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He — the person is usually depicted as a "he" — turns off the alarm, stares into a bowl of soggy cereal, puts on a tired-looking suit and goes to the office for more of the same drab routine. And so it continues until one day, usually the day he realizes he is mortal (or starting to lose his hair), he goes berserk: He bangs his secretary, quits his job and buys a red convertible. And we all nod, acknowledging the inevitable midlife crisis. One made Monica Lewinsky famous, another won an Academy Award for "American Beauty," and the concept is as embedded in our culture as the belief in the power of positive thinking.
"It makes for good novels or good movies, but it is not really accurate," said psychologist Margie Lachman of Brandeis University in Massachusetts. "There is no specific time in life that predisposes you to crisis," said Alexandra Freund, a life-span researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. "There can be times when things crystallize as very problematic, a very deep disturbance in your life," Freund told LiveScience. "People experience these types of crises, but they are not at all related to age."
One of the popular misconceptions is that midlife crises are spurred by a sudden realization that the values and goals of youth have been abandoned for more comfortable, and achievable, aspirations; that the person has "sold out." Freund finds such concerns puzzling. "Selling out to whom?" she asked. In the process of figuring themselves out, young people will wrestle with establishing personal goals and values. After young adulthood, however, personality remains relatively stable for the rest of one's life, researchers have found.
If midlife is actually so great, where did this concept of a midlife crisis come from? In the 1960s, a psychologist named Elliott Jaques coined the term "midlife crisis" based on his studies of clinical patients and artists, who were dealing with depression and angst about getting older. The term "midlife crisis" caught on like wildfire, because everyone knows someone who fits the mold, Freund told LiveScience. But what about all the people we know who don't fit the mold?