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The midlife crisis, gender, and social science in the United States, 1970–2000



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Schmidt, Susanne Antje  ORCID logo


This thesis provides the first rigorous history of the concept of midlife crisis. It highlights the close connections between understandings of the life course and social change. It reverses accounts of popularization by showing how an idea moved from the public sphere into academia. Above all, it uncovers the feminist origins of the concept and places this in a historically little-studied tradition of writing about middle age that rejected the gendered "double standard of aging." Constructions of middle age and life-planning were not always oppressive, but often used for feminist purposes.

The idea of midlife crisis became popular in the United States with journalist Gail Sheehy's Passages (1976), a critique of Erik Erikson's male-centered model of ego development and psychoanalytic constructions of gender and identity more generally. Drawing on mid-century notions of middle life as the time of a woman's entry into the public sphere, Sheehy's midlife crisis defined the onset of middle age, for men and women, as the end of traditional gender roles. As dual-earner families replaced the male breadwinner model, Passages circulated widely, read by women and men of different generations, including social scientists. Three psychoanalytic experts-Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant, and Roger Gould-rebutted Sheehy by putting forward a male-only concept of midlife as the end of a man's family obligations; they banned women from reimagining their lives. Though this became the dominant meaning of midlife crisis, it was not universally accepted. Feminist scholars, most famously the psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan, drew on women's experiences to challenge the midlife crisis, turning it into a sign of emotional instability, immaturity, and egotism. Resonating with widespread understandings of mental health and social responsibility, and confirmed by large-scale surveys in the late 1990s, this relegated the midlife crisis to a chauvinist cliché. It has remained a contested concept for negotiating the balances between work and life, production and reproduction into the present day.





Hopwood, Nick


midlife crisis, middle age, gender, women, feminism, backlash, social science, psychology, popular science, pop science, journalism, mass media, publishing, bestsellers, United States, life course, life cycle, ego development, personal development, identity, careers, work and marriage, work and family, re-entry, Gail Sheehy, Betty Friedan, Erik Erikson, Christopher Lasch, Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant, Carol Gilligan, Alva Myrdal, Viola Klein, Anna Garlin Spencer, Clelia Duel Mosher, Lena Levine, Margaret Mead, Susan Sontag


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes Arts and Humanities Research Council Cambridge History and Philosophy of Science Trust Fund Rockefeller Archive Center Kurt Hahn Trust History of Science Society