2017, remarked that in youth you care, in middle-age you care less, in old age you don’t care at all. For many this comes as a wonderful liberation, which is why some find later life happier and more rewarding than their teens or twenties.
Many people ruin their youth worrying what others think of them. In part, this is because the young need to fit in. A 40-year-old who sits alone reading the newspaper during his lunch break will be ignored. Do that at school, however, and you’ll be labelled a freak or loser. When young, people in your age group watch and judge you in a way they do not later in life. You also spend your time in places inhabited mostly by the young: schools, colleges, youth clubs, nightclubs, etc. By your late 20s, life revolves around work and family. The office contains people of different ages, and once you have children of your own, people tend to ask about them rather than you.
For many, it takes time to work out who they are, what they believe and what they like. Once they do, they can start to be that person. Gradually, they also learn to like and accept that person. When people move into middle-age, they begin to reconcile themselves to their limitations, to accept that they will never be a rock god or opera singer. If they can, they enjoy much greater peace of mind.
When considering these changes, it must be remembered that people have different experiences. Most of us have met someone in middle-age who still behaves like an insecure adolescent, just as some teenagers can be astonishingly mature. There is also the danger of making these changes appear wholly negative. They aren’t. For many, middle-age is the best time of their life – and it just gets better.