Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 85–103 | Cite as

Expecting Stress: Americans and the “Midlife Crisis”

  • Elaine Wethington


Despite frequent debunking of the inevitability of the midlife crisis in the research literature (e.g., D. A. Chiriboga, 1997; R. McCrae & P. Costa, 1990), the term remains a media staple, implying that midlife is a time of stress and difficulties brought about by turning 40. A recent review of midlife crisis research (O. G. Brim, 1992) concluded that midlife is not universally stressful and estimated that roughly only 10% of American men might undergo a midlife crisis. This paper examines the disjunction between popular and researcher views of midlife and its “crisis.” Using semistructured telephone survey techniques, this study of 724 participants explores the definitions that Americans hold of the “midlife crisis” and analyzes self-reports of midlife crises. Most Americans (over 90%) could provide a definition of the midlife crisis, and these definitions roughly coincide with the definitions used in psychological and psychoanalytic theories of the midlife crisis. Twenty-six percent of Americans reported that they had a midlife crisis. Qualitative analyses showed that Americans use a much wider definition of what constitutes a midlife crisis than that used by researchers. Despite the identification of this term with male personality development, women were as likely as men to report having had a midlife crisis. In addition, crises occurring well before age 40 and well after age 50 were frequently nominated as midlife crises. Most participants did not attribute their self-reported midlife crises to aging, but rather to major life events that posed a severe threat and challenge during a very broadly-defined period of “midlife.”


Qualitative Analysis Social Psychology Research Literature Telephone Survey Personality Development 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Brandes, S. H. (1985). Forty: The age and the symbol. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.Google Scholar
  2. Brim, O. G. (1976). Theories of the male midlife crisis. The Counseling Psychologist, 6, 2-29.Google Scholar
  3. Brim, O. G. (1992). Ambition. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  4. Brown, G. W., Sklair, F., Harris, T. O., & Birley, J. L. T. (1973). Life-events and psychiatric disorders. Part I: Some methodological considerations. Psychological Medicine, 3, 74-87.Google Scholar
  5. Cherlin, A. (1992). Marriage, divorce, remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Chiriboga, D. A. (1997). Crisis, challenge, and stability in the middle years. In M. E. Lachman & J. B. James (Eds.), Multiple paths of midlife development (pp. 293-322). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  7. Clausen, J. A. (1995). Gender, contexts, and turning points in adults' lives. In P. E. Moen, G. Elder, & K. Luscher (Eds), Examining lives in context: perspectives on the ecology of human development (pp. 365-389). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  8. Clausen, J. A. (1997). Life reviews and life stories. In J. Z. Giele & G. H. Elder (Eds.), Methods of life course research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (pp. 189-212). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  9. Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  10. Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Jaques, E. (1965). Death and the midlife crisis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 46, 502-514.Google Scholar
  12. Kessler, R. C., Andrews, G., Mroczek, D., Ustun, B., & Wittchen, H.-U. (in press). The World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short-Form (CIDI-SF). International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research. Google Scholar
  13. Levinson, D. C., Darrow, E. B., Klein, M. H., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  14. Levinson, D., & Levinson, J. (1996). The seasons of a woman's life. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  15. Lowenthal, M. J., Thurnher, M., & Chiriboga, D. A. (1975). Four stages of life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  16. McCrae, R., & Costa, P. (1990). Personality in adulthood. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  17. McFarland, C., Ross, M., & Giltrow, M. (1992). Biased recollections in older adults: The role of implicit theories of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081.Google Scholar
  18. Moen, P. E., & Wethington, E. (1999). Midlife development in a life course context. In S. L. Willis & J. D. Reid (Eds.), Life in the middle (pp. 3-23). San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  19. Mroczek, D., & Kolarz, D. (1998). The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1333-1349.Google Scholar
  20. Rosenberg, S. D., Rosenberg, H. J., & Farrell, M. P. (1999). The midlife crisis revisited. In S. L. Willis & J. D. Reid (Eds.), Life in the middle (pp. 47-73). San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  21. Ross, M., & Newby-Clark, I. (1998). Construing the past and the future. Social Cognition, 16, 133-150.Google Scholar
  22. Roth, P. (2000). The human stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  23. Rubin, D. C., Rahhal, T. A., & Poon, L. W. (1998). Things learned early in adulthood are remembered best. Memory and Cognition, 26, 3-19.Google Scholar
  24. Ryff, C. D., Schmutte, P. S., & Less, Y. H. (1996). How children turn out: Implications for parental self-evaluation. In C. D. Ryff & M. M. Seltzer (Eds.), The Parental experience in midlife (pp. 383-422). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  25. Samuelson, R. (1996). The good life and its discontents: The American Dream in the age of entitlement 1945-1995. New York: Times Books.Google Scholar
  26. Sheehy, G. (1976). Passages. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.Google Scholar
  27. Thurnher, M. (1983). Turning points and developmental change: Subjective and “objective” assessments. Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 53, 52-60.Google Scholar
  28. Wethington, E., Brown, G. W., & Kessler, R. C. (1995). Interview measurement of stressful life events. In S. Cohen, R. C. Kessler, & L. U. Gordon (Eds.), Measuring stress: A guide for health and social scientists (pp. 59-79). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Wethington, E., Cooper, H., & Holmes, C. S. (1997). Turning points in midlife. In I. H. Gotlib & B. Wheaton (Eds.), Stress and adversity across the life course: Trajectories and turning points (pp. 215-231). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Wethington, E., Kessler, R. C., & Pixley, J. E. (in press). Psychological turning points and the “midlife crisis.” In C. D. Ryff & R. C. Kessler (Eds.), Midlife in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  31. Wheaton, B., & Gotlib, I. N. (1997). Trajectories and turning points across the Life Course: Concepts and Themes. In I. N. Gotlib & B. Wheaton (Eds.), Stress and adversity across the life course: Trajectories and turning points (pp. 1-25). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elaine Wethington
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Human Development, Department of SociologyCornell UniversityIthaca

Personalised recommendations