Welcome to the New Midlife Crisis
The novel ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ is one of a slew of new books examining our generation’s particular iteration of the midlife crisis
Like everyone on my Twitter feed, I recently read (and loved) Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel of midlife marital strife, Fleishman Is in Trouble. It was as good as everyone said it was: the murderously sharp observations, the nuanced characters, and what anthropologists should one day recognize as a near-complete catalogue of women’s workout tank-top slogans in the early 21st century.
I read it on my Kindle, which tallies the number of fellow readers who have highlighted certain passages of a book. In Fleishman, these highlights tell their own story of a readership more than a little familiar with the existential angst of middle age.
Like this one, on page 13:
“How miserable is too miserable?” (164 highlighters)
Or here on page 25:
“It was that he couldn’t bear to be with anyone who didn’t yet truly understand consequences, how the world would have its way with you despite all your careful life planning. There was no way to learn that until you lived it. There was no way for any of us to learn that until we lived it.” (312 highlighters)
Or this, ominously, on page 36:
“And in our laughter we heard our youth, and it is not not a dangerous thing to be at the doorstep to middle age and at an impasse in your life and to suddenly be hearing sounds from your youth.” (359 highlighters)
Fleishman is one of a slew of new books examining our generation’s particular iteration of the midlife crisis, and I’ve read a lot of them, from MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya’s Midlife: A Philosophical Guide to therapist Daphne de Marneffe’s The Rough Patch: Midlife and the Art of Living Together. Ada Calhoun’s popular 2017 Oprah.com article on the subject will be a book soon. The writer Rachel Syme went mildly viral when she tweeted recently that “every woman I know who is 35ish is having some sort of low-level crisis.”
My life doesn’t look just like that of Rachel Fleishman, in Fleishman Is in Trouble, or Libby Epstein, the book’s narrator, but it could be the second cousin of either. I’m a 39-year-old woman married to a 39-year-old man. We have two careers, two kids under 10, and a home in the kind of suburb where one of the most recent crimes reported on Nextdoor was the suspected theft of fruits off a neighbor’s pomegranate tree. There’s junk to deal with sometimes, but it would be delusional and ungrateful not to acknowledge that in the global scope of things we sit stupidly and unfairly high atop Maslow’s hierarchy, and so do most of the people we spend our time with.
Brodesser-Akner’s characters didn’t remind me of anyone I knew specifically, and yet the mood of the book, this seething fug of boredom and anger and resentment, felt disquietingly familiar. At this stage of life, it is increasingly common to be in a conversation between friends where it soon becomes clear that everyone is tired, furious with their spouse, and astonished — either that the choices they made have led them to the place they are, or that the place they’ve chosen to be is so much less satisfying than they’d imagined it.
Indeed, this time of life is a disorienting one. It’s reminiscent both of moving through a wide open landscape with no anchoring markers, and, at the same time, the churning feeling of being on a spinning carousel. Nothing really happens, and everything happens. The convenient markers of emerging adulthood — graduations, promotions, marriage, births — have mostly already passed, yet the full benefits of a long career or marriage remain decades away. There’s a good chance you’ve experienced enough personal or professional setbacks to make clear how fragile any sense of security is, and possibly enough achievement to make clear how fleeting the satisfaction of recognition is as well.
It’s a period of living with one’s choices, and with the things you would never have chosen that happened to you anyway. It’s a time of sitting with a lot of things: sick kids, failing parents, mistakes, choices, disappointments. Your flawed but enduring self.
Is the midlife crisis really a thing?
Peek into the literature on the midlife crisis, and you’ll soon learn that the consensus from modern developmental psychologists is that no such thing exists. There are, obviously, people who experience personal crises while they are in their forties or fifties. There is no evidence, however, that being 40 or 50 or any other age in itself precipitates psychological or emotional upheaval.
“It’s irritating,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor who heads the Aging and Development Lab at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said of the concept. “It’s not informed by research, and it doesn’t fit with what developmental scholars understand about aging.”
The phrase “midlife crisis” was popularized by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in a 1965 paper called “Death and the Midlife Crisis,” describing a period of depression and existential questioning starting in a patient’s mid-thirties. Jaques didn’t claim to invent the concept, which shows up in art as far back as Dante Alighieri’s moody trip to hell in Inferno (“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost”). But he had a talent for catchy names — the terms “corporate culture” and “fair pay” are also attributed to him — and the term stuck.
The idea of the midlife crisis gathered steam with the 1976 publication of Gail Sheehy’s bestselling Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Sheehy also liked memorable nicknames, and described the decade she dubbed the “Forlorn Forties” thusly: “Dangerous years when the dreams of youth demand reassessment, men and women switch characteristics, sexual panic is common, but the greatest opportunity for self-discovery awaits.”
Later research suggests this experience is not as universal as Passages made it sound. The most robust source of data on adult development in the United States comes from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, a longitudinal survey that’s been tracking grown Americans’ opinions of their own happiness since 1995.
Two key patterns emerge from the MIDUS data. First, the people who reported having an age-related crisis in their forties or fifties were also highly likely to have reported dissatisfaction or anxiety in their younger years as well. If you are besieged with self-doubt at midlife, in other words, it is most likely not your first existential rodeo.
And second, the stereotypical midlife crisis is a luxury. No more than 10% to 20% of middle-aged people go through one, MIDUS researchers found. Purchasing a red sports car, embarking on an “Eat Pray Love”-style pilgrimage, abandoning a spouse to move to Jamaica to marry one’s pot dealer (as in one writer’s offhand but superbly memorable anecdote) — these kinds of crises are about as universal as Tesla ownership. It makes sense, Whitbourne said: “It takes privilege to chuck everything and start anew.”
But even if research shows no evidence of an internal, age-related mechanism that precipitates a midlife crisis, there are a whole lot of very real external circumstances that explain the famous midlife dip in the U-curve of life satisfaction.
It is a phase in which many different stressors can pile up at once: growing children, aging parents, fluctuating careers, financial pressures, responsibility at every turn. There isn’t as much research on the psychology of midlife as there is on childhood, adolescence, and even old age — in part, as psychologist Margie Lachman of Brandeis University noted in a 2015 paper, because middle-aged people are really hard to recruit as research subjects. They’re too busy.
Lachman, who was one of the original researchers on the MIDUS study and has continued to research adult development, argues that midlife isn’t the bottom of a trough as much as it is the intersection point between two separate curves: the upward lifetime growth of wisdom and experience, and the top of the inevitable downward slope of physical and cognitive strength.
Any meeting point can be a place of chaos or one of growth. Renaissance painters sometimes depicted men’s lives as a series of steps leading up to the pinnacle of midlife and downward after that. (That’s men, specifically, not people — as the late medieval scholar Mary Dove noted in her 1986 book The Perfect Age of Man’s Life, medieval literature tended to portray female adulthood as a brief blooming of fertility and sexual availability and near immediate slide into cronehood.)
On a graph, that perspective would be a flipped U-curve, with midlife as the peak rather than a nadir. In some ways, that feels like a truer depiction of a stage of life that can be full of things to love. To be atop a pinnacle is exhilarating, and it can be overwhelming to take everything in at once.
So why are so many people miserable in middle age?
In a completely hunch-based and unscientific analysis, I think there is a high correlation between people who find the protagonists of midlife chronicles like Fleishman to be insufferable, self-indulgent narcissists, and people who don’t feel they have permission to allow much room for their own emotions. Listening to middle-aged people bitch about the stress of fundamentally comfortable lives can be an exercise in patience under any circumstance. If no one has extended that courtesy to you, it can be intolerable.
But to brush off introspection at this stage can be as shallow and short-sighted as upending one’s life to indulge it entirely. “When we trivialize the rough patch as a ‘middle-aged cliché,’ we are actually trying to find a way to disarm the intensity of the forces we are grappling with,” Daphne de Marneffe writes in The Rough Patch: Midlife and the Art of Living Together. If Fleishman is the novel you read to imagine the worst-case scenarios of midlife despair, The Rough Patch is the book you read to gently walk yourself back from any such cliffs in your own life.
De Marneffe, a Bay Area therapist, compares the acting-out of a dissatisfied person at middle age to the outbursts of toddlers or teenagers, in that we sometimes lash out under the stress of change. The change itself doesn’t excuse bad behavior — none of us get a pass to treat our loved ones carelessly just because we’re nearing a certain birthday — but to dismiss a person’s pain as “terrible twos” or “teenage hormones” just makes them furious. It also doesn’t allow for the understanding or empathy that keeps a healthy relationship alive.
Toddlers and teenagers are trying to balance a growing need for independence with a desire for security. What’s going on with middle-aged people?
“The midpoint of life represents the moment of maximal conflict between our drive to seek external solutions to our emotional dilemmas and our recognition that, ultimately, they don’t work,” she writes. “In the rough patch we are forced to realize, often against our will, that the life-building activities of youth — job, relationship, children, house — have not taken care of what’s unresolved within.”
This is the direction that the more thoughtful nonfiction books on midlife head toward: It’s not the marriage, or the job, or the kids, or whatever. Wiggling out of your obligations to those things probably isn’t going to make you as happy as you hope it might. Successfully weathering this phase means making peace with the one common element all these things have: you.
How does that happen?
In Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, the MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya offers some deceptively simple advice for navigating the doubts and questions of this phase: Invest energy in causes greater than oneself and find joy in the process of doing things, rather than striving for glorious ends.
The most lyrical moments in Setiya’s book acknowledge a truth that’s inescapably apparent to anyone who’s spent a few decades on the planet: It is never possible to have it all. You will, in fact, miss out on or lose some things that might have been very meaningful to you. These disappointments are a feature, not a bug, of a well-lived life.
“To wish for a life without loss is to wish for a profound impoverishment in the world or in your capacity to engage with it, a drastic limiting of horizons,” Setiya writes. “There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life. It reflects something wonderful: that there is so much to love and that it is so various that one history could not encompass it all.”
Maturity — which is, in part, the ability to accept all this — is an acquired skill. The MIDUS study showed that a lot of personality traits remain consistent throughout people’s lives, but not all of them, in every person. The capacity for intimacy, in particular, is something that many people come around to later in life, says Whitbourne of the Aging and Development Lab at UMass. If it’s possible to grow more comfortable and secure around other people’s vulnerabilities, it seems we should be able to learn to accept our own, too.
Is there a cure for middle-age malaise?
A novel does not need to offer antidotes to what ails its readers. It’s enough to speak them aloud, as Brodesser-Akner does, in language that’s as true as if it were transcribed from a conversation we almost remember having. But for the curious, it can be a compelling starting point for an exploration into the middle part of life.
Without spoiling anything, the ending of Fleishman Is in Trouble has been described as a clever narrative twist that shows the reader that we’ve been sympathizing with the wrong person. I prefer the interpretation that the twist is not that we’ve misidentified the story’s villain, but that there was never anything so neat as a right or wrong party to begin with. It leads to my favorite passage in the book, on page 367, which at my last reading 431 other people had highlighted as well:
“You hold hands while you’re walking down the street when you’re happy, you turn away icily to stare out the window as the car goes over the bridge when you’re not, and exactly none of this has anything to do with that person’s behavior. It has to do with how you feel about yourself, and the person closest to you gets mistaken for the circumstance and you think, Maybe if I excised this thing, I’d be me again. But you’re not you anymore. That hasn’t been you in a long time. It’s not his fault. It just happened. It was always going to just happen.”
Whenever I read this, I picture that car crossing a bridge in a dull driving rain, with the accompanying traffic. So why do I find it so hopeful? It’s the idea that there is no cause or fault of the sorrow. It’s that you don’t have to reorder everything in your life so that it is disappointment-free, which sounds exhausting. Instead you have to learn to deal with your disappointment, which sounds doable.
What these works of fiction and nonfiction did for me was to prove that simply acknowledging pain or uncertainty has tremendous power. To mature is to accept one’s role as both a person with pain and one with strength to endure it. It is the ability to say to oneself or to those we love: I see you. I hear you. I will sit here with you until it passes, as all things must.