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‘Nearer my God to thee’: What happens to men midlife?

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 8 June 2005


Midlife is probably one of the major transitions faced by males. The major transitions are generally true for most men, though there are big differences across sexual preference, lifestyle, class, race and culture. Some common markers of these transitions might be: birth, puberty, marriage, divorce and retirement.

Much fun is made of the "midlife crisis" for men. These things are always funny when they happen to someone else! Some of us feel torn between nurturing our parents in their 80s and 90s, raising kids who still want encouragement and working ever-demanding jobs. We want to say, "When is it MY time?" Some real physical changes for men in midlife are as follows:

Our skin becomes thinner: a 60-year-old man is literally more thin-skinned than a man of 20 or 30. Skin becomes more vulnerable to the ravages of wind and sun. Our eyes become less flexible and less able to focus. Our backs groan: 80 per cent of us will suffer back pain at some stage. As we get older, we sit more and play, run and swim less. Our joints suffer, especially ones like knees that bear stress. Some sports encourage problems (for example, golf, because of the way you have to twist your body). Football of all kinds causes injuries which damage joints and break bones. So as we age, one-third of us will have backs that steadily worsen.

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Look at the guys on TV who are admired, and you'll see young, strong bodies. So many men are worried about looking old and acting old. It's as if we have to be ashamed about not being young and "muscly" any more - which is a bit mad. How do men cope with feeling older? To find out I have interviewed 30 men in Sydney who can shed some light on the issue.

For many, the job market has become very difficult for men who are no longer young. Dave, from Surry Hills in Sydney, comments:

Life is more stressful for men. Today you must be more self-reliant. You’re more likely not to have a permanent job but a succession of contracts. you need to have skills to sell. You must review your strengths and weaknesses every now and then, tart up your ego and flog yourself all over town. It affects the way you look at life, the plans you make. It makes men more stressed. If you start buying property, you’re more stressed. But the pressure is still there to spend! Unless you’re a top lawyer, you can’t expect to earn a lot and you’ve got lots of uncertainty. Academia used to have tenure as a carrot - not any more. Banking has a tiny elite doing well. The rest of them are flexible and that means they can say “thanks a lot … bye!”

Alfredo is a 39-year-old Italian living with his wife, three sons and a daughter in Kensington, east of Sydney. He talks about being an Italian versus an Australian man:

The Anglo restrictions on being a man are formulas: “Don’t do this, don’t do that”. You can’t touch people unless you negotiate that. But men aren’t as distant in Italy. They do touch others - women and men. They can be exuberant, excited. They can be themselves.

Someone said men should have sex at least twice a week. Alfredo comments:

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That would be nice! I’m all for more sex. Yeah, it’s probably healthy to have sex twice a week. I’m Catholic so I like being able to celebrate that. Being Catholic and being able to say I love making love to my wife - it fills my heart.

But Alfredo knows he is getting older.

At 30 I was sitting in my power. I’ve had a fair bit of life experience, a sense of vitality. I felt agile, I was moving forward. At 40, it’s “Oh shit! “ You realise you’re halfway there … towards the end.

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Article edited by Kelly Donati.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

For further research on men in midlife, see here.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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