Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Midlife crisis no longer vexes baby boomers

Exploration and career changes are part of the process of `creative aging'


In the past year, three events have converged in the life of Gary Hofstetter. He turned 50. He spent an enthralling week in Los Angeles at the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, where he jammed with Roger Daltrey of The Who and Jon Anderson of Yes and hung out with Dickey Betts and Nils Lofgren. And he launched his pursuit of a PhD at Boston College as the first step toward his goal of eventually teaching or working as an administrator in special-needs programs at a university.

Of course, it is the rock 'n' roll adventure that Hofstetter, president of the real-estate management firm New Boston Management Services, talks about with giddy excitement. "I was off the ground," he recalled as he gazed at a picture of his sunglassed self playing guitar next to Daltrey. "There I am, living my fantasy." But it is the more mundane reality of his return to school that places Hofstetter among a growing number of people who have begun charting a new course as they reach or near the half-century mark.

Their initial responses to midlife may be innovative, exotic, or downright desperate, but those short-term reactions often lay the groundwork for substantive, long-term changes. As the very idea of the midlife crisis turns 40 this year -- it was coined in 1965 by Canadian psychologist Elliot Jacques -- it is undergoing something of a midlife crisis of its own.

New research is challenging the notion that midlife often triggers a dramatic "crisis" at all. Instead, the idea of "creative aging" is gaining altitude among experts and middle-age folks alike. Call it the midlife non-crisis. "There is no `midlife,' as far as I'm concerned," said Robin Shean, a 45-year-old personal trainer and fitness instructor from Millis. "It's all a journey. If I say I'm half done, how stagnant! If you take yourself out of that whole, quote,`crisis,' it's all a journey, with no beginning and no end." Leaving aside the question of beginnings and endings, the issue of the middle is definitely up for grabs nowadays.

At a time when 42-year-old David Wells has emerged as the de facto ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, and with 62-year-old Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones electrifying fans in a tour that began at Fenway Park, there is increasing agreement that it no longer makes much sense to rigidly define the starting point of midlife as age 40.

"Today the concept of midlife or middle age is much broader because of what's happened with life expectancy and increasing health," said Dr Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. "Today most people are going to see middle age as between 40 and 65."

Wishful thinking on their part, perhaps. Who lives to 130? Still, at whatever stage of middle age they occur, life changes increasingly are not prompted by any of the stereotypical factors -- the sudden realization of one's mortality, an unhappy marriage, a stagnant career -- but rather by a quiet determination to craft a second chapter that is deeper and truer to one's self. "People are aware that they have more years in front of them, and they feel really creative about it, and so for them it's more what the Chinese call a `crisis of opportunity,'" says Judith Sherven, a clinical psychologist based in Windham, New York, "They want to do something different." That can mean everything from adopting a healthier lifestyle to adopting a child while in your 50s, from exploring spirituality and philosophy in depth to finally buckling down to write that novel you've been thinking about for years. But such steps are more likely to be seen today as an enhancement of your old life rather than a rejection of it, a movement toward rather than from something.

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