Men are not new, but midlife is. The idea of a stage of life between adulthood and old age was first described in a paper published in 1965 by Dr. Elliott Jaques, then forty-eight years old, a relatively unknown Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational consultant. He coined the term “midlife crisis” and wrote that during this period, we come face-to-face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our mortality.
When I was in graduate school in 1965, we read Erik Erikson’s classic book, Childhood and Society where he described the Eight Stages of Man (when Erikson first described his stages of psychosocial development in the 1950s “man” was synonymous with “humankind.”) As a young man, I was fascinated to reflect on the stages I had already completed, the one I was now just beginning, and the ones I hoped to successfully complete in the future.
As a twenty-one-year-old “adult” in 1965, I was definitely dealing with both intimacy and isolation and was confused about whether I had completed adolescence since I was still confused in many areas of my life and my identity as a man was clearly in question, though I tried to cover my fears with intellectualized bravado and Middle age seemed a lifetime away.
Chip Conley, The Emerging Male, and Why We Should Learn to Love Midlife
I first med Chip Conley shortly after he opened the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco in 1987. I was planning a men’s retreat and his quirky hotel seemed like the perfect place. He went on to create a string of boutique hotels, Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and became the second-largest operator of boutique hotels in the world. He later became a mentor to the young entrepreneurs who started Airbnb and was named the company’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy.
Recognizing the need for a new understanding of midlife, he founded the Modern Elder Academy (MEA), the world’s first midlife wisdom school. He’s a living example of a man who is embracing his life calling and moving joyfully through midlife. He invited me to read his latest book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better With Age. I agreed to read it and write a series of articles. This is the first one. The book has expanded my own understanding of the meaning of midlife, what we can learn, and how to best navigate the journey.
I wrote about my own understanding of midlife in a series of three books, Male Menopause, Surviving Male Menopause: A Guide for Women and Men, and The Whole Man Program: Reinvigorating Your Body, Mind, and Spirit After 40. In Male Menopause, which was first published in 1997 and became an international bestseller translated into 14 foreign languages, I described my understanding at the time.
“Male menopause (also called Manopause or Andropause) begins with hormonal, physiological, and chemical changes that occur in all men generally between the ages of forty and fifty-five, though it can occur as early as thirty-five or as late as sixty-five. These changes affect all aspects of a man’s life. Male menopause is, thus, a physical condition with psychological, interpersonal, social, and spiritual dimensions.”
Most people at the time, didn’t believe that men went through a “change of life” similar to what women experienced or understood its relationship to midlife. I said,
“The purpose of male menopause is to signal the end of the first part of a man’s life and prepare him for the second half. Male Menopause is not the beginning of the end, as many fear, but the end of the beginning. It is the passage to the most passionate, powerful, productive, and purposeful time of a man’s life.”
In his passionate and powerful book, Learning to Love Midlife, Chip Conley says,
“In my opinion (and that of a growing number of sociologists), in a world with more and more centenarians, midlife may last from age 35 to 75. Just as adolescence is a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, maybe part of midlife’s role is to be a transitional stage between adulthood and elderhood.” He goes on to describe three stages of midlife and notes that they don’t only apply to men. Women have their own midlife journey.
Stages for the New Midlife Male
Here are the stages of midlife that Chip talks about in his book Learning to Love Midlife.
- Age 35 to 50. “We tend to experience some of the challenging physical and emotional transitions—a bit like an adult puberty. We realize we are no longer young, but not yet old, and we can feel it’s time to metaphorically shed our skin.”
- The 50s (Age 50-59). “This is the core of midlife. We’re settled into this new era and are seeing some of the upside.”
- Age 60 to 75. “This is the period when we’re young enough to still be working and living a very vital life, but old enough to see and plan for what’s next: our senior years.”
I will turn 80 this year. My wife, Carlin, is 85. She is mostly retired from her paid work, though she still sees a few clients. I am still active with work, though I recognize that we are in a different stage of life. Chip’s book is wonderful for those who are not yet in midlife and want to get know what’s ahead, those that are going through it now, as well as those of us who are in the next stage and reflecting on our life journey in our “senior years.”
Chip continues with his personal description of midlife.
“At 63, I am just getting acquainted with this third stage, but I do know it’s also when our body reminds us it doesn’t want to be forgotten. Of course, not everyone experiences these three stages on the same timeline. Midlife is less of an age than it is a feeling. And just as with other stages of life, your mileage may vary.”
For many of us, the third stage of midlife can feel like things are falling apart. I remember going through a time when I had one problem after another. First, prostate problems, then a diagnosis of an enlarged prostate, and later fears about potential prostate cancer. Past injuries I thought I had overcome, returned. My left shoulder was out of whack and my back began to bother me. In the winter I often suffered bouts of pneumonia. And it wasn’t just the physical changes. It seemed like I was going through mental, emotional, and relational challenges as well.
Chip talks about The Midlife Unraveling.
“Midlife is the initiation into a time of massive transitions. A drizzle of disappointments. Parents passing away, kids leaving home, financial reckonings, changing jobs, changing spouses, hormonal wackiness, scary health diagnoses, addictive behaviors becoming unwieldly, and the stirrings of a growing curiosity about the meaning of life.” (What’s it all about Alfie?)
Chip offers a wonderful vision of a positive transformation in the midst of the unraveling.
“When a caterpillar is fully grown, it uses a button of silk to fasten its body to a twig and then forms a chrysalis. Within this protective chrysalis, the transformational magic of metamorphosis occurs. While it’s a bit dark, gooey, and solitary, it’s a transition, not a crisis. And of course, on the other side is a beautiful butterfly.”
As someone who has gone through midlife to the next stage, I can offer this advice from Winston Churchill.
“When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.”
Easier said than done. When things are dark, gooey, and solitary, it isn’t easy to feel like an emerging butterfly.
Check Out the Book and Check in with Chip
My prepublication copy of the book is all marked up with underlines and stars. I look forward to getting a new copy when it comes out. You can visit Chip on his website, ChipConley.com to learn more him and his work. You can also see his latest TED talk, “An Alternative to the “Midlife” Crisis.
Best of all, his book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better With Age, will be out in January and you can pre-order your copy now. (Be the first to get it and support the author. We love getting preorders. It encourages the publisher to support the book more fully.) They also make great holiday gifts, ones that will last a lifetime—a gift that keeps on giving.
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