The midlife crisis isn’t real, so middle-aged men should relax if they want a sports car
Having recently explored what history can tell us about women and middle age (and how much fun they were having in the bedroom before the Victorians spoiled it all), how was it for men? Of course, our opinions of men and mid-life is dominated by one word: crisis.
Ironically, the concept of the male mid-life crisis is ridiculously young. Despite being thoroughly entrenched in our cultural identity, no one had heard of it until 1957, when a 40-year-old Canadian psychoanalyst called Elliott Jaques addressed a meeting of the British Psychoanalytical Society with a new theory. It was actually Jaques who coined the phrase almost 10 years later when he published Death and the Mid-Life Crisis in 1965.
Jaques looked at the lives of great artists (Shakespeare, Beethoven) and to his own personal experience, and suggested that “at age 35 the individual has reached the summit of life and sees a declining path before him with death at its end”.
He argued that being simultaneously at the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end creates an identity crisis. The resulting panic at no longer being young but not yet being old led some men to engage in new and sometimes alarming behaviours, such as sexual promiscuity, in an attempt to recapture their youth and reinvent themselves.
Jaques’s work is very much of its time. He is only really concerned with the experiences of men. Women have the menopause, whereas men have a crisis. This is still the case today – when we think of a mid-life crisis, we are usually thinking of a man. But whereas the menopause is a physical thing that really happens to the body, there isn’t much evidence that the crisis exists at all.
Of course, the idea of it is real, which makes it something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You expect a crisis, so you get one. We are also quick to ascribe all manner of behaviour to it, because it’s a convenient explanation. Got a divorce? Mid-life crisis. Bought a sports car? Mid-life crisis. Quit your job and emailed MI5 to ask if you can work as a field agent in Russia? Definite mid-life crisis.
But most of the things we wryly ascribe to mid-life malaise are not so much symptomatic of a mental crisis than the result of not being in your twenties. People get divorced in mid-life because they’ve put the time in and it didn’t work. You usually have more money in your forties and fifties, so you can afford a nicer car. After working in a job you hate for years, it makes sense you’d be older when you finally decided to jack it in to try something new – it doesn’t mean you’re mentally unwell or in crisis.
Biologically, there is no evidence that men have a crisis in midlife. There is no medical reason for 50-year-old men trying to pull 20-year-olds on Tinder. None. But from a historical and social point of view, the characterisation of middle-aged men as being prone to mental crisis and sexual stupidity is a really interesting one, because for thousands of years in the West, it was women who were thought to be the unstable, horny ones. They were the ones who were liable to have a crisis. So what changed?
It’s not that men weren’t thought to enjoy sex, far from it; but they were supposed to be calm, rational, and able to control their baser urges. Part of this stems from a very ancient belief that if a man has too much sex, he will lose too much of his semen, which will unsettle his humoral balances, and he will become unwell.
Greek philosophers advised on the subject. Aristotle believed that too much sexual activity could stunt your growth. Plutarch advised men to “store up his seed”. Plato wrote “if any man retains his semen, he is strong, and the proof is athletes who are abstinent”. To make sure there were no “nocturnal emissions”, the Roman physician Galen recommended athletes sleep on lead plates.
The medieval church also advised men to “store up his seed”. St Albert the Great (1200-1280), for example, firmly believed that “coitus drains the brain”, and that dogs followed lustful people around because they smell like “rotten semen”. Nice.
Women, on the other hand, were expected to be highly sexed and easily tempted. The trope of the foolish older man with a much younger wife that he can’t sexually satisfy is a very old one indeed.
The medieval bard Geoffrey Chaucer has a lot of fun with it in The Canterbury Tales. In The Miller’s Tale, for example, a middle-aged miller has married an 18-year-old hottie called Alison, who inevitably ends up in the sack with their lodger, Nicholas. In The Merchant’s Tale, a 60-year-old knight marries a 20-year-old woman who runs rings around him and ends up shagging his squire in a pear tree.
It’s not that middle-aged men were thought to be sexless, but rather that they couldn’t possibly keep up with the sexual demands of a younger woman. Nor does this mean that older men didn’t pride themselves on their sexual potency.
When Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves on grounds of non-consummation in 1540, he was worried people might think that he was impotent, so he asked his physician, Sir William Butts, to report to Parliament that the King regularly had “nocturnal pollutions” (wet dreams). The king was nearly 50 at the time and clearly anxious people might think that he too couldn’t keep up with a younger wife. But no one suggested Henry had married Anne because of a mid-life crisis.
The midday demon
It’s not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the idea of older men experiencing a sexual crisis emerges. It was the nascent age of psychology and of pathologising sexual desire. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and other early psychologists all did work on the various “stages” of life, the fear of death and loss of youth.
In 1922, American psychologist G Stanley Hall published Senescence: The Last Half of Life, where he used the phrase “middle-age crisis”.
In 1914, French academic Paul Bourget published Le Démon de Midi (The Midday Demon). The book is about moral conflict and self-control, and Bourget chose the title to speak to the temptations an older man may experience. He wrote: “I give the same name to another kind of temptation. The one that arises in man during the middle, not of his day, but of his life, at that time when his vigour is at its peak.” To this day, “le démon de midi” is a French expression for the sexual appetites of the middle-aged man.
But perhaps what made Jaques’s theory so appealing in 1965 was not so much the idea of middle age being a crisis as the fact that masculinity itself was in crisis. Indeed, it was in the 60s that historians and social theorists first identified a “crisis of masculinity”.
In the 60s and 70s, men’s roles as the “breadwinner” and “head of the household” were repeatedly challenged. The rise of modern feminism created space for women in previously “male spaces” and aggressively revised old-fashioned notions of gender roles.
The fight for civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and the emergence of counter-cultures such as the Beat poets and the hippies all eroded the traditional notions of what a man was. These were hard-won battles, and far too long in coming, but there is no denying the anxiety they created (and continue to create) for those who had previously been running the show.
Masculinity and the worth of a man had long been tied to the role of provider and protector, both of which were being revised, and the anxiety that men were being made redundant was palpable. Little wonder then that the idea of a mid-life crisis as a distinct male phenomenon emerged at this time.
Who are you calling old?
The concepts of age and ageing are omnipresent throughout history, as are those of youth and being young, but the idea that there is a distinct, pathologised middle bit squished between seems to be quite a recent revelation. Of course, what we mean by young and old are culturally and historically subjective.
I’ll confess to wincing when I read Jaques’s claims that 35 is pinnacle of life. Likewise, today we consider anyone under 18 as being legally a child, but it’s really not that long ago you’d expect to be married with children of your own at 18.
It has been suggested that the concept of middle age is a result of us living longer, which makes sense if you were only expected to live to 40. However, it’s a myth that life expectancy was hideously short in the past. Infant mortality rates were very high, but if you made it to your fifth birthday, you actually stood a reasonable chance of seeing your sixties and beyond.
If you made it to 65 in Britain in 1845, for example, you could expect to live another 10 years. Today, you could expect to live another 18 years. So we’re living longer, but not that much longer.
But not everyone knew how old they were, especially the very poor. In his account of poverty in 1840s London, the sociologist and journalist Henry Mayhew interviews several people who have no idea how old they are and must give an approximation. One woman who sold shrimp couldn’t say how old she was, or how long she had been doing that work. But she was proud of being able to say how old her children were, saying: “I’ve kept count of that as well as I can.”
Jaques didn’t do much with the theory after his 1965 publication. In fact, far from sliding into the decline of old age after 35, he went on to have considerable success researching workplace relations. He published more than 20 books on the subject and consulted with the US army and the Church of England, among others. But it was his theory on the mid-life crisis that made the biggest cultural impact.
The concept remains as popular as ever, despite the lack of any evidence for it. I’ve even read articles about the mid-mid-life crisis.
But most of the research shows that middle age is actually a pretty happy time! And as Jaques found out, the best may even be yet to come.
Dr Kate Lister is the author of ‘A Curious History of Sex‘ (£12.99, Unbound)