Welcome back to our series on the seasons of a man’s life, which describes the universal pattern of phases which underlies adult development.
Last time we offered a broad introduction to these phases as discovered by the studies of psychologist Daniel J. Levinson and described in The Seasons of a Man’s Life. We unpacked the fact that a man’s biological/social/psychological development does not stop after adolescence, but continues throughout his life, and described the way this development alternates between more stable, structure-building periods, and more transitional, structure-changing periods.
Today we’ll delve into the specific character of these periods as experienced in the era of Early Adulthood, which lasts from about the late teens until the early forties.
Before we get started, however, it will be beneficial to set out a few explanatory notes which are important in understanding what’s to come.
First, the findings of Levinson’s study were largely designed to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive; that is, they detail what a man will experience in the different seasons of his life, rather than telling him what to do during these seasons. What you will find below serves as a map of the terrain individuals will encounter in each respective phase of the life cycle.
That being said, there are still a couple of “should’s” in play: 1) Each phase involves unique developmental tasks that must be engaged and grappled with; tasks that are ignored in one phase will simply remerge in another, creating crisis and chaos, and complicating the process of progressive maturation. 2) While the choices and commitments individual men will make regarding these developmental tasks will be infinitely varied, they can be made either well or poorly, depending on the degree to which they are satisfactory to the self (aligned with inner values, dreams, priorities), and viable given external circumstances.
Second, the ages given below for the beginning/end of phases are only averages. The phases may initiate and terminate 1-2 years before or after this range.
Third, the phases do not begin or end abruptly; you don’t wake up one day and feel as if you’ve emerged in a new season. Rather, just as winter doesn’t suddenly become spring, an individual’s shift into and out of these phases is gradual in nature.
With those caveats set down, let us now take a dive into the charged and challenging, fruitful and frustrating era of Early Adulthood.
The Seasons of a Man’s Life: Early Adulthood
The era of Early Adulthood starts with the Early Adult Transition (age ~17-22) and ends amidst the Mid-Life Transition (age ~40-45). During this era, a man moves from being an adolescent to being a grown-up — from being a fledgling “junior” member in his family, professional field, and the broader society, to being a more established “senior” member.
“Early adulthood,” Levinson says, “may be the most dramatic of eras.”
A man makes a significant shift in his life during this time — from depending on his birth family to creating his own “home base.” In the first half of Early Adulthood, the stakes are high, the choices critical, and the questions burning: Where to go to school? What to major in? Which vocation to pursue? Whom to marry? Where to live?
“The span from 20 to 40,” Levinson also observes, “is the era of greatest biological abundance and the greatest contradiction and stress.”
A man’s physical energy, drive, hope, and motivation are at their peak. It is the summer season of life. It is a landscape full of promise, and a man navigates it with a sense of heroic questing.
Throughout a man’s twenties and thirties he is looking to build what Richard Rohr calls the “container” of his life — the structure that will hold his marriage, his family, his career — all of his aspirations. He’s driven to establish his identity: he wants to be right; he wants to be affirmed and recognized; he wants to make something of himself. It is a period marked by outwards engagement and upwards striving.
While a man in Early Adulthood relishes its feelings of momentum and progress and enjoys the satisfactions of ambition, the weight of that ambition can also be burdensome, creating a demanding schedule, potent disappointment in the face of setbacks, and a sense of angst when he fails to get ahead at his desired pace. Dating can be exciting, but also frustrating and fraught. The learning curve on how to be an employee or entrepreneur, a husband, and the father of young children is steep. Not to mention, this education must be undergone at the same time that a man is still building out his financial resources and security. And underlying all these strivings is that all-permeating question: “Am I doing the right things with my life?”
Abundance and stress.
The Novice Phase: The Early Adult Transition, Entering the Adult World, and the Age 30 Transition
In addition to delineating the specific phases of Early Adulthood, Levinson also brackets off the first three of them — the Early Adult Transition, Entering the Adult World, and the Age 30 Transition — as a period he calls the “novice phase.” The novice phase of adulthood lasts from about 17 to 33, and constitutes the time in which a man finds his footing and place in the world as an independent grown-up.
Given that we are fond of chiding the “arrested development” of young men today, the fact that a study done a half century ago should describe the “entry into adulthood” as lasting all the way into a man’s early thirties may come as some surprise; yet despite the fact that 65% of the participants in Levinson’s study were seasoned veterans of the military (having come of age during WWII and the Korean War), he still found that:
A young man needs about fifteen years to emerge from adolescence, find his place in adult society, and commit himself to a more stable life. This time is an intrinsic part of adulthood. It is not, even in its most chaotic or immature form, a ‘delayed adolescence.’
A primary component of the novice phase is a man’s movement towards, and hopefully further crystallization of, what Levinson calls “the Dream.”
To an individual on the cusp of his entry into adulthood, the Dream is a vision of the good life: “a vague sense of self-in-adult-world.” The Dream involves all aspects of a man’s life — family, hobbies, community, spirituality, and overall lifestyle — but his occupation “is often the primary medium in which [his] dreams for the future are defined, and the vehicle he uses to pursue those dreams.”
The Dream encapsulates the prospect of being one’s self, and of using one’s self, in a work one feels meant to do. Contemplating it gives a young man a sense of meaning, purpose, and animation. “A man’s Dream is his personal myth, an imagined drama in which he is the central character, a would-be hero engaged in a noble quest.”
Some young men have a grasp of the specific contents of their Dream: they want to excel in a certain field, win a particular award, live in a specific place. For others, the Dream is hazy: they have a strong feeling about its salience, but trouble articulating its contents; they may have a vague sense of wanting to do something extraordinary with their lives, but they’re not sure what. Still others have very little awareness or understanding of their Dream.
Regardless of the state of the Dream when a young man begins his preliminary steps into adulthood, his job over the next decade and a half is to make it more concrete and to build a life structure which is consonant with it. “The novice phase is the crucial time for establishing the Dream for one’s life,” Levinson says. A failure to establish a good foundation for the Dream in a man’s twenties and early thirties will make future transitions more tumultuous, as he will need to make bigger changes to shift his life into greater alignment with it, and yet will find such moves increasingly difficult to pull off as the years progress and his circumstances calcify.
Questions around choosing and establishing the Dream, particularly regarding vocation, thus loom large during the novice phase. And the issue was no easier to figure out for the men in Levinson’s study than it is for today’s. As he reports:
It is often assumed that by his early twenties a man normally ought to have a firm occupational choice and be launched in a well-defined line of work. This assumption is erroneous. . . . We have found that the sequence is longer and more difficult than the above version suggests.
Levinson in fact found that while “an initial serious choice” is typically made between the ages of 17 and 29, “Even when [this] first choice seems to be very definite, it usually turns out to represent a preliminary definition of interests and values”:
The transformation of interests into occupation is rarely a simple or direct process. A young man may struggle for several years to sort out his multiple interests, to discover what occupations, if any, might serve as a vehicle for living out his interests, and to commit himself to a particular line of work. Often, he seriously considers two or more occupational directions.
Sometimes professions have a clear track, as in becoming a doctor, lawyer, or professor. But even here, aspirants may get on that track years after graduating from college with an unrelated degree. And individuals in other fields very often make all kinds of zigs and zags before landing on a more enduring career path. Indeed, Levinson observed that finding one’s occupational footing takes the entire novice phase of adulthood.
Setting up a life structure which supports one’s Dream is not the only task of the novice phase; let us explore all of its attendant periods and the work to be done within each.
The Early Adult Transition
As not only a transition, but a cross-era transition, the Early Adult Transition is a significant period in a man’s life. He is ending his adolescent life structure, and beginning the chapter of adulthood.
There are thus two primary developmental tasks during the Early Adult Transition.
The first is to leave the pre-adult world. As with all transitional periods, terminations, losses, and separations are involved. A young man will in many cases be saying goodbye to his old friends, parents, and hometown as he heads off to college.
Even if he does not become physically independent from his mother and father and chooses to continue living at home (as did 42% of the study participants even five decades ago), he will be moving towards becoming more psychologically, emotionally, and financially independent from them. This separation from his parents can cause conflict, but can also emerge peaceably in the form of a growing indifference or ambivalence about them that is not necessarily unloving, but simply a sign of greater separation and individuation.
In general, a young man at this stage in life will question his place in the world, and begin figuring out what things from childhood he does, and doesn’t, wish to carry forward into adulthood.
Levinson notes that while “All terminations bring a sense of loss, a grief for that which must be given up, a fear that one’s future life as a whole will not provide satisfactions equal to those of the past” they also generate “hope and anticipation of a future brighter than” what has come before.
And indeed, at the same time that certain aspects of his past life are ending, the young man will be looking toward new horizons. This is the second primary developmental task of the Early Adult Transition: “to make a preliminary step into the adult world: to explore its possibilities, to imagine oneself as a participant in it, to make and test some tentative choices before fully entering it.”
An individual in his late teens and early twenties may try on new political opinions and religious beliefs (which he will often adopt with fervent, black-and-white zeal), and experiment with different lifestyles. He will also take his very first steps towards turning the vague fantasies of youth concerning his Dream into more concrete goals and directions.
The character of the Early Adult Transition can be somewhat undulating. During this phase in life, the prefrontal cortex — the “executive” part of the brain that helps check emotional impulses and plan for the future — is beginning to “set,” but is still developing. As a result, sometimes a young man feels stable and balanced, and sometimes he gets caught up in various kinds of “drama”; sometimes he makes decisions with real maturity and foresight, and sometimes he makes utterly immature and boneheaded choices (which, in the decades to come, he will look back on with some mixture of disbelief, embarrassment, humor, and horror).
However, by the age of 21 or 22, about the time he is a senior if he went to college, he will feel an increasing sense of steadiness and self-assurance — a sense that he has found his footing. He is about to enter the adult world.
Entering the Adult World
Even though Entering the Adult World is a “stable,” structure-building phase in the adult life cycle, it is one marked by much tension. Though all such periods have contrasting developmental tasks which an individual must attempt to balance, the two found within this period are particularly antithetical.
As with all stable periods, one primary task of Entering the Adult World is to build one’s life around the choices which emerged from the previous period of transition. A young twentysomething wants to move ahead and make something of himself — and that requires picking a certain direction and committing to it.
The twenties are a perfect period in which to launch projects and kickstart ambitions. Overall, physical energy is at its zenith. Dopamine, which motivates an individual to strive for rewards, is at its peak. The prefrontal cortex has developed sufficiently to make sound decisions, but remains “porous” enough that life retains its fullest emotional charge; an individual thus acts with both emergent maturity and intense feeling.
This combination of energy, ambition, and motivation makes doing things like slumming it in a tiny apartment, sleeping on a friend’s couch, and pulling all-nighters in the service of “making it” seem perfectly doable, and even kind of fun and exciting. This zestful combo, which reaches its height in one’s twenties but lasts in a reduced form into one’s thirties, also explains why modern research done by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi shows that everyone from artists to scientists are most likely to do their best, most impactful work in the first two decades of their career; it’s not because people are more inherently creative at a younger age, but simply because they’re more productive. As Barabasi puts it, as you age and your output decreases, you metaphorically buy fewer “lottery tickets,” and therefore have fewer “wins.”
Yet, at the same time that a twentysomething may be striking out in one direction, other paths remain on his radar; he knows that the provisional life structure he’s chosen for himself, is just that: provisional. He thus wants to keep his options open. He wants to continue to explore alternative possibilities for his life. He craves adventure. He doesn’t want to commit to things too early or too deeply.
It is this contrast between the two primary developmental tasks of Entering the Adult World that creates the distinctive character of this period. As Levinson notes, there is an inherent tension between the desire to move forward with commitments and the desire to keep one’s options open; between not making one’s decisions too soon and not procrastinating them unduly:
One of the great paradoxes of human development is that we are required to make crucial choices before we have the knowledge, judgement, and self-understanding to choose wisely. Yet, if we put off these choices until we feel truly ready, the delay may produce other and greater costs. This is especially true of the two great choices of early adulthood: occupation and marriage.
In each individual’s life, the task of either seeking stability or pursuing exploration may predominate.
In the former case, a man in his twenties makes big, strong commitments early in that decade. This course may give him a head start over his peers, and a more stable structure in which to pursue his goals, but he may also later feel some regret over not testing more possibilities for his life.
In the latter case, commitments in terms of job, place, and relationships are held loosely, changed frequently, and not invested in deeply. Though this course may offer a man more varied experiences in his twenties, as the decade wears on, he typically feels “increasing need and external pressure to work at the other task and to get more order, purpose, and attachment into” his life.
Individuals may fall somewhere between these extremes, where they’re very committed to a certain profession, but not interested in investing deeply in relationships, or vice versa.
No matter whether the pursuit of exploration or stability prevails in a man’s life during this time, both will be present to some degree, and as Levinson notes, “Finding a balance between these tasks is not an easy matter”:
If the first predominates, life has an extremely transient, rootless quality. If the second predominates, there is a danger of committing oneself prematurely to a structure, without sufficient exploration of alternatives. It is an exciting yet often confusing and painful process to explore the new adult world and, at the same time, to try building a stable life within it.
While it’s easy to deride those who experience a “failure to launch,” in Levinson’s study 70% of men experienced moderate or severe crisis in the Early Adult Transition and/or Entering the Adult World, leading him to observe:
These findings cast doubt on the widely held view that young men normally conclude their ‘adolescent’ uncertainty and exploration by the early twenties, after which they choose a path and move along it in a relatively steady, stable way. Very few young men build that first adult life structure without considerable difficulty.
The Age 30 Transition
As we have said, the first structure of a man’s life is always provisional in some way, and while this makeshift quality can at first seem freeing and exciting, the uncertainty attendant to such looseness, sometimes coupled with the stagnation of having many potential options, without earnestly pursuing any of them, can begin to feel more burdensome than fun.
To the man who has been more exploratory in his twenties, “the insecurity and rootlessness of this life begin to weigh on him.” The bachelor who has been happy in bachelorhood may start to question the way in which he has previously related to women, and begin to feel more internal and external pressure, if not to marry, then to get more serious with his dating. A man who’s moved from one temporary job to the next may find an increasing desire to put down greater roots. On the other hand, the man who has already made big commitments may find they aren’t leading down a path he finds satisfactory, and that he feels ready for some kind of change.
More than half the men in Levinson’s study “experienced their lives [in their late twenties] as incomplete, oppressive, not going anywhere, or heading in the wrong direction.” At the same time, they felt a greater sense of urgency about addressing this fact:
At about 28 the provisional quality of the twenties is ending and life is becoming more serious, more ‘for real.’ A voice within the self says: ‘If I am to change my life — if there are things in it I want to modify or exclude, or things missing I want to add — I must now make a start, for soon it will be too late.’
Enter the Age 30 Transition.
This transition offers individuals the opportunity to address the flaws in the first life structure they’ve built, and bring it into closer alignment with their youthful values and Dream — before the novice phase of adulthood comes to a close. Levinson calls this “second chance to create a more satisfactory life structure within early adulthood,” both “a remarkable gift and burden.”
As with all transitions, during the Age 30 Transition a man both reflects on the past and looks into the future. According to Levinson, the first questions to emerge as the period gets underway are:
- What parts of my life must I give up or appreciably change?
- What is missing from my life?
As the transition progresses, other questions emerge as well:
- What have I done with my life?
- What do I want to make of it?
- What new directions should I choose?
During this time, a man reappraises his relationships, career path, and lifestyle and considers options for modifying, altering, and/or enriching them. His primary developmental task in the years between about 28 and 33 is to build a new life structure that he will then spend the rest of his thirties investing in. To have a satisfactory Settling Down period (age 33-40), he must make choices that are aligned with his dreams, abilities, and external realities.
These choices should be more concrete and less open than those in the previous decade of life. They in part involve an attempt to “define a work enterprise and ladder that will carry him to the culmination of his youthful strivings.” If a man grapples successfully with this developmental task, by the end of the Age 30 Transition, he will be more established in the work world and often within his own family, and prepared to make deeper commitments during the rest of his thirties.
As it is with all transitions too, grappling with these developmental tasks can be a process that is either rocky or smooth.
In the latter case, the transition proceeds with little disruption or turmoil and without dramatic alterations to the life structure. This may occur because a man already feels satisfied with his career path, relationships, and the general trajectory of his life. Alternatively, a man’s life may undergo little transformation, even if “the life structure is seriously flawed,” if he “is unable (for various internal and external reasons) to acknowledge the flaws and work at changing them. The illusions and unacknowledged difficulties often surface at a later time, when they exact a heavier cost.” In either case, a man will still make some modifications to his current life structure, whether tangibly or in mindset, so that by the end of the Age 30 Transition, the footing of his life will feel subtly but noticeably different.
The majority of the men in the study did not experience this turning point as smooth, however, and instead underwent what Levinson calls the “age thirty crisis.” A man in this category feels stuck between the future and past — “he finds his present life structure intolerable, yet seems unable to form a better one” — and thus sometimes feels as if he cannot go on. He feels pessimistic, and in the direst cases, entirely hopeless about what the future holds for him.
Many men experience the Age 30 Transition as a crisis because the stakes are indeed high; as Levinson puts it: “The shift from the end of the Age Thirty Transition to the start of the next period is one of the most crucial steps in adult development.” The first years of one’s thirties represent the last years of the “preparatory phase in early adulthood,” and as the novice phase ends, the Settling Down period, in which the choices of adulthood will become more solidified, looms. The Settling Down period will really set the scene for the future decades of life. While there are other transitions which come after it, it becomes increasingly difficult in these latter periods to make big, significant changes in one’s life structure. The Age 30 Transition is therefore the last more malleable transition in the cycle. If there are big changes a man wishes to make to his life structure, it’s best he attempts to make them during these years.
The Settling Down Period
During the Settling Down period, a man takes the changes, modifications, and choices he made during the Age 30 Transition, and deepens his commitment to them. “The underlying task is to ‘settle for’ a few key choices, to create a broader structure around them, to invest oneself as fully as possible in the various components of this structure (such as work, family, community, solitary interests, friendships) and to pursue long-range plans and goals within it. A man has a stronger sense of urgency to ‘get serious,’ to be responsible, to decide what is truly important and shape his life accordingly.”
This overarching task can be broken down into two more specific tasks:
TASK 1. To establish one’s niche in society. To dig in, to build a nest and pursue one’s interests within a defined pattern. This is the initial step in Settling Down. A man needs a sufficiently ordered, stable life. It is time to deepen his roots, to anchor his life more firmly in family, occupation, and community. He takes a greater sense of pride in knowing who he is, having his own home base, developing competence in a chosen craft, belonging, being a valued member of a valued collective entity.
During the Settling Down period, a man “prefers to deal with problems by making accommodations within the existing framework rather than attempting major structural changes.” Stability is the name of the game: If he isn’t married, he often seeks to become so, or to accept the idea (with committed relish, grieved resignation, or something in between) of being a long-term, possibly lifelong, bachelor. Rather than seeking to change professions, or even companies, he’s more likely to want to stick with his current career path.
During his twenties and early thirties, a man is often working overtime to get established and get ahead. It’s go, go, go; he feels like he spends his time constantly running and that he only has enough bandwidth for his career and maybe his significant other. Or if he’s married with kids, that itself is new and overwhelming, and he feels he only has time for home and work. The fact that he spends this phase with his head down, coupled with the inherent egocentricity of youth, gives this period of life a kind of blinkered quality, where he’s not noticing much going on around himself.
Once he reaches the Settling Down period, a man gains a little more security and confidence, and with that, a little more breathing room. He may finally look up and feel like he’s really noticing the people around him for the first time. There’s a good chance he neglected his friendships in the previous years, at first letting the knowledge that he still had connections to old college friends fulfill that emotional need, but then letting even these ties fray. As his thirties progress, however, he begins to feel a desire to reconnect with those old friends, and to invest more in making, and deepening, new friendships. He generally feels less self-centered, and may desire to get more involved in his community at large, to volunteer or participate in local events and activities. This is all part of the inherent drive during the Settling Down period to put down stronger roots.
TASK 2. To work at advancement. Planning, striving to succeed, moving onward and upward, progressing along a timetable. Whereas the first task contributes to the stability and order of defined structure, the second involves progression within the structure. I use the term ‘advancement’ in the broadest sense: building a better life, improving and using one’s skills, becoming more creative, contributing to society and being affirmed by it, according to one’s values. The goals may be wealth, power, prestige, recognition, or scientific or esthetic achievement, particular forms of family and community life. The Settling Down period is the time for a man to fulfill his Dream, pursue his ambitions and become the hero in the scenario of early adulthood.
During the Settling Down period, a man is moving from being a novice, “apprentice” adult to a more established fully-fledged grown-up; “It is a time for a man to join the tribe as a full adult on terms he can accept.” He wants to become a contributor to his “tribe” — whether that’s his profession, community, church, or the nation as a whole. Regardless, “everyone during Settling Down is strongly connected to a segment of his society, responsive to its demands, and seeking the affirmation and rewards it offers.” No matter the content of a man’s chosen Dream, and the nature of the ladder (whether literal or metaphorical, concrete or loose) that he sets for himself during the Age 30 Transition, the thirty-something man wants to feel as if he is climbing up it.
As the developmental tasks of each structure-building period always are, the two tasks of Settling Down are in some ways antithetical: the desire for upwards striving is often incompatible with the desire for stability, for roots — if you’re ambitious, you have to be willing to move, or sacrifice time with family and friends. The balance between these two tensions helps give this period its character.
Becoming One’s Own Man
While the two tasks above run throughout the Settling Down period, the second task takes on greater salience in its second half, and the ages from 36 to 40 represent a distinctive phase Levinson calls “Becoming One’s Own Man.” It is a phase which represents the culmination of the Settling Down period, and the climax of the Early Adulthood era as a whole.
A man’s primary developmental tasks in Becoming One’s Own Man are to accomplish the goals of Settling Down, to advance sufficiently on his ladder, to become a senior member of his enterprise, to speak more clearly with his own voice, to have a greater measure of authority, and to become less dependent (internally as well as externally) on other individuals and institutions in his life.
Here again, the developmental tasks are somewhat antithetical: a man wishes to be self-reliant, but also desires external affirmation; “He wants to be his own man, but he also wants desperately to be understood and appreciated, to have his talents affirmed, to succeed in his enterprise.”
Let’s take a look at both tasks:
Becoming a “Senior” Adult
In regards to becoming a “senior” adult within society as a whole, and his various groups and associations, a man in his late thirties “must move toward becoming a full peer of his former mentors, teachers, bosses.” At this age, a man comes to the realization that these figures are no longer much older and more authoritative than he is, and that he isn’t one of the young guys anymore either. As Levinson observes, “In the late thirties a man is becoming a full generation older than those just entering adulthood.” He shouldn’t continue to try to be a peer, a fellow “cool guy” with those who are significantly younger (and a man in his thirties will gradually realize that they don’t see him as such), nor should he excuse his foibles with, “I don’t know what I’m doing either!” By the Becoming Your Own Man phase, a man should have a good grasp of what he’s doing and feel increasingly comfortable stepping into his own authority — not looking to experts but being the expert.
As a man in his late thirties leaves behind being an apprenticed adult, he may gradually move, or more dramatically break away from, a mentor he’s had since his younger years, who’s now served his purpose. While he may continue to seek the advice of others throughout his life, Levinson found that “Men rarely have mentors after about 40.”
At the same time, a man in his late thirties will start moving into being a mentor himself (a process that will really blossom in the decade to come). This is another reason he shouldn’t cling to being a “junior” adult; he won’t be able to take responsibility for and nurture others, if he doesn’t work to become more established himself.
Achieving an Affirmational Event
As he experiences “the peaking of early adulthood and the first stirrings of what lies beyond,” an individual passing through the Becoming One’s Own Man phase wants both to feel like his work over the past decade and a half or so has counted, has meant something, and “to accomplish goals that in turn will provide a base for his life in the years to come.”
The former desire for affirmation frequently takes the form of a “final goal of advancement,” which “is often defined concretely in terms of a key event which in the man’s mind symbolizes true success. This event carries the ultimate message of his affirmation by society.” This key event can take the form of having a book published, gaining tenure, winning an award, making a significant breakthrough in research, becoming a manager or executive, and so on. It’s an achievement that gives a man the feeling that he’s “made it.”
A man will often attach a lot of fantasies, hopes, and significance to this key event: he feels like if he achieves it, it will mean that all his years of striving were worth it, that he’s a real success, and that the future for him is bright; if the culminating event fails to materialize, he feels that will mean he’s a failure, that he’s lacking in worth, and the future will be grim.
Either outcome precipitates the transitional period to come.
Even if the culminating event of the Settling Down period is a success, a man often finds that the glow of goal achievement and recognition doesn’t entirely live up to his expectations. In addition to celebrating what he’s gained, he’ll also reflect on the costs of attaining it — those aspects of his self and his life that he neglected in order to prioritize others. So too, success along one line, doesn’t mean a man will continue to sustain the very same path in his forties; often, “The top rung of the first ladder turns out to be the bottom rung of the new ladder.” Though he has successfully advanced throughout his thirties, as he hits forty, he’ll feel ready for some kind of change.
Other men prove ready for change at midlife, because their Settling Down period was not so satisfactory. The “key event” they longed for didn’t happen, or didn’t come close to happening the way they longingly envisioned it would. A professor doesn’t get tenure. A would-be writer fails to find a publisher for a book years in the writing. A manager is promoted laterally, and stalls out in his advancement up the ranks (as Levinson notes, the pyramidal structure of business hierarchies ensures that this will be the fate of the vast majority of employees). All kinds of ceilings in advancement can be reached at this point in life.
For a man who hasn’t found any real traction whatsoever with family, place, and/or steady, well-paying work, who is still having trouble honing in on his Dream, whose Settling Down structure was not close to satisfactory either in aligning with the self, or with external circumstances, the end of the thirties can feel especially demoralizing. Progress is late on both a societal timetable and the man’s own. Youth itself can act as its own form of momentum and identity — almost its own purpose in and of itself — and as it ebbs in the latter half of the thirties, one’s lack of real purpose comes into stark relief.
Thus, whether their thirties were a success by their lights or not, men usually feel ready to make some shifts and alterations around the time they reach forty. Unfortunately, change isn’t easy during this period. In fact, the Mid-Life Transition can be so tumultuous, that it’s the only period of adult development typically recognized in popular culture, and while it doesn’t have to be such, is known by the label of Midlife Crisis.
To its possibilities and challenges, we’ll turn next time.