The Challenges of Midlife

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

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Midlife can be considered a time of assessment and taking stock of one’s progress and place in life. In a sense, the adult at this stage has the unique vantage point of looking both forward and backward with significant time on each side. He/she can learn from the past and prepare for the future. The personal orientation one takes regarding this life position will have significant impact upon the way in which the following years are experienced.

In general, there is considerable disagreement among psychologists regarding the universality, severity and resolutions of the life transitions experienced at mid-life. Researchers Erikson (1968) and Levinson (1978) both discuss the midlife period of adulthood in terms of negotiating the challenges of this stage of development. Erikson emphasizes the resolution of a central crisis – the orientation toward either generativity (guiding the next generation) or stagnation (self-absorption and lack of contribution). Levinson also argued that there is a regular and predictable pattern of transformation focusing on the self and social interaction. His theory posits the resolution of the abovementioned challenges through an intensive reevaluation of several longstanding dichotomous conflicts including, young/old, destructive/constructive, masculine/feminine and attachment/separation.

In contrast to Erikson’s and Levinson’s notions of midlife as a stage of crisis, other psychologists argue that it is instead a time of reassessment based on increased environmental mastery and autonomy (Valliant, 1977; Clarke-Plaskie & Lachman, 1999). These researchers emphasize individual variation over universal patterns and give more consideration to the interaction of life events, mediating factors, individual adaptation and social context as determinants of the midlife experience. Still others argue that the key factors for the successful management of the challenges of midlife lie in the fit between the social context and individual personality (Neugarten, 1964; Costa & McCrae, 1998; Clausen, 1993).

Adults in midlife must negotiate new, or at least adjusted, ways of looking at themselves from physical, cognitive and emotional perspectives. The physical challenges of aging often begin to manifest at this stage in life and must be successfully managed through adequate health care and personal lifestyle choices (i.e., diet, exercise) in order to ensure continued health in the later years.

Cognitively, individuals may notice the beginning of decreased reaction times and sometimes changes in memory and information processing. Actively pursuing intellectual stimulation is an important aspect of maintaining mental acuity during adulthood. Emotionally, adults in midlife must adjust to their changing roles in the family and society and accept the tasks of mentoring and facilitating the next generation, Through the experience of managing these various changes, adults at midlife often come face to face with aspects of their own mortality not previously considered. Successful management of these changes includes a balance of acceptance and proactive intervention which will carry them through the subsequent stages of later adulthood.

Regardless of one’s opinion concerning the specific nature of development at this stage, most researchers agree that midlife is a time of reassessment and that a positive, balanced outlook is necessary to successfully face the challenges of successive life periods. However, some individuals experience such overwhelming hardship at this stage that they are unable to move forward from a point of strength and resiliency. Inadequate personal coping skills, numerous distressing life events (i.e., serious health problems, financial and other resources shortages, troublesome interpersonal relationships), lack of a social support network and the unsuccessful management of previous developmental stages (i.e., identity development, intimacy, etc.) can mean that individuals arrive at midlife ill-equipped to handle the challenges of this new life stage. These personal difficulties coupled with inadequate societal resources in place to assist these individuals deter the successful management of midlife challenges and therefore precipitate further difficulties in subsequent stages.

References

Clarke-Plaskie, M., & Lachmann, M. E. (1999). The sense of control in midlife. In S. L. Willis & J. D. Reid (Eds.). Life in the middle. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Clausen, J. A. (1993). American lives. New York, NY: Free Press.

Costa, P. T. & McCrae, R. R. (1998). Personality assessment. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of mental health, 3. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man’s life. New York, NY: Knopf.

Neugarten, B. L. (1964). Personality in middle and late life. New York, NY: Atherton.

Valliant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY
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