Over the past decade or so, evidence has emerged from economics, psychology and neuroscience showing that humans tend to go through a kind of emotional reboot around midlife. It’s often experienced as a period of malaise and dissatisfaction, but normally it is not — contrary to stereotype — a crisis. Rather, it is a transition. During this period, our values, our priorities, even our brains tend to shift away from competition and social striving and toward connecting and giving to others.
Aging, it now appears, has a U-shaped effect on life satisfaction. The excitement and high expectations of our 20s and 30s are followed by a long period of readjustment in middle age — which is a grind to experience but equips us for a surprising rebirth of positivity and wisdom in late adulthood.
Of course, all lives are different, and this phenomenon will vary from person to person. But the transitional pattern appears to be quite fundamental: It is found in massive data sets covering populations and countries all over the world — and an analogous pattern has been observed in chimps and orangutans.
If you wanted to design a society that exacerbated midlife misery and squandered the potential of later adulthood, you might deliver education in a single lump during the first two decades of life, load work into the middle decades, and then herd healthy, happy and highly skilled older adults into idleness. In other words, you would do more or less what we have been doing for the past century or so. It’s a model that made some sense when most people needed only a high school degree, held only one kind of job for life, and died around age 65. But it offers nothing by way of guidance and support for the kind of midlife relaunch that today’s Americans increasingly demand, and that today’s America increasingly needs.
Fortunately, better alternatives are emerging — not from Washington, D.C., but from educators, corporations and civic entrepreneurs who are inventing and testing the ideas and institutions that are already ushering our current model for midlife into obsolescence.
On the printed page, the idea of a fresh start in midlife sounds pretty glorious; in real life, nothing is harder than jumping out of the deep grooves we have carved for ourselves by our 40s. What do I really want? Who wants me? How can I reinvent my life while meeting responsibilities and making ends meet? What are the options, and how can I sort through them all?
Those questions and many more clobber anyone who contemplates a midlife relaunch. Relaunchers need guardrails to change course safely. They need institutions and programs and examples that provide support and structure. They need employers who will accommodate and hire mature workers who may want to work part time, undertake not-so-big jobs, and apply old skills to new ventures. They need universities and financial aid geared to retooling in midlife; pensions and 401(k) plans flexible enough to cope with the “retired but working”; career counseling and job fairs and internships and gap years for graybeards in search of new missions and opportunities. They also need society’s permission to experiment and grow and err.
Freedman is among a burgeoning group of social thinkers and entrepreneurs seeking to address these challenges. He and others imagine innovations like Individual Purpose Accounts, which would help people save up for gap years and adult education, or reforms allowing people to use a year’s worth of Social Security benefits early, so they could go back to school or do an internship.
“There’s an adaptation that’s going on in a lot of sectors,” Freedman told me. The adaptation is fragmented and improvisational and bottom-up rather than top-down, as organic social change very often is. In a study published in 2017 in the Gerontologist, Phyllis Moen, Erik Kojola and Kate Schaefers conducted in-depth interviews with 23 innovative organizations in the greater Minneapolis region, including private-sector companies, government agencies and nonprofits. The organizations, they write, are “upending existing age-graded workplace norms and experimenting with new policies”: providing flexible working hours; developing phased exits for employees who want to scale back gradually rather than retire all at once; hiring and rehiring older workers and retirees; providing training and development to older as well as younger workers.
Communities and civic groups and social entrepreneurs are also inventing templates. Freedman likes to tell the story of a group of rabbis who are creating a bar mitzvah ceremony for people in their 60s. Encore.org is itself an example of civic improvisation. Another sprang up spontaneously in 2000: Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen, friends and New Yorkers and veterans of the women’s movement, found themselves leaving jobs but unready to retire. “As they talked to each other,” Susan Collins recounted to me, “they realized they couldn’t be the only two women in New York facing this giant stretch of time and saying, ‘Who the heck wants to retire?’ ”
Collins, who was in her early 60s when we met, is the executive director of the Transition Network, a national community of professional women in their 50s. What began as mutually supportive conversations among Frank and Millen and their own networks has grown into a nonprofit with 2,200 members and 13 chapters nationwide. That is small, as nonprofits go; but it is large enough to have proved its concept. For $100 a year, women in midlife and beyond can connect with those who are in a reinvention stage or have passed through one. “You meet other people in the same type of situation and you realize you’re not alone,” Collins said.
Though the organization provides workshops and seminars and networking opportunities, the heart of its model is what it calls “transition peer groups.” Those are monthly gatherings of eight to 12 women who explore preselected topics of their choice, such as how to deal with adult children, how to cope with stiffening bodies, what brings contentment, and how to forgive. The gathering is not group therapy or counseling. “It’s not here to resolve your psychological challenges,” Collins told me. Rather, it is a conversation among peers about who they are and where they might be going and how to get there. The meetings are like book groups, except what’s being read and discussed is the members’ lives, and the mission is to plot the next chapter.
The Transition Network is interesting, and promising, partly because it is entirely a grass-roots project. With the exception of director Collins and a couple of staff people, everyone is a volunteer. Its communitarian model of mutual self-help is right out of the playbook of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century Frenchman who famously documented Americans’ genius for forming voluntary groups and associations. But broader, more systematic adoption will require the involvement of sizable institutions that can move the social and cultural needle in a bigger way.
No major organization has yet stepped up on a large scale, but we have an early-stage prototype to look at. AARP is one of the strongest lobbying organizations in the United States. In Washington, it is renowned for its clout on issues of interest to seniors. But in the early 2010s, searching for ventures that could introduce the organization to people in their 40s and 50s, AARP kept encountering the phenomenon of midlife and post-midlife transitions. And so, in 2012, it launched a program called Life Reimagined. The idea was to provide online information and services geared toward midlife: e-books, quizzes, meditation guides, life-planning exercises and workbooks, and streaming courses about subjects like brain health, relationships and finding purpose. Also, the site experimented with an online platform allowing users to shop for and schedule life coaching, at prices steeply discounted below prevailing market rates.
Life Reimagined, which has since been folded into a related AARP effort, took inspiration from a book of the same name by life coach Richard J. Leider and journalist Alan M. Webber (who was recently elected mayor of Santa Fe, N.M.). Leider and Webber stress that big transitions aren’t DIY projects and that, as Webber told me, isolation kills. “It’s pretty lonesome inside your own head,” Webber said, when I spoke with him about the project. “Everybody’s life is an experiment of one, but nobody should have to go it alone.”
In 2010, when Philip Pizzo, a pediatrician by training, was planning his own transition from being dean of Stanford University’s medical school, he began pondering ways in which higher education could help mature people rethink their lives. “I’ve talked to hundreds of people, probably thousands, across the world,” he told me. “It’s amazing to see how many individuals are frustrated and disappointed by the time they hit their late 40s and 50s. That seems to be much more normative than I would have predicted. Then the question becomes, what do people do? How do they realign themselves, and how can they do that?” He began to imagine university programs where midlifers could learn from and support one another, “and where they can utilize higher education to do what they did in the early phase of their life: re-explore, rethink, reconnect with people, and plan that next phase of their life.”
In January 2015, Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute was born, under Pizzo’s leadership. From applicants with several decades of life experience and a desire to recalibrate, the program chose about two dozen participants (called fellows). For a year, they would attend university courses, hear prominent guest speakers, and share their hopes and plans and know-how. “They’re all in transition and often they don’t have anybody to talk to about it,” Pizzo told me.
As the institute’s name implies (and as its mid-five-figure tuition affirms), the Distinguished Careers Institute was not for everyone. Pizzo compared it to the first Tesla Roadster, a $100,000 electric car that used the purchasing power of early adopters to put electricity on the road and (Tesla hoped) seed a market for more affordable, utilitarian electric vehicles. “We started out with lots of bells and whistles to demonstrate proof of principle,” Pizzo said. “I have no expectation or desire that the kind of program we’ve put together becomes the model. My hope is that there will be lots of seeds sown that will accomplish similar ends in a much more democratized way.” Pizzo talks frequently with community colleges and universities about ways to build their own versions. Some, such as Portland Community College in Oregon and Pace University in New York, already offer programs for encore careerists.
Workplaces, too, can build programs and norms for tackling midlife challenges. Consider what has happened at Leo Burnett, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies. Like a lot of companies nowadays, it offers coaching, especially for top executives. Once viewed as a form of remediation, coaching has come to be seen in the business world as a way to bring out the best in employees with high potential.
When I asked her about the agency’s commitment to coaching, Renetta McCann, the company’s chief U.S. talent officer, likened midlife in the advertising business to the compactor scene from the 1977 “Star Wars” movie: “The floors are moving, the walls are moving, the ceiling is moving,” she told me. “What we’ve come to understand is that the people in the middle of the organization are the ones under the most pressure. At some time in that age zone, you wind up in the crunch. Getting the work out the door falls on you, and you’ve got to negotiate all these relationships. And God forbid you should have a life of your own: a spouse, partner, kids, whatever. Heaven help you.”
Coaching, she said, was available for employees of all ages at Leo Burnett. A large share of those who used it, though, were in their late 30s and their 40s. “Where in society are people given people to ask these questions to?” McCann said. “At 35 and 45, that’s when your values are probably most under pressure. You’re still trying to fit in. You’re still trying to be the kid your parents wanted. You’re dealing with your spouse or partner. There’s this incredible pressure to have The Answer. A lot of times, when you are pressed to have The Answer, people either stop asking questions or they don’t ask high-quality questions.”
McCann knew whereof she spoke, having traveled the happiness curve herself. Earlier in her career, she was global CEO of one of the company’s business units. At 52, she burned out, retired, went back to school, got a master’s, then returned to the agency in a new role, now working with people. Along the way, she found answers to some of her questions. “One of the things I did was take a hard look at my own values,” she says. “I found I had two different value sets, one set of values attached to my heart and one to my mind. One is about grace; the other is about curiosity.”
Coaching is not the same as mentoring or consulting, because the coach’s job is not to pass down advice or expertise. Instead, life coaches often refer to themselves as “allies.” They are trained to listen closely, to notice things, and to surface core questions about who we are and what we want and how to get there.
What struck me as unusual and pioneering about Leo Burnett’s approach was that coaching there was normal. Coaches were fellow workers embedded within the company. They knew the players in the agency and the stresses of the job. Executives used and recommended the program as a matter of course. Within the company, coaching was part of everyday life. The company had thus inverted the usual assumption that values questions and midlife transitions belong in the closet, especially at work.
“We’ve tried to take the stigma out of it,” said Peter Diamond, whose coaching work within Leo Burnett subsequently blossomed into an independent coaching career. “In three years, coaching went from something where I was very cautious to make sure that people weren’t coming in and out at the same time, to being part of the fabric of the agency.”
Society, not science, determines what is normal in the lives we lead, and that, right now, is the problem. The standard social templates for adult development and life satisfaction turn the U-shaped happiness curve upside down, describing something more like a hill-shaped arc. In their book, Leider and Webber describe the conventional view this way: “Each of us starts off fresh and new, ready to learn and grow and discover our individual potential. We arc upward as we go through our early years, and we continue to grow until about the time we hit middle age. At that point we’ve reached the apex of our lives, the top of the parabola. After that, as we pass middle age, we begin the process of decline that takes us into retirement, then old age, and eventually, death.”
Within that outdated but still prevalent paradigm, the happiness curve is not normal. It is more like the opposite of normal. Sure, midlife crisis is a familiar phenomenon. But, as the very word “crisis” implies, it is extreme and extraordinary and bad. We avoid it if we can, and if we cannot avoid it, we hide it.
By telling a social story about normalcy that is at odds with reality, we manufacture dismay and shame about a perfectly normal transition. By expecting people to exhibit maximum mastery in midlife, we leave them to their own devices if they feel adrift and vulnerable. By leaving them to their own devices, we increase their isolation and therefore their unhappiness.
This trap may never go away entirely, but already it is possible to see how the essential pieces of a new support infrastructure could work together to ease us through our transitions. Improvisations like Leo Burnett's and Stanford's and AARP's and the Transition Network's are emerging because people need them — and aren't waiting around.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50,” from which this article is adapted.