The Winding Road of the Middle Years

As a trainer of psychotherapists and career counsellors, I’ve had to come to an understanding of developmental stages in adult life. It just won’t do to assume all grown ups have similar needs, irrespective of age. The things that move and motivate us shift as we grow older. As a friend of mine is inclined to say in regards to the mindset of aging — more and more matters less and less, but what matters, matters more and more. But that friend is in his 50s, usually a smoother time than the 40s.

Kodak-framed photo of five lines of messy "i have waited" sentencesThanks to DLP for this Flickr Creative Commons image.

There are a few intelligent books on the middle years. I’m fortunate to have had many clients and students to work with on these themes. Erik Erikson’s work on child psychology is still prevalent and relevant decades after his prime, but his work with adult stages of development just doesn’t cut the mustard — young adulthood, middle age and later life. Is that really it? Not too subtle, but it wasn’t really his area. Experience tells me there is tremendous inner growth throughout adulthood.

When we’re young, outer changes accompany the inner ones as we master our physical body, refine our cognitions and begin to penetrate our emotions. Outer changes are profoundly obvious during the first 20 years. Then the physical changes slow down while our personality continues to develop and mature. We think we’re pretty grown up in our 20s and 30s as we flex our muscles in the world. Then around the age of 40 entirely new challenges arise. There is profound wisdom in the findings of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It seems to me that 42 is indeed the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.”

The answer to the ultimate question needs a context (i.e., the question). Here we get to the heart of the matter and the root of the word — in our early 40s it’s time to start our personal quest. Without wanting to be too dramatic, this is the time when the inner journey becomes increasingly insistent. Previously, we’ve always known what we had to do. All of our developmental tasks have taken place naturally as a result of the demands of our external world — parents, peers, jobs, establishing a home and family, career. Having stretched ourselves into the outer world, we might not recognize that now the journey turns inward.

While the East has always embraced the wisdom of our later years, we in the West generally consider that we begin to lose our powers. We are heavily invested in our material well-being. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a developmental stage that belongs to our 30s. There is a natural flow in life. Getting stuck at any of these stages has its perils.

The early 40s is a risky and often scary time. Our culture tends to measure the success of a life by comfort, social power and materialistic accumulation. It’s time to let go of that as our driver. We can try to bury ourselves in the tried and true — bigger and better homes, cars, holidays — or resort to the diversions of alcohol and affairs. This is the typical mid-life crisis — the crisis of authenticity.

The pleasures of our earlier years will never be the same again. The only real fulfilment from here on in lies through deepening our sense of self and connection to things greater than self. It’s time to appreciate quality of life rather than standard of living. Time to practice minimalism. We can look to cultivate conversations that matter with people that matter. We can be bold and begin to practice our highest ideals. It’s a rich time if we can begin to accept that there is no roadmap, that we can let go of the expectations of how life should be. It’s time to turn our minds to inspiring models of unconventionality and leadership. Because that’s what we need to master in our own lives.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, Be yourself, everyone else is taken.


Read about Garry’s one-to-one midlife counselling