What is midlife in the twenty-tens?

When I spent time trying to define this question for a post on my blog Midlifechic, the thing that struck me from the outset is that ageing, like the football cliché, is a game of two halves. There is chronological ageing — everything that concerns the decline and eventual fall of our bodies but there is also cognitive ageing. By this I mean the age that we feel inside our heads — and throughout the many interviews that I conducted, I didn’t find a single person who feels as old in their minds as the age stated on their birth certificate.

I decided to start with the cognitive element because something far bigger than just a physical change happens to us in midlife. It is a whole life shift. If we can achieve some perspective in our minds, the body’s ageing might be easier to deal with.

Why is there so little to read about midlife?

When I started to talk to people, women in particular asked this question with an overtone of desperation. They pointed out how easy it was to find books to guide them through pregnancies; those with daughters talked about the resources that are available for puberty. However there is very little that we can relate to for either menopause or midlife.

Admittedly part of the reason for this is attitude. I noticed that when I raised the subject, there was a reluctance to talk about it — even among people I know really well (although once they got going, they couldn’t stop).

Initially, when I explained that I was trying to gather opinions of what it is to hit midlife in this decade, I found that people reacted in one of two ways: they either winced or laughed derisively. On the whole they also found it hard to talk about anything other than their physical symptoms which helped me to realise how few people see it as being anything other than a bodily transition.

Perhaps a good place to begin is by acknowledging the socio-cultural perspective which is why I wanted to make this specific to the twenty-tens. We are the first generation to be midlifers in this post industrial, increasingly digital society. There is no blueprint for what the second half of our life will look like.

When I look at my own family, I can see that there was a clear path ahead for my mother (42 years older than me) and that the same path was then followed by my sister (20 years older than me). They were both teachers and they had a lifelong goal of taking early retirement as soon as it was made available to them, certainly before they reached their 60th birthdays. They were then able to stop working and live very comfortably for the rest of their days.

Now, anyone born after 1961 will not qualify for a state pension until they are at least 67, probably older. Those who have private pensions have seen them ravaged by rocky stock markets and those of us who have spent a large part of our career being self employed will probably still be bashing away at our keyboards in our coffins. There is no longer any kind of certainty when it comes to retirement.

So, there is little information or guidance because our generation is charting new territory. And if our path is unclear, so is our future identity.

So — what is midlife and when does it start?

Lots of people are irritated by the phrase midlife, stating that mathematically we are more than halfway through our span by this stage. But if you take infancy out of the equation and look at the average period of adulthood, from 18 to 80 years old, you will find that the age of 49 is exactly the mid-point of being an adult. So, if you are lucky enough to live life’s full span, 49 is pretty much halfway through.

I find that quite a pleasing thought to begin with. You see when I look back from my pivotal age of 49, I can see that the first half has passed in a complete flurry of being busy and so it gives me hope that I’ll be able to be more thoughtful about the second half of my life.

During, and after my parents’ dying days, I was assigned a bereavement counsellor by a local cancer charity. I only had six sessions with her but the help she gave me was invaluable. One of the best pieces of wisdom she shared with me was that people often find that their 40s are like the interval between two acts of a play. It can be the time when everything is up for re-evaluation.

Common myth would term this ‘the midlife crisis’ but there is a proper term for the state that many people find themselves in: liminality — when one stage of life has ended and you find yourself standing at the threshold of something new and unknown.

When I dug deep, I found that the following issues are the ones that most people seem to need to revisit before they feel able to move on. You review the choices you have made in your past, thinking about your education and whether you have made the most of it, looking at the twists and turns of your career path and the roads not taken. You worry about your children, dwelling over whether you had too few or too many and whether you have been a good enough parent. You take a long hard look at your relationship, whether you still like that person let alone love them and often linger nostalgically over the ones that got away. It is often a period of self sabotage when you berate yourself for your choices.

For lots of people it feels like a kind of mourning but it is all part of the process of transition. Go with it and you will hopefully come through the other side feeling cleansed. (I must add a caveat here that if you have had a troubled past it is probably better to do this with a counsellor who is qualified to help you through).

The scientific backup

For those of you who are thinking this is new age nonsense, this period of sudden brain activity has been backed up by a Harvard study. In the 90s, Harvard Medical School was doing some research into adolescent brain development. They discovered that the adolescent brain sees a big increase in myelination (growth that boosts the brain’s processing power).

The surprise result was that they noticed from the control group that the same thing was happening in middle age, when there was a second spike and a huge growth spurt in brain power. It leads you to wonder whether this spike is specifically purposed for the self-assessment that happens in both adolescence and midlife and the reinvention of self that often ensues.

What happens next?

Personally I am still in the introspective phase — I’m certainly not through the other side and neither is anybody else because, as I have already said, we are the first to go through this lifestage at exactly this time. I have, however, read books by a few women, now in their 60s, who write almost evangelically about the next stage being the best time of their lives.

Amongst them, Suzanne Brown-Levine talks about the “F*** You 50s” being a time when you put yourself at the centre for the first time since your youth. Dr Christine Northrup celebrates being “a woman of the harvest,” someone who has ripened and can now reap the benefits of her wisdom. However the thing that stands out for me here is that they are both of the baby boomer generation whereas we are Generation X. I have a living illustration of the differences between the two in my own family. The youngest of my brothers and I are only 13 years apart in age and yet in terms of status and expectations, we are from different aeons.

So I am hoping that at Midlifechic we can, between us, begin to formulate what the second half might look like for our generation and talk about how it feels. For lots of women, I have discovered this is actually a time of rage, fury and disappointment and that makes sense because although we are at the beginning of something new, we also need to acknowledge that we have reached the end of an important phase in our lives.

Maybe the rage will come to me but for now, conversely, the biggest change that I have noticed is a growing sense of calm contentment. As people are asking me what I would like for my 50th birthday, I am surprised to find that I want very little when it comes to material things. However this is counterbalanced by a growing thirst for new experiences and good times spent with the people I love. I have a strong feeling that there are some great adventures ahead and that I will have the time and wisdom to appreciate them whilst they are happening rather than just in hindsight.

So far, this is the piece of feedback that makes the most sense to me from someone who has arrived at the other side. It comes from Marina Benjamin in her book ‘The Middlepause.’

“There are other things I have gladly renounced besides the insatiable ambitions of youth. There is the quest for external markers of success, the wide playing field of sexual conquest, the idea that I will ever return to my peak fitness, the grievances I held against my parents for their inevitable failures, and more besides. I feel lighter for it. But also more grounded…my needs are leaner and my storehouse fuller. I trust my experience and expertise far more than I used to and I better know my limitations. I’ve come by much of this as a result of working through grief, mining my myriad losses in order to reach a deeper bedrock of identity…against the diminishments of ageing that I have resented so sorely — the loss of vigour, organs, lustre, the loss of a parent, the loss of an unquestioning faith in possibility; the necessity of letting go of my former selves, some of them much cherished…”

I like the idea of letting go. When everyone out there is busy detoxing their bodies and decluttering their houses, I like the thought of decluttering the soul.

Another point that Marina made in her book was that she found the best way of getting through this midlife stage was to have what she terms a ‘horizontal’ support group of people in the same lifestage, experiencing similar things. Of course this is always important but I can’t help thinking that with the lack of information to hand, it is more true for midlifers than anyone else.

At Midlifechic we have now opened the debate and there is a great discussion going on from people all around the world sharing their own experiences. Maybe you would like to join us — you’d be very welcome.