In case you haven’t noticed, the midlife crisis no longer belongs solely to the over-40 crowd.
For younger millennials, in particular, who were raised with an obsessive focus on achievement, the 2020 pandemic put life into stark perspective — prompting elements of a midlife crisis to manifest earlier than they did for their parents’ generation.
Unlike a quarterlife crisis, where a person might compare themselves to friends getting married or feel stuck in a job, millennials are confronting more inward-facing questions, like “What do I really want out of life?” that characterize the “classic” midlife crisis more commonly encountered in our mid-40s or 50s. (Though a recent New York Times opinion piece questions whether the mid-life millennial crisis is a moot point amid seemingly constant crises, from multiple financial crashes and political polarization to the pandemic.)
Brought on by life changes that can disrupt our sense of identity or even trigger an awareness of our own mortality, a “midlife crisis” is typically defined as a season of unrest or unfulfillment. The concept was first introduced in 1965 by Canadian psychoanalyst and social scientist Dr. Elliot Jaques in a paper examining the working patterns of creative geniuses, and popularized a decade later by journalist Gail Sheehy in the pop-psychology bestseller Passages, which suggests that “various conflicts and crises of adult life might be viewed not as failures or disorders, but as the same kinds of developmental surges that we take for granted in children,” according to a New York Times review.
In her mid-thirties, during what she refers to as her “happiest and most productive stage,” Sheehy suddenly found herself floundering at work and in personal relationships. The book, a culmination of more than 100 in-depth case interviews, concludes that making it past the adolescent identity crisis doesn’t mean smooth sailing through adulthood. It’s “just one in a series of waves that everyone must learn to ride.”
Robert Taibbi, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in life transitions, sees a distinct connection between the pandemic and 30-somethings experiencing “early” midlife crises. “The pandemic and changes of the past few years have created challenges,” says Taibbi, “from job insecurities to continued debt to changes in how people date.” But these circumstances, says Taibbi, have also created opportunities to seek or consider large-scale life change, like moving to a new city if your job allows remote work.
He also notes that more people are talking about their personal lives openly on social media, including expressing discontent around not having the life they had hoped for. Today, it’s not unusual for someone to share about being unhappy in their career, the end of a long-term relationship, or fertility struggles — all things that can trigger an “early” mid-life crisis.
By the time many 30-something millennials are able to gain job security, buy a home, or start a family (which is occurring significantly later than their parents due to the rolling crises their generation have faced) they might be questioning whether a family, a mortgage, or being stuck in a 9 to 5 is something they actually want.
“The research shows that most folks move through seven to eight years of stability with two to three years of transition,” says Taibbi. “Those experiencing an ‘early’ midlife crisis might be questioning the career path they’ve started down, a long-term relationship beginning to show wear and tear, or timelines around having children.”
We asked Taibbi about recognizing the signs of an early midlife crisis and how to navigate the experience. Here’s what we learned:
What are a few signs of an early midlife crisis?
- Boredom or discontent; desiring a stronger sense of purpose in life
- Entering a period of transition and change
- Anger, irritability
- Impulsive, out-of-character decision-making
- Restlessness in work, relationships, and life in general
- Resentment about childhood and parents
What can someone do if they’re experiencing signs of an early midlife crisis?
Address the driving problems. Unlike the person who is 10 years out from retirement or has three kids in college, you’re not stuck in a job. And while there will be grief if you end a relationship and there might be years of transition, you have plenty of time to start over and make mistakes. If there are mental health issues that are creating obstacles to your goals, like ADHD, anxiety, or depression, it’s time to tackle them. The key is taking action.
Read more: How to Turn Anxiety Into a Positive
When should someone consider seeing a therapist or counselor?
We all need emotional support to move forward in life, especially those who are more isolated or who have mental health concerns. It doesn’t need to be long term, and doesn’t need to be about your childhood — even seeing someone short term can provide a jump start and a rational perspective versus an emotionally driven one.
A professional can help you sort out priorities and come up with a reasonable game plan if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to start. They can also provide accountability, so you keep moving forward.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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