The Developmental Agenda of Middle Age
The primary developmental theme of the middle years is an emerging crisis. Rather than a sudden occurrence, it is an incipient shift in complexity and tone. As such, the middle years usher in a higher state of volatility as a list of daunting tasks arrive that soon leaves little time to plan, resolve, or recuperate.
Externally the seminal event is usually sickness or death in the family, but it can also involve major upheavals with children, careers, and core relationships. Up to the early forties, the business of building a career, raising children, and other measures of success remains fairly predictable. Middle age disrupts and forever changes this pattern. The world begins to take a more somber turn with illness, loss of relationships, career changes and poor outcomes being more frequent and unpredictable. These external events include:
• Death in the family
• Children moving out of the house
• Chronic illness
• Losing, starting or changing jobs
• Retiring, voluntarily or involuntarily
• Parents moving into assisted living
• Marriage or divorce
• Memory loss
Each one of these events unto themselves present a formable challenge, but arriving in uneven clusters, as is the case in midlife, they can destabilize and exhaust even the most competent adult.
Managing the upheaval of external events highlights one of the two primary developmental tasks of middle age adults: maintain stability in world of increasing personal volatility.
Paralleling the external crisis is an internal upheaval, one that arises in part from a surprising source: success. When young adults embrace the goals of career, families, and success, they do so fully believing that these will carry them to the end of their lives. Moving into middle age begins to weaken this assumption. As the projects of the first half of life mature and reach completion (children grow up, careers reach their pinnacle, material dreams come true), it becomes clear that one set of goals is not enough. Regardless of the success, first-half goals become inadequate to carry the individual until the end of his or her life. With a change in the rules of the game, there is a need to “reinvent” the purpose and direction for the second half of life. But the upheaval of the middle years goes beyond simply finding a new set of goals. It asks the more difficult questions about the true nature of the person who is pursuing them. It brings up the unsettling theme of authenticity.
The strategies of the first half of life, the ones that created all the success, begin to wear thin with the advent of middle age. Seeking social approval, always projecting a good image, and being attuned to what constitutes success lose their luster once attained. Having survived the first half of life, middle age adults begin to feel strangely dissatisfied with material success alone and the price it extracts. It is not simply a case of wanting more, but rather a case of wanting something else, something loosely defined as “more authentic.” We may dismiss this self-examination as a “mid-life crisis,” excessive preoccupation over the loss of youth and the predicable pining for past. But that is only part of the story.
The loss of youth is also a loss of faith in youthful strategies and goals. Having played long and hard, the question arises about who the player is and is this really the game he or she wants to play. Although a normal response to the transition from being young to being middle aged, it is a profound developmental task that comes to dominate the unconscious agenda of those caught up in it. The response to this upheaval can be markedly different for men and women.
Men’s individualistic approach to accomplishing their goals in the first half of life can lead to disastrous consequences in middle age. These “poor” outcomes are reflected in the statistics of middle age men for alcoholism, divorce, depression and suicide rates. The problem with going it alone is that middle age requires deeper resources, a more extensive social and psychological scaffolding, to make the journey to old age in tact. It is a terrain full of false starts that requires fresh ideas, reframing, and encouragement. This is where women have a distinct advantage.
Utilizing life-long collaboration skills, women enter the middle years no less under duress than men but with a willingness to network both to sort out the issues and craft solutions. The effectiveness of this approach is supported in the statistics of middle age women for starting new businesses, returning to higher education, and life satisfaction. The advantage of partnering to weather the external and internal developmental storm is not confined to middle age. It is also an enormous benefit in old age, where the loss of physical capabilities requires new resources to remain independent and fulfilled.
Managing the upheaval of internal events highlights the second primary developmental task of middle age adults: discover a new set of dreams as the old ones find their natural conclusion.
Middle age adults find themselves navigating a new set of marching orders that asks them to bring stability to diverse external upheavals while at the same time embrace internal upheavals to find out want they really want in the second half of life. As with all developmental phases, the paradoxical nature of these tasks require new insights, strategies, and skills to successfully move through them and on to the next growth phase. This unique entrée point for connecting with middle age clients requires not only an understanding of their developmental needs but also a well matched set of communication strategies that resonate with them.