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Director of the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter

This paper will reflect on how we understand an often neglected period of the life course: middle age.  After exploring histories of middle age - its boundaries, meanings, challenges, experiences - the paper will focus on the midlife crisis as a case study to introduce historical approaches to health and well-being in midlife in the twentieth century.

In 1965, the Canadian-born psychoanalyst and social scientist Elliott Jaques introduced a term – the midlife crisis - that continues to structure Western experiences and expressions of love and loss in middle age.  During subsequent decades, the midlife crisis became a fashionable means of describing feelings of disillusionment with work, disenchantment with relationships, detachment from family responsibilities, and the growing fear of personal death that began to haunt those beyond the age of forty.  In addition to popular expositions of the midlife crisis, scholarly studies within the social and biological sciences also regarded midlife in similar terms: as a physical or psychological tipping point or crossroads in the life course, the moment at which people in the prime of life felt themselves to be at risk of sinking towards senescence and death.

Although the midlife crisis has often been dismissed as a myth or satirised in contemporary novels and films that tend to foreground its comic elements, the concept has persisted not only in stereotypical depictions of rebellion and infidelity at midlife, but also in research that has sought to explain why and how middle age presents particular social, physiological, and emotional challenges.  Exploring a rich range of historical sources, in this paper I shall argue that the emergence of the midlife crisis – as concept and experience – during the middle decades of the twentieth century was not coincidental.  Rather it was the product of historically specific demographic changes, new biological accounts of ageing, and deepening anxieties – at least in the Western world - about economic decline, political instability, rising levels of divorce, and the impact of family breakdown on social cohesion.

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Event info

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Friday 18 October

6pm to 7.30pm

Conor Lecture Theatre

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