Navigating the Youth-Midlife Divide: Musings Approaching a 40th Birthday.

November 2, 2021

Navigating the Youth-Midlife Divide: Musings Approaching a 40th Birthday.

May 29, 2023

My life’s present state seems like a study in contrasts. Depending on which expert you cite, with my 40th birthday approaching I am either the first of the Millennials or the last of Generation X. Perhaps that’s why it feels like I am straddling ‘youth’ and ‘midlife’ or, more accurately, occupying them both at the same time.

Despite my looming milestone, I continue to feel so young and ‘early’ into my adulthood; there is so much about youth that I still relate to. Yet I stare at 40 and realize it means I am in the beginning stages of midlife. While I understand this intellectually, I struggle to internalize it emotionally. Contemplating it jolts me with surprise, as if suddenly realizing that youth made an Irish Goodbye at some point in the night; weren’t we still at the party together?

What is it that feels so jarring about no longer being considered ‘young’? For me, part of it is a fear of loss—loss of youth’s spaciousness and possibility. Youth brings a sense of having so much time and so much ahead to do and experience. When you’re young and life is flowing, it feels as if only accolades and happy days are on the horizon. Even in adversity or when life’s direction seems unclear, it always feels that there is ample time to course-correct and figure it all out. This provides both hope and levity: be it struggle or triumph, the best remains ahead.

But, as 40 approaches and midlife sets in, my perspective is shifting—perhaps in part because I am much more acutely aware of my mortality. Yes, I may still have a lot of time left, but my goodness, it goes by quickly. That sense of spaciousness starts to dwindle. I see that the choices I have made have inevitably narrowed my possibilities—even the good ones. I’ve set a course, a path, to the elimination of myriad others.

If I were to reflect on the course of my life with a critical eye (which turning 40 seemingly invites), I could look at my failures, my misadventures, and my unrealized hopes and dreams with great disappointment, prompting me to doubt my capabilities and wonder if life is inevitably a series of struggles. I could even be dismissive of some of my successes, questioning whether they provided the fulfillment I expected to justify their heavy cost. I could second guess myself and wonder if I have been pursuing the right things in life all along. I might even start to give credence to that pestering inner voice asking: ‘Is that all there is?’

From this perspective, midlife could be perceived as the culprit. After all, it’s in midlife that I recognize that so many of my youthful hopes and dreams will go unfulfilled; that a large part of life is struggle; and that many of my pursuits and successes actually were for naught—that I prioritized and chased some things that didn’t really matter. Small wonder that I continue to cling to youth and fear its loss.

But clinging to youth would be a mistake; it would mean trying to escape these disturbing realizations instead of transcending them. This would presumably entail some sort of midlife crisis, complete with sports car, flashy new wardrobe, and impetuous behavior to match. And in doing so, I would double down on youth’s folly instead of recognizing the redemptive opportunity that midlife affords: to shed the superficial and externally-influenced aspects of youth and instead forge a path of greater depth and authenticity. Midlife’s upside is in introducing the self-awareness and understanding necessary for this transformation.

Does this mean that it’s time to let go of my youth? Not at all. The more I reflect, the more I feel it is a false choice between youth and midlife. Instead, the opportunity is in integrating the two. Midlife’s awareness can focus youth’s spirit as I embark upon deep exploration to make sense of my failures, appreciate the value of my struggles, and set refined yet audacious new pursuits. Together, they can provide the discernment needed (dare I say “wisdom”) to cultivate a more authentic path while instilling the courage to actually live it.

I can see glimpses of this in aspects of my life: While still in the building and expansion phase, my work is now shaped more by purpose and mission than by achievement and financial success; I continue to prioritize my personal development, yet less so to ‘get better at things’ and more so to explore a budding inner journey and spiritual call; the search for meaning remains fundamental, yet I am finding it more in being a new father and contribution than in accolades and accomplishment. The shifts are subtle, but they lead to more intrinsic behavior.

As I adjust to 40, perhaps I’ll realize that the feeling of occupying youth and midlife at once isn’t so troublesome after all. It may not be indicative of inner conflict and denial as I imagined, but a recognition that there continues to be an essential place for youth and its spirit as I also make way for midlife. It’s not a matter of choosing whether to abandon youth or entrench back into it, but an opportunity to continue integrating it with an emerging and evolving midlife perspective. So youth may not have made an Irish Goodbye after all; it simply went out to pick up a new friend for the next part of the journey.

Skylar first attended MEA as a student in April 2019 before becoming our Chief Development Officer in 2020. He can often be found fixing up an old farmhouse he calls home or sauntering about with his wife, baby boy, and Old English Sheepdog.

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