While the idea of adult development being a lifelong process, and of there being unique phases within it, is not widely known in popular culture, most people have probably heard of having a “midlife crisis.” The phrase conjures up an image of a cringe-worthy middle-aged man trading in his old clothes, wife, and car for newer models.
Psychologist Daniel J. Levinson’s research did find that many men do indeed experience a crisis during the period he calls the Mid-Life Transition, but plenty experience crises during other transitional periods in the life cycle as well. (Indeed, people often picture a fiftysomething when they picture the midlife crisis, so that what they may actually be thinking of is a man sorting out his issues during the Age 50 Transition, which comes later in the cycle).
Further, having a crisis of some kind during the Mid-Life Transition doesn’t typically resemble the popular stereotype, and is only one possible outcome of this broader transitional period.
That all being said, crisis is in fact the most common outcome of this phase, and there are two reasons for that. The first is that the Mid-Life Transition is filled with many substantial shifts to navigate and significant developmental tasks to grapple with. The second is that there is little support and “intel” available on what the terrain of this season looks like; you’ll find plenty of resources out there on starting a career, starting a marriage, starting a family, but what happens once you’re a decade or two into these enterprises?
Below we attempt to fill in these gaps, explaining the tasks in play, and the landscape to expect, when you’re traversing what Carl Jung called “the noon of life.”
The Developmental Tasks of the Mid-Life Transition
The Mid-Life Transition begins around age 40 and lasts about five years until around 45, give or take 1-2 years on either side. It never begins before 38 or after 43.
The Mid-Life Transition is such a significant juncture in the life cycle because it not only serves as a transition between phases, but as a transition between eras. The era of Early Adulthood must be terminated, and the era of Middle Adulthood initiated. The Mid-Life Transition serves as a bridge between the two, over which every man must cross.
During early adulthood, youth acts as a source of momentum and identity — even a sense of purpose in and of itself. As a man’s youth recedes, he must confront the real shoreline of his life: What is his true identity? What is his true purpose?
As with all transitional periods, the Mid-Life Transition begins with a man’s reexamination of the past — an appraisal of what he’s done with his life previously. As Levinson observes, every aspect of his current life structure comes into question, he contemplates what is and isn’t working, and the following types of questions come to the fore:
- What have I done with my life?
- Where am I now?
- What do I really get from and give to my wife, children, friends, work, community, and self?
- What is it I truly want for myself and others?
- What are my central values and how are they reflected in my life?
- What are my greatest talents and how am I using (or wasting) them?
- What have I done with my early Dream and what do I want with it now?
- Can I live in a way that combines my current desires, values, and talents?
- Of what value is my life to society, to other persons, and especially to myself?
- How satisfactory is my present life structure — how suitable for the self, how viable in the world — and how shall I change it to provide a better basis for the future?
Part of this questioning process, Levinson writes, requires that a man face the realities of his life; “he must deal with the disparity between what he is and what he dreamed of becoming.” At the same time, he wants to find ways to prevent that gap from growing any wider, to figure out what might still reasonably be accomplished in the decades which remain. With his life halfway through, a man looks back in order to see how he might make better use of his time moving forward.
In every season of adulthood, certain aspects of the self are particularly invested in, to the inevitable neglect of others. Those elements which get ignored during one phase then reemerge in a subsequent one, demanding some attention. During this particular season, a man may realize that he’s ignored his professional dreams, his roles as husband and father, his spiritual life, and/or other aspects of self, and self-in-world:
A man hears the voice of an identity or relationship given up in acquiescence to parental or other authority; of an internal figure who wants to be an athlete or nomad or artist, to marry for love or remain a bachelor, to get rich or enter the clergy or live a sensual carefree life — possibilities set aside earlier to become what he is now. During the Mid-Life Transition he must learn to listen attentively to these voices and decide consciously what part he will give them in his life.
As a man reevaluates where he’s been and where he currently resides, he considers where he wants to go next. He explores new alternatives and options and experiments with making choices “that will modify the existing life structure and provide the central elements for a new one.” As with all transitions in the life cycle, these changes may involve big decisions like divorce, or smaller, subtler shifts in attitude and perspective.
Befitting the significance of this cross-era transition, the specific areas which require both reflection and action — the period’s primary developmental tasks — are ample and meaty. We describe them below.
Grieving and Accepting the Passing of Youth
Though testosterone begins its gradual decline around age 30, a man does not feel significantly different in this decade from how he did in his twenties. His energy levels and physical capabilities are still very much at their apex; in fact, many a dedicated thirtysomething can get himself into even better shape than he was in his younger years.
As a man enters his forties, however, he begins to notice a reduction in his physical vim, vigor, and virility. Certainly, his fitness and energy do not suddenly fall off a cliff; the diminishment is subtle and gradual. But it is perceptible: pushing oneself athletically feels a little harder and recovery from exercise comes a little slower; the energy to work overtime, to go out rather than stay in, to skip sleep and pull an all-nighter, is more difficult to muster; strength and agility go down, while the number of niggling aches and pains go up. Again, the difference in these areas from the thirties is not dramatic, and a man can remain very healthy and vital throughout his forties and the years to come. But he can recognize that he’s fallen off a bit from the peak of his physical powers (and probably from the peak of his mental powers too), and even if the change is small, it often still grieves him and reminds him of his mortality.
Not only is it hard for a man to accept the fact that his body feels older, it is hard for him to countenance that it looks older too. Thirtysomethings typically look much like their twentysomething selves, but in one’s forties, the years finally begin to show. The freshness of youth ebbs from a man’s visage. Even if not particularly vain, even if he does not much rue the maturation of his appearance, a man often still finds it a little discombobulating to note the contrast between how he feels on the inside and how he looks on the outside. In many ways, he still feels like, and imagines himself as, the 20-year-old of two decades back; how strange it is then, to know that as he walks down, say, the aisle of an airplane, and the passengers look up and make their instant, instinctive calculation of the age and sex of each person who passes by, their assessment spits out: “middle-aged man.”
How a man wears his age goes beyond surface appearance, to how others relate to him. When he was in his mid-thirties, those in their early twenties thought of him as a kind of older brother; now that he is a full generation removed from them, they “regard him more as boss or ‘dad’ than peer, and feel more separate from him by the barriers of age, authority, and social network.” Even to those in their thirties, a man in his mid-forties is perceived as being significantly older (disproportionate to what their actual gap in years would suggest). As Levinson observes, “He is becoming more distant from (and dominant over) the world of early adulthood. He is becoming a ‘senior’ adult, something quite different from the ‘junior’ adulthood of the thirties and the ‘novice’ adulthood of the twenties.” While in time this shift can come to be embraced with satisfaction, “Initially he may feel great disappointment and loss at being ejected from the youthful generation.”
In these ways and others, a man entering his forties is reminded that the period of early adulthood has come to an end, and he mourns the passing of his youth. It is normal and natural to grieve over this loss. But while youth in chronological and biological terms may be in decline during the Mid-Life Transition, a man should not be saying goodbye to youth as an energy. Levinson notes that the energies of both the Young and the Old are present in every period, and a man’s task is never to jettison one or the other, but to achieve a balance in this polarity appropriate to each respective season.
During the midlife period, this means neither resigning one’s self to a decrepit old age — becoming languid, complacent, and dull — nor desperately trying to cling to one’s youthful lifestyle by retaining habits in dress, behavior, and mindset that read as jarringly unsuited to this more senior season (the effect of which is akin to seeing someone tromping through the snow dressed in shorts and a t-shirt).
As Levinson observes:
A major developmental task of the Mid-Life Transition is to confront the Young and the Old within oneself and seek new ways of being Young/Old. A man must give up certain of his former youthful qualities — some with regret, some with relief or satisfaction –while retaining and transforming other qualities that he can integrate into his new life. And he must find positive meanings of being ‘older.’
The goal is to “create a middle-aged self, wiser and more mature than before yet still connected to the youthful sources of energy, imagination, and daring.” A man should seek to embrace and enjoy being in positions of greater responsibility and authority in family, work, and civic organizations, to utilize a confidence born from seasoning, and yet remain open to further learning, new ideas, and fresh experiences; he should value the solid steadiness of the Old, while holding onto the zest for continuous development which characterizes the Young.
A man in the Mid-Life Transition creates a new integration of the Young/Old polarity not only by rebalancing the qualities of maturity and spirit, but also by rebalancing the ways in which he relates to different generations:
At mid-life a man may have much contact with persons in their twenties and thirties, but he cannot participate as a full peer in their world. Even when the relationships are equal in many respects, he must offer them something distinctive that reflects his greater maturity, his membership in the generation of middle adulthood. As he forms a social base in his own generation, he can more readily reach across the generational boundaries and establish relationships of mutual benefit. He can keep what is youthful in himself, get in touch with both the Young and the Old in others, and use his middle age to enrich his relationships with the younger and older generations. If he remains too tied to young adults, he will be isolated from his own generation and split off from the Old in himself, and he may then lose all generational ties. At the other extreme, his ties with younger people may atrophy; but this is likely to mean that he is alienated from the Young in himself and has become prematurely Old.
Rejiggering the Dream and Recognizing Its Illusions
Throughout his twenties and thirties, a man has been working on what Levinson calls “the Dream” — a vision of the good life in adulthood that’s one part real, one part fantasy, and particularly concerns finding a purposeful vocation that will utilize his potential, be rewarding in terms of money, fame, security, and/or recognition, and generally lead to meaning and happiness.
By the time he reaches forty, a man will have a pretty good idea as to whether he’s been largely successful in achieving his aims or not, and in either case, the way he thinks about his Dream and the place he gives it in his life, will transform over the next several years.
Even if a man has done well with his ambitions during his thirties, has achieved the culminating, affirming event (a promotion, the publication of a book, a breakthrough in research, an award, etc.) in the latter part of the decade which often marks the end of the Settling Down period and the beginning of the Mid-Life Transition, he still finds himself at a pivot point. He asks himself, “Where do I go from here?”
Having obtained many of his goals, he may have trouble formulating new ones that feel worthwhile and sufficiently animating. He will consider whether he feels motivated to continue on basically the same path he’s been on, while worrying that his best, most creative work is behind him. Or he may feel the desire to pursue a new direction; this pivot may constitute a dramatic move to an entirely different career, but frequently takes the form of a shift within his current one: a researcher looks to spend more time teaching and less time in the lab; a tradesman, increasingly feeling the toll of his work on his body, seeks to move into a more managerial or supervisory role.
On the other side of the coin, a man who has struggled to realize his ambitions in his thirties now faces the question of what to do with his failures. During the Mid-Life Transition he comes to realize the fantastical qualities of his Dream and the limitations of his ability to attain it. He confronts the fact that he may never have had a Dream, or betrayed it, or pursued the wrong one. He is disabused of his youthful notion that anything is possible if one hustles hard enough; he recognizes that not all opportunities are still open to him, and that some doors have been irrevocably shut. As he accepts these realities, Levinson writes, he considers his options for moving forward:
Often, a man who has worked hard during his thirties comes to recognize in the Mid-Life Transition that his cumulated achievements and skills do not provide a basis for further advancement. He cannot become a writer, educator, political leader, or violin maker of the caliber he imagined. He will never rise to the level he sought in the military, the corporation, or the church. He will fall far short of his early Dream. This is a crucial turning point. He may decide to continue in his present job, doing work that is increasingly routine and humiliating. He may change to another job, or another occupation, that offers more challenge and satisfaction. Or he may reduce his interest in work, performing well enough to keep employed but investing himself more in other aspects of life such as family or leisure.
The man who wishes to pursue an entirely different vocation finds himself in a difficult position — stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. To break away from a life structure he may have been building for a decade or more will create significant chaos and heavy costs. But to stay in a job he finds unsatisfying and even painful carries its own set of burdens. It is essentially impossible, Levinson observes, for a man in this position to know which course will exact the highest price and which will turn out “best” for him. There have certainly been plenty of men in history who published their first bestselling book or started a successful business or made a groundbreaking scientific discovery in their forties or fifties. And there are many more who continued to strive toward their dream, and continued to flounder. Which category will he fall into? A man must simply make his choice and accept its consequences.
“No matter how well or poorly [a man] has done with the ambitions of his thirties,” Levinson reports, “he is likely to experience letdown in the Mid-Life Transition.” Regardless of how much he did or didn’t accomplish in years previous, during this stage of life his “basic orientation towards success and failure normally begins to change.”
The man who has been successful up until this point realizes that his accomplishments haven’t brought the ultimate happiness and satisfaction that he imagined they would. He questions what real value his work has given to himself and to others. And he realizes that his achievements have come with costs — that in striving to attain certain rewards, he has sacrificed parts of his self, his life, and his relationships with loved ones.
The man who has not obtained outward success has a harder, more bitterness- and regret-filled time recognizing that such success may not hold the value he supposed it did in his younger years. But eventually he too comes to feel that professional achievement is not the end-all, be-all of existence. He realizes that he is not his job, and that there may be other elements of life worth investing in.
In neither case do men entirely give up their ambitions; they simply move away from having these ambitions tyrannize them. “The task is not to get rid of the Dream altogether, but to reduce its excessive power: to make its demands less absolute; to make success less essential and failure less disastrous; to diminish the magical-illusory qualities.” A man at midlife typically becomes less hard-charging, befitting the revisions he has undergone both in his energy levels and in the worth he lends to climbing yet another rung of the ladder. While he doesn’t lose the desire for excellence, power, and recognition altogether, he gives “more emphasis to the quality of experience, to the intrinsic value of his work and products, and their meaning to himself and others.”
Investing in Inner Work and Individuation
In Early Adulthood, a man is very externally engaged with work and family. It’s go, go, go as he strives to build up the “container” of his life. There’s not much time for solitude and reflection, for developing a rich inner life. During the Mid-Life Transition, a desire to address this neglected area of the self arises, as does the needed space in which to do so: At middle-age, a man’s work is frequently less all-consuming; his children are less needy; his finances are more secure. Along with these changes, comes a quieting and mellowing of his life; breathing room opens up in which to shift some of his attention from traversing the terrain of the outward world to exploring the interior landscapes of self and soul. As Levinson puts it, “Having been overly engaged in worldly struggles, he needs to become more engaged with himself. . . . He needs to separate himself from the striving ego and the external pressures, so that he can better hear the voices from within.” Having found that professional success doesn’t bring ultimate fulfillment, a man starts searching for what does.
Thinkers like Carl Jung and Richard Rohr refer to this shift as moving from the first to the second half of life; David Brooks describes it as beginning one’s ascent up life’s second mountain, after scaling its first and being disillusioned with the view. As part of this shift, Levinson says, a man “may change appreciably in social outlook, in personal values, in what he wants to give the world, in what he wants to be for himself.”
Part of the work of the second half of life is recognizing illusions in the way one formerly thought the world worked. While a healthy dose of ego was needed to climb life’s first mountain, now a man begins to reel the ego in a little. He sees the flaws in his formerly black and white modes of thinking. Whereas in his younger years, a man felt the need to define himself as this or that, to frame his beliefs as either/or, he comes to find truth in nuance and paradox, in non-dualistic thinking. He becomes comfortable embracing the ways in which he is both masculine and feminine, traditional and progressive, faithful and doubtful, young and old, and so on.
Part of the work of the second half of life also involves individuation, a process which happens in every period of the life cycle, but which previously manifested most strongly in the Early Adult Transition (17-22). The feelings which mark adolescence — of stepping out, finding yourself, establishing your footing, seeking for what matters to you most — resurge during the Mid-Life Transition. As Levinson describes it, through the process of individuation, a man “forms a clearer boundary between self and world. He forms a stronger sense of who he is and what he wants, and a more realistic, sophisticated view of the world: what it is like, what it offers him and demands from him. Greater individuation allows him to be more separate from the world, to be more independent and self-generating.”
During this time, a man becomes less reliant on external stimulation and affirmation. He craves social approval less, and solitude more. He undergoes a process Levinson calls “detribalization” in which “He becomes more critical of the tribe — the particular groups, institutions, and traditions that have the greatest significance for him . . . He is less dependent on tribal rewards, more questioning of tribal values.”
Paradoxically, though individuation moves a man towards becoming more separate and independent from the world, “it also gives him the confidence and understanding to have more intense attachments in the world and to feel more fully part of it.”
Reorienting His Relationships With His Family
A man often has young children during Early Adulthood, and while they are at times challenging, they add to the fecund, idyllic mood of the “summer season” of life. While he is still procreating, he continues to feel almost immortal. But as his children get older, Levinson notes, “Both father and offspring must give meaning to the fact that they are approaching early adulthood while he is leaving it behind.” With this shift, a man comes to a greater recognition of his own mortality, and to a reorientation in his relationships with his children, as well as his wife.
If a man had children in his early to mid-twenties, then they are beginning to leave home by the time he reaches the Mid-Life Transition. If he had them in his late twenties to early thirties, then they are beginning to reach adolescence. In the former case, a man may experience a mixture of loss and relief as he adjusts to being an empty nester. In the latter case, he may experience increasing conflict with his teenage children, especially if they are more rebellious. In both cases, the time spent in intensive, hands-on parenting is reduced; indeed, the sad irony of life is that while a man’s professional stress mellows out somewhat in his forties, giving him more time to spend with his kids than he had when they were young, his now adolescent children are no longer as interested in hanging out with him.
In both cases too, the fortysomething father has to figure out a new way of relating to his kids, now that they are not the young, unquestioning, adoring toddlers who used to run to the door to greet their daddy when he came home from work. He has to learn to see them as increasingly independent humans who have their own ideas and dreams. Possible pitfalls abound: he may envy their youth as his abates; if he gave up his Dream, he may resent theirs, or want to live vicariously through it; or he may be overly critical if he feels they’re making the same mistakes with their life as he did. But he may also enjoy seeing their mature personalities emerge, and becoming more of a friend as they mature into fellow adults.
As a man’s relationship with his children changes, so does his relationship with his wife. The couple is returning to the state in which they began their marriage, where the “family” centered on just the two of them. If the spouses have “kept in touch” with each other over the years, this transition can be fairly smooth. But if they have been leading largely separate lives, it may be difficult to reconnect, to concentrate more of their relational energies on each other.
Flaws which have existed in the marriage for some time, but which were deprioritized in the busyness of the spouses’ thirties and submerged to create a joint front in raising their children, may come to the fore at this time. To the extent that these flaws were countenanced by the husband during his Becoming One’s Own Man Period (age 36-40), he was apt to blame the problems on his wife. During the Mid-Life Transition, when a man’s thinking is becoming more nuanced, and less either/or, he is more likely to see the ways they have both contributed to their marital issues.
In struggling during this transition both in his marriage and with rebalancing the Old/Young polarity, a man may go the route so stereotypical of the “midlife crisis” in having an affair with a younger woman. Alternatively, he may recommit to working on his current marriage, strengthening it for the decades to come.
Building His Legacy
Given that a man in this stage of life is feeling his age, contemplating his mortality, becoming a little disillusioned with the ultimate value of his professional work, and seeking for greater meaning, it is unsurprising, Levinson observes, that “in the Mid-Life Transition the meaning of legacy deepens and the task of building a legacy acquires its greatest developmental significance.” With his life halfway over, a man thinks about the parts of himself that will live on, and feels “he has not [yet] contributed enough to the world. What he has been and what he has produced are of little consequence. In the remaining years he wants to do more, to be more, to give his life a meaning that will live after his death.”
What this legacy looks like varies from individual to individual. Fathers naturally reflect on how their children are turning out. Teachers and doctors think about their relationships with their students and patients, respectively, and how they might exercise a more positive influence through their work with them. An entrepreneur or author may look to create a lasting product or book — to launch a project that is more driven by a belief in its intrinsic worth than its profit potential. Some men become interested in making charitable contributions or becoming involved with volunteer work. Overall, men of this age feel a greater desire to be creative and generative.
One of the key ways a man at midlife may lean into his legacy is by becoming a mentor. After age 40, a man ceases to be a protégé, and instead becomes an adviser to others. While a man was of course capable of serving as a kind of guide in his younger years, by doing the developmental work of the Mid-Life Transition, he is able to become the genuine article — a mentor who has the sense of confidence, assurance, establishment, experience, gravitas, and perspective to lead those in the rising ranks of adulthood. The work he does on his self during this season of life helps him facilitate the development of other selves.
Possible Outcomes of the Mid-Life Transition
Whatever the nature of the developmental work done, and however modest or profound the structural changes wrought, the individual’s life in the mid-forties will differ in crucial respects from that of the late thirties. —Daniel J. Levinson
Given the number, weight, and, it wouldn’t be wrong to say sophistication, of the developmental tasks of the Mid-Life Transition, it’s not surprising that many men find it difficult to navigate this phase in the life cycle. And in fact, a majority of the participants in Levinson’s study had a moderate to severe crisis during this period (and Levinson predicted that those who didn’t, would likely experience one later during the Age 50 Transition). This is not to say that they embodied the pop cultural cliché of the midlife crisis, and all ran out to find young girlfriends and buy fast sports cars, but that they struggled to a significant extent with figuring out how to move forward with one or more of the above pivot points. Many felt stuck, being dissatisfied with their current state of affairs, but unsure of how to go on.
It’s hard to deal with the ghosts of formerly neglected parts of the self, come back to haunt; it’s hard to face the illusions you’ve held about life; it’s hard to doubt the structure in which you’ve invested so much; it’s hard to want to change and yet feel internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo; it’s hard to stand naked, stripped of the pseudo-purpose of youth; it’s hard to feel you’ve nearly run out of scratch pad on which to make big mistakes and big changes. It’s simply not easy for anyone to say goodbye to early adulthood — an era a man has known for a quarter-century at this point — to enter the new, yet untrodden epoch of midlife.
To find oneself in crisis is not necessarily a bad thing; some questioning is necessary to make productive changes and maintain a healthy sense of self in the years to come. As we’ve mentioned previously, some men pass through a transition smoothly because they are generally satisfied with their current life structure, but some avoid turmoil only because they refuse to examine its flaws. Out of touch with their own desires, they ignore issues that need to be addressed and which attempts at submersion will not fix; such issues will only manifest themselves as deeper chaos, conflict, and discontent as the years go on.
While the questioning process itself is neutral in nature, it can be engaged either well or poorly, and lead to positive or negative outcomes.
For some men, grief over lost youth, recrimination over so much wasted time, regret that their childhood dreams will likely never come true, become crushing blows from which they never truly recover. They feel lost without the sense of hopeful rising and progressive momentum which marked their younger years. They worry that what they are now are all they will ever be, and struggle to find a sense of meaning and a way forward. For these men, Levinson observes, the next years, and sometimes decades, of their lives are marked by physical and mental deterioration:
Some men have suffered such irreparable defeats in pre-adulthood or early adulthood, and have been able to work so little on the tasks of the Mid-Life Transition, that they lack the inner and outer resources for creating a minimally adequate life structure in middle adulthood. They face a middle age of constriction and decline.
Other men form a life structure that is reasonably viable in the world but poorly connected to the self. They perform their social roles and do their bit for themselves and others, but their lives are lacking in inner excitement.
Unfortunately, it seems that the lives of the majority of men follow this course, for modern research has shown that, on average, male unhappiness peaks at age 50.
But there is hope.
Other men, even if they’ve experienced prior setbacks, use “the Mid-Life Transition to form the basis for a new life. [Their] failure is in some senses a boon. It shakes [them] out of a rut . . . [They] find new goals, new satisfactions, new aspects of the self to be developed and enjoyed.”
The man who adopts this type of mindset at midlife finds a way to continue to feel as if he is progressing, by moving away from using the markers of external achievement as a gauge of how well he is doing. “The quality of his total life acquires greater significance than the quantity of his success in any single dimension.” He experiences satisfaction in “Acquiring a greater individuality, a firmer sense of who he is and what matters most to him,” and while he feels a touch of sadness as “the omnipotent Young hero recedes,” he celebrates the fact that “in his place emerges a middle-aged man with more knowledge of his limitations as well as greater power and authority.” He realizes he has yet “major contributions to offer as father, grandfather, son, brother, husband, lover, friend, mentor, healer, leader, mediator, authority, author, creator, and appreciator of the human heritage.”
In fact, if a man takes the right steps and adopts the right attitude, it’s possible for:
middle adulthood [to be] the fullest and most creative season in the cycle. [Men] are less tyrannized by the ambitions, passions, and illusions of youth. They can be more deeply attached to others and yet more separate, more centered in the self. For them, the season passes in its best and most satisfying rhythm.
Midlife is the fall season within the life cycle, and like its annual counterpart, it may be a time in which one feels a growing chill and detects the scent of death in the air. Yet fall is many a man’s favorite season of the year, and it may turn out to be his favorite season in the life cycle as well.
Perhaps what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the annual autumn is also true of the autumn of age: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
The phases of adult development do not stop after the Mid-Life Transition; in the years to come a man “will go through a similar sequence of building, modifying, and rebuilding the life structure.” But as Levinson’s study largely concentrated on the lives of men up until the age of 45, and the hypotheses he made about subsequent phases are more speculative, we will end our series here. Those interested in Levinson’s hypotheses on the landscape of midlife and beyond, should pick up a copy of The Seasons of a Man’s Life.
Three big takeaways from the periods we have covered stand out.
The first is that life is not static after one’s teenage years. You don’t move through dramatic periods of development during adolescence, only to coast through an entirely monolithic adulthood. You don’t set up a permanent life structure in your twenties that lasts ‘til old age. Instead, times of creation and destruction, stability and malleability, enrichment and evolution continue to alternate throughout one’s entire lifetime. There are always more decisions to make, more stakes to weigh. There are always new directions to test. Uncertainty never entirely ceases, but neither does the potential for progression.
The second thing to note is that some degree of chaos and confusion in life is the norm, rather than the exception. The majority of men in Levinson’s study experienced some form of discontent, crisis, or struggle in every phase of the cycle. Given the shiny, happy imagery that we are surrounded with through advertising and social media, it’s easy to forget the basic truth that life is inherently hard. While we should become increasingly adept at navigating its challenging landscape as we mature, new, never-before-traversed terrain never stops emerging, perennially creating pockets of befuddlement and the need for reorientation.
Third, no season of life is inherently better or worse than another. Just as with the seasons of the year, they’re all just different, with unique drawbacks and consolations. The pleasures of the summer season, whether we’re thinking in terms of the annual year or of age, may be more spontaneous, more passively accessible, than those of fall or winter. But the man who intentionally beats back inertia to literally and metaphorically get outside and ski scenic slopes or snowshoe shimmering trails, sees that the cold is not a curse, but an opportunity for singular pursuits.
Finally, as a personal observation, one progressive pattern that runs throughout all the periods in the life cycle, is that every half decade or so you seem to be able to see the whole landscape of life from a slightly less blinkered, slightly higher, slightly more panoramic perspective. A little more of the curtain over the big picture gets pulled back. It’s one of the great satisfactions of aging, so watch for it and enjoy the (increasingly bird’s-eye) view.