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Check all the boxes, then chuck it all aside at forty to follow your muse. Play by the rules and win, only to decide that you don’t want the prize. Most of the rebellions were minor. The devoted housewife informed her husband that she would not be cooking dinner for the family on Tuesday and Thursday nights, as she was finally taking the art class she had always dreamed of. The cliché for men was the red convertible. But some people set off explosions: quitting jobs, filing for divorce, engaging in affairs.

For Baby Boomers, the midlife crisis was very nearly a rite of passage. John Updike made a career of chronicling the earthquakes that rattled the mannered world of upper-middle-class suburbanites. But that world of well-scrubbed children, stay-at-home wives, and afternoon cocktails seems as remote today as King Arthur’s court. For most millennials, the idea of being a forty-year-old ad executive on a commuter train, oppressed by routine and convention as he returns to his spacious suburban home, wife of eighteen years, and two teenage children, is just a fantasy. For those who haven’t yet found a spouse or bought a house, it might seem not a nightmare but a dream.

Before you can tire of life as a housewife, you need a house and a husband whose income can maintain a family. Before you can embark on an affair, you need to get married. It is hard to buy a sports car at forty if you’re still paying off student loans, or to enjoy a second youth while looking after your first baby. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, only about 6 percent of forty-year-olds had never been married. Today it is true of one in four. A 2021 report found that one in six adults were childless, and that number is likely to increase.

In the 1960s, the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis.” The term described a confrontation with mortality that occurred in one’s mid-thirties, when “family and occupation have become established . . . and children are at the threshold of adulthood.”

Jaques’s term did not catch on until the 1970s, when Gail Sheehy, a journalist for New York magazine, used it in Passages, her bestselling book. The term became part of the therapeutic patois of the upper middle class in the closing decades of the twentieth century. It was the catch-all explanation for the feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that afflicted the educated classes when things seemed outwardly auspicious. Why would a man, recently promoted to senior partner at a prestigious law firm, feel restless? Midlife crisis. Why would his wife, a mother of happy and healthy children, feel unfulfilled? Midlife crisis.

Sheehy understood the midlife crisis in broadly feminist terms. As children grew older and the burdens of childcare eased, women could explore new possibilities. Loss of fertility was to be welcomed rather than dreaded: “Once the worries of pregnancy are thrown out along with the tampons and contraceptives, women in good health will often experience a reawakening of sexual desire, as well as great enthusiasm for directing their creativity into new channels.” The family box has been checked; there’s more to life for the college-educated woman.

As the historian Susanne Schmidt has noted, Sheehy’s description of the midlife crisis corresponded to what Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), had called “the problem that has no name.” After interviewing suburban women in their thirties and forties, Friedan painted a picture of widespread dissatisfaction. As these women endured day after day of tidying the house, shopping for groceries, cooking meals, and ferrying the children before lying joylessly beside their husbands at night, they were afraid to ask themselves, “Is this all?” Friedan suggested that they should cease to think of themselves exclusively as wives and mothers, and instead pursue degrees, careers, and political engagement.

Alongside this feminist understanding of the midlife crisis was a masculinist one. It received more extensive treatment in literature and media, which is why in its popular usage “midlife crisis” was applied primarily to men—their fantasies, foibles, and mishaps. In works like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” the middle-aged man finds himself changed in ways he can hardly understand—at one moment strong and admired, in the next weak and pitied. Facing mortality, Cheever’s protagonist embarks on a surreal journey through all the swimming pools of his prosperous suburban town. Cheever was evoking what psychologists called a man’s “second adolescence”—a natural rite of passage whose manifestations were to be understood, not condemned.

Medical authorities writing on the male midlife crisis presented it as potentially a moment of liberation. The psychiatrist George Vaillant described the professional men undergoing midlife crises in terms that evoked Friedan:

From age twenty-five to thirty-five they tended to work hard, to consolidate their careers, and to devote themselves to the nuclear family. . . . Rather than question whether they had married the right woman, rather than dream of other careers, they changed their babies’ diapers and became lost in conformity.

Breaking free of conformity often meant shattering the marital bond. After all, the right woman at twenty-five might be the wrong woman at forty. The psychologist Daniel Levinson drew out the implications of the second adolescence: The same wifely virtues that once had helped a man build a comfortable life and successful career—her thriftiness and prudent concern, her way of looking after a man as well as his children—could in later years become smothering. Like the adolescent boy who needs to establish an identity apart from his mother, the married man may need freedom from his wife, who now seems “overly controlling.” Naturally enough, he finds it in the arms of a different woman, one who is “more understanding, sharing, and sensually evocative.” In those decades of conformist middle-class culture, men nurtured fantasies of living like James Bond.

The midlife crisis was a problem of the privileged—a recognition that something was wrong in a life in which everything seemed right. The crisis endures, but the conditions have been reversed. Baby Boomers were raised to expect happiness in domestic life. A man’s career and a woman’s wifely duties served the household gods. My generation received very different instructions. It’s not as though Sex and the City was urged as a guide to life. But we were told to find ourselves and establish ourselves professionally before settling down.

As a result, a new anxiety arrives at midlife. “The problem that has no name” has been replaced by the “biological clock.” Upper-middle-class women still experience a moment of recognition, often in their mid-thirties. They still confront the fact that the dominant image of success hasn’t delivered everything they want their lives to include. But it is a husband and children they are now likely to miss, not a career, travel, and nightlife.

Works of popular art have begun to document the new crisis. Barbie, the 2023 blockbuster directed by Greta Gerwig, is a modern Pinocchio story. Initially, Barbie is a deathless, sexless being—unconcerned with men or children, immune to thoughts of mortality. No mere doll, she is the model career woman. “She has her own money, her own house, her own car, her own career. Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything.” She is living Betty Friedan’s dream. But when Barbie becomes human, she must come to terms with biological realities. The film ends with her visit to an ob-gyn. In real life, the visits are to IVF clinics.

Men have much more time on their clocks, a fact that allows millennial males now entering middle age to defer any deliberation about what they want out of life. Instead of a second adolescence, they seem determined to enjoy perpetual adolescence. (Is it any wonder that female millennial professionals are desperate when they wake up at age thirty-five and realize they want a husband?) But how long can men defer the reckoning? The Worst Person in the World, a 2021 film by the Norwegian director Joachim Trier, offers an answer. It features a man who suddenly learns he has cancer. He is the paragon of creative-class success, an underground comic-book artist whose most famous creation has been turned into a movie. But he never managed to have the children he wanted. He lost the woman he loved. All he has left are his collections of comic books and records.

Baby Boomers got married, owned homes, and had kids. The price was conformity. No doubt it could be stultifying. But for most people, the crisis was mild. You could waste money on a sports car and still have grandchildren someday. That was true even if your affairs led to a messy divorce. What of my generation? Our plan of life has been to put off the old patterns of adulthood. There will be plenty of time for that, we’ve been told. For now there’s a vacation, a concert, a promotion to think about. But something is missing in a life made up of only these things. As one unmarried friend told me before she left New York, “I like my lifestyle, but not my life.”

Matthew Schmitz is founder and editor of Compact. 

Image by Karolina Grabowska, public domain. Image cropped.

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