There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are (will be) comfortable calling themselves a midlifer and those who (will) fight the moniker tooth and nail.
The word ‘midlife’ carries some baggage, with good reason. If you just type the word on Google, you’ll get loads of results about midlife crisis. The very skewed results might give you the impression that both of these — reaching midlife and having a crisis — are inevitable and intertwined. Which, of course, is baloney.
But the main reason that some people shy away from using the word, or referring to themselves as midlifers, is the connotation that being in this phase in life means one has gotten (or is close to getting) ‘old’. And oh boy, talk about a word that comes with baggage.
So, I want in this essay to share some thoughts and my definition of midlife. After all, you’ll be seeing this word quite a bit on this website, the newsletter, and the podcast.
Are you in the middle of your life?
The word ‘midlife’ literally means the middle of life. It follows then that when we get to the middle, voila, we’re a midlifer. But it’s not that simple because what’s generally considered ‘middle’ is a moving target.
In one of the earliest episodes of Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, I heard her say something that made me stop the tape and hit rewind. (See what I did there? I deliberately aged myself. 😉 ) She said, “By the time you reach middle age, which I define somewhere between late 30s and dead, …”
That was new for me. Though there isn’t a consensus on the actual age range, midlife is usually pegged to be between the ages of 45-65.
So, Brené’s definition caught my ears. First, she pinned the start of midlife much earlier than the typical age range at “late 30s”. Second, she didn’t put a limit to the midlife range. We’re in the middle of our lives until we die.
By the time I heard this podcast episode, I had already spent some time studying and reflecting on midlife living. This brief bit from Brené Brown helped me articulate what I had been thinking all along.
Midlife is both a chronological age thing AND a mindset thing.
There’s a popular meme that gets loads of likes wherever I see it: “Age is just a number.” I understand the sentiment behind the sentence. Emotionally, I embrace it.
But there’s a legitimate and rational reason for looking at midlife in terms of this number that is our age. The four stages of life — infancy, youth, middle age, old age — is a natural sequence of development that occurs to all human beings (if we’re lucky).
Physically, our bodies change in accordance with where we are in life age-wise. There’s nothing we can do about when or how our brains develop, when the hormones kick in full gear and when they retire, or when our reproductive years begin and end. It’s all biological.
Mathematically speaking, if we use 80 years old as our projected life span, we hit the middle of our lives when we turn 40. This logical mid-point dovetails neatly with the natural changes that happen to our bodies.
But — and I suppose this is what the popular meme is getting at — there’s also a non-math component to this conversation about who’s in midlife.
Whether you self-identify as a midlifer in your late 30s, 40s, or 50s, is a matter of mindset.
I didn’t identify as a midlifer until I was in my 50s. It’s not that I was denying my age. It’s more that I wasn’t thinking about it actively. The word didn’t even enter my mind. I was going about my life just as I always did in my 30s and 40s. There had not been any reason for me to be acutely aware of my stage in life.
Until one day, it suddenly hit me that I was in midlife. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in my living room, putting together some thingamajig from Ikea. I don’t know how long I was in that position. What I do remember is the stiffness all over my body when I finally unfurled myself and stood up. Now, that stiffness didn’t happen overnight. I’m pretty sure I’ve felt it before but it had never registered so clearly in my mind until that moment. I was 53.
Fortunately, I didn’t get depressed or anything like that. No midlife crisis erupted. Instead, it started a new journey for me toward understanding what midlife living is all about, the gifts and the grunts as I call them. Over time, I formed what I want for, and from my midlife experience and I decided on the kind of midlifer person I want to be.
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There is no end to midlife.
Brené Brown’s brief mention of her definition of midlife on her podcast made me think about the age range.
Again, biologically speaking, I understand why midlife is pegged to end at 65. We enter the fourth stage of our life at that point and our bodies continue to evolve and progress accordingly.
The more I thought about it though, the more I understood and agreed with Brené’s view. Nowadays I also don’t put an age limit to midlife.
Most of us know that a typical story arc has three parts. Hence, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Visually, this is typically represented by storytellers like so.
In the typical story arc, the second act is the long bit in the middle where all kinds of things happen. Characters fumble their way around. They misinterpret signals. They move two steps forward and three steps back. There are hurdles to be surmounted, wins to celebrate, and failures to get past. It’s messy by design. Does this sound familiar?
The third act of a story is where the climax is. The big battle, the resolution, and the denouement. We see what our favorite characters are truly made of. We are promised an insightful and satisfying (or not) conclusion.
If we looked at life as one big story, then our midlife is smack dab somewhere in Act 2, isn’t it?
But because our life is real and not concocted by some master novelist, we don’t really know when our third act begins. Some of us will get into the third act faster than others. And some of us will be in the second act for a really long time.
Unless we have reason to know we are indeed near the end of our life (i.e., we’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness or we’re well in our 90s), we don’t really know when our time might be up. Who knows when you or I will “exit” midlife?
For this reason, I believe that we are perpetually in that middle phase. Until we reach the very end, our life is composed of mini second and third acts, over and over.
We are in the middle of our lives until we die, to paraphrase Brené Brown. And to look at life in this framework is to accept that we will continue to be surprised. We will continue to grow and evolve. There will be wins and losses, celebrations and heartaches. Our story doesn’t end until it ends.
Midlife is what we make it to be.
Sir Richard Branson was asked recently, “Now that you’re at the end of your life, what do you want to achieve?”
No question, it was a poorly phrased question perhaps deliberately so as to generate a kind of response from Branson. He responded in his usual manner, “Hold on a minute! I feel in my prime!”
But later, Branson reflected further on his answer.
Now, I’m 71-years-old, and fully aware of it. But I put a lot of effort into my fitness, manage my diet well, try to keep a healthy balance in my life, and my parents happily both lived long into their nineties. I’ve got a lot of life left to live. There is often lots of talk about legacy for people in the second half of their life, but I prefer to think about what there is left to achieve. I have never been a fan of looking back, and love to look forward to what is coming next. People in later life have an enormous amount left to give, and lots they still want to achieve. You’re never too young or too old to have a good idea and to put it into action.
Midlife simply means the middle of life. At the end of the day, being a midlifer is a chronological thing and a mindset thing. Whether you are in your late 30s, 40s, or 50s, if you feel you are in the middle of your life, then welcome my dear midlifer to what could be the most powerful time in your life.
Like our favorite characters in beloved novels, here’s when we get to see what we’re really about. We get to choose how we want to feel, what we want to do, and who we want to be in the second half of our lives.
Let’s choose wisely.