When I Say ‘Midlife,’ Don’t Think ‘Crisis’

TRADE WINDS--I set out to write about those leaked “Panama Papers” that offered a titillating glimpse of how the world’s rich and infamous park their wealth in once secretive offshore safe havens. The topic seemed tailor-made for a column obsessed with the permeability of borders. But I just can’t fake any enthusiasm for such a big non-story. Was it really news to anyone that corrupt autocrats, shady tax dodgers, and plenty of honorable folks who worry about the shaky rule of law in their own countries open accounts and create corporations in places like Panama and the Cayman Islands?


Plus, I’m distracted by what seems a more pressing matter: my fast-approaching half-century mark.

Yes, I will soon turn the big 5-0. And the thing is, I’ve been struggling with how to commemorate the occasion, or really, what it means. My doctor pointed out it means it’s time for a colonoscopy, but I am yearning for more.

So I have decided to think of this milestone as halftime in the big game of life (I know, I know, that’s optimistic, but go with it), though I am still a bit sketchy on what the intermission itself should entail. No big act has been lined up (I’d settle for Coldplay without Beyoncé); no inspirational coach is ready to chew me out for the numerous screw-ups in the first half and to point out how I can do better in the second. I want to catch my breath, recharge my batteries, and strategize for what lies ahead.

These big milestones, of course, don’t happen to us in a vacuum. They are forceful because you witness all those around you—siblings, friends, work colleagues—go through them as well, many of them before you do. I’ve looked to my peers for cues on what to do when I turn 50. I am impressed and alarmed that many in my cohort seem to take their 50th birthday in stride, either shrugging off its significance or celebrating it with unabashed good cheer—going off to Vegas, or a dream golf vacation, or letting friends throw them an epic “surprise” party.

I don’t begrudge them their celebrations, but what I am truly jealous of is their apparent lack of need for a more contemplative halftime that blends some tough self-criticism with inspiration. Maybe it’s because these people are well adjusted and don’t need a course correction, an assessment of where they are or a pep talk. Maybe the point is that by the age of 50 you’re supposed to have figured it all out, and I am just behind the curve.

It’s hard to establish tidy milestones for the elastic middle part of our lives. Early on, life is organized around such occasions, formal graduations from each level of schooling with rituals that bake in instant nostalgia for the immediate past with soaring exhortations about what comes next.

And then we’re off to the races, facing a vast blank slate stretching into the far-off distance, where a fuzzy finish line can barely be discerned, with its nebulous concept of retirement offering the next concrete commemoration of where you are in life.

Sadly, while plenty of people joyously celebrate their 40th and 50th birthdays, our cultural associations with “midlife” tend to be negative.

I exaggerate, to be sure, when you consider that getting married and having kids are obviously huge life milestones, and that depending on your chosen career, you may have plenty of discernible watershed moments to celebrate in your profession. But as consequential as getting married, becoming a parent, or reaching one’s professional goals can be, these are commemorations of those specific events, that we only rely on loosely, and often inappropriately, as proxies for where we are supposed to be in life.

They also happen (or should happen) on their own timing—they don’t fill my perceived need for a more universally observed halftime ritual.

Sadly, while plenty of people joyously celebrate their 40th and 50th birthdays, our cultural associations with “midlife” tend to be negative. Indeed, when I write “midlife,” you think “crisis.” Why can’t “midlife” be associated with “celebration” or “break” or “appraisal?” The Super Bowl puts on a big party at halftime, not a collective freakout, so why can’t we?

It’s no wonder study after study shows that people are happiest in their younger and older years; our culture has a harder time with the middle part.

The lack of a formalized pit stop in that vast blank slate of the middle part of life, an occasion to reflect on the lessons learned in the first half and gear up for a second one full of purpose and growth, feeds our anxiety about where we stand, and often leads to a sense of reckless denial.

Most of us do need a halftime reckoning. We’ve had our share of triumphs and disappointments, and we’re struggling to come to terms with the fact that certain opportunities may have passed us by already. Suddenly presidents are our age or younger, our kids are becoming more self-sufficient, and our knees keep reminding us that we’re not early in the game. But we’ve also figured a few things out, about ourselves and about the world, and if you give us a moment to think about it, we can set new goals and get psyched about what lies ahead.

Perhaps if I did some research I’d find that some Scandinavian country—it’s always some Scandinavian country—has figured out the properly enlightened find-yourself halftime ritual, and enshrined it as a lavish social entitlement. And no doubt there are certain workplaces that generously encourage sabbaticals, or even midlife gap years.

But I don’t think halftime has to be unrealistically complicated, or necessarily life-altering. I am looking for rites of passage that can be universal. Maybe it’s a voyage that you could pay for with tax-preferred retirement funds. Or some form of community service. Or simply a soulful observance like a religion’s confirmation ritual. Or maybe it’s about doing the one thing you’d never thought you’d do, or about writing your own life evaluation and sharing it with a confidant or mentor, who’d give you feedback, like a coach.

Our halftime breaks shouldn’t be pegged at the same age for everyone; it should be something you declare and observe once, on whichever birthday feels right, whether it’s your 35th or your 55th. I’m declaring it on my 50th, not because I expect to live to be 100, but because I can roughly call this the halftime of my post-school productive years. That’s reassuring, insofar as it buys me time to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, as opposed to gunning for an early retirement.

And if I do make it to my late retirement, at least the rituals and commemorations associated with the occasion will be a lot clearer.

(Andrés Martinez writes the Trade Winds column for Zócalo Public Square, where he is editorial director. He is also professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and a fellow at New America.)