I'm just hitting middle age now and starting to spot the first midlife crises among my acquaintances, but I remember my parents talking about a friend buying and promptly crashing a motorcycle decades ago. Probably my grandparents had stories of midlife crack-ups, and if we went back far enough, we'd likely hear tales of ancient Romans splurging on flash chariots when they reached a certain age.
All of which is to say that the midlife crisis has been with humanity a long, long time and likely has biological roots. When you spot mortality on the horizon, it's natural to stop, take stock, and course correct (or flat out panic). But that doesn't mean the experience has been the same over time.
In fact, science suggests that midlife crises are getting worse in recent years. Thankfully, scientists also also have suggestions for how to deal with them.
The new midlife crisis: the big squeeze
The stereotypical midlife crisis involves a divorce and a red sports car, but when Arizona State psychologist Frank J. Infurna and colleagues closely followed 360 adults for two years, they discovered that the reality of the modern midlife crisis looks a lot different.
"It's not the kind of crisis that exists in the popular imagination - when parents, with their kids out of the house, feel compelled to make up for lost time and relive their glory days," Infurna writes on The Conversation. "There's little money for a red sports car. No time for jetting around the world. And a trophy wife? Forget that."
"Instead, the midlife crisis experienced by most people is subtler, more nuanced and rarely discussed," he explains. "It can be best described as the 'big squeeze' - a period during which middle-aged adults are increasingly confronted with the impossible choice of deciding how to split their time and money between themselves, their parents and their kids."
Thanks to a combination of poor family leave policies, the post-recession economic struggles of young people, anxiety about health insurance, and longer lives, mid-life crises are no longer slightly ridiculous fodder for black comedy. Instead, "these trends have led to more anxiety and depression among middle-aged parents," according to Infurna.
How to make the modern mid-life crisis less miserable
What's the solution for this miserable cocktail of aging parents, dependent adult kids, and economic uncertainty? Infurna would like to see more support from the government in the form of better paid family leave, as well as training programs for those caring for family members. But good luck getting that or anything else though Congress anytime soon.
The sad truth is that the challenges behind the modern midlife crisis are beyond any individual to fix. Though sound financial planning and voting for lawmakers who will fight for ordinary families would help.
What can be fixed, or at least improved, in the short-term is your mindset, according to neuroscientists Deb Knobelman. As I wrote recently, Knobelman is not only a psychology expert but also a survivor of her own midlife struggles and she believes there are simple steps you can take to help find your way out of the midlife doldrums:
"Change your priorities, not just your circumstances." Science shows people's values reliably shift as they age, but we often fight these changes, believing we're losing an essential part of our identity. Will I still be me if I'm no longer as focused on my career? Knobelman urges those struggling in middle age to embrace rather than fight their changing priorities. It's not a loss but an opportunity for reinvention.
Don't "used-to your life away." You can't stop time but you can stop focusing on the past. "Think about the beauty in the present moment," she instructs. For instance, "my kids are in such a good phase of life now" or "I have the ability to say no to potential clients that will cause me more angst than is worth my time."
Find a new "why." Often in our early years our reason for getting out of bed in the morning is achievement or ambition. As we get older chasing success starts to lose its luster. That's OK. As Simon Sinek would put it, you just need to find a new "why," often one that's more focused on impact, giving back, and helping others.
These steps won't make your aging parents any healthier or reduce your children's student debt, but they can help you re-frame all the effort your put into others as less of a distraction from striving and more as an important project unto itself. At least until we all vote in some politicians who will provide material relief for the modern midlife squeeze.