“This is my last chance to have my baby,” said one forty-four-year-old man. “I feel as if I’ve reached the peak of my powers, and now I have to make it—because if I’m not successful in the next few years I never will be.”
This comment reflects the intense preoccupation with “making it” felt at mid-life by men who are plugged into success and propelled by the American Dream. This is the time when a man comes eyeball-to-eyeball with the issue of his own success or failure. This is the time, he knows, when all his accomplishments—everything he has worked for—will be weighed and measured and judged.
Awaiting that judgment with trepidation, a man often feels as if he is standing on the edge of a precipice: There is a sense of desperation and a feeling that the moment of truth is about to arrive.
The crucial verdict is issued earlier for some men than others. Creative types like mathematicians and musicians are judged early, and so are blue-collar workers and athletes, whose work depends on physical strength; whereas the verdict on lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects—and those at the highest levels of power in government and business usually comes later.
But for the majority of middle-class American males, forty is the watershed age when a man’s whole career—his life itself—seems to be on the line. This is the time when society judges him in ruthlessly clear-cut terms: As a success or failure, a winner or loser.
Whether or not he “makes it” at this decisive moment in his life, however, a man is likely to collide uncomfortably
55 with his most cherished illusions and our society’s most cherished myths. And for this generation of mid-life men, hooked firmly into the Horatio Alger legend, the collision is likely to be unusually severe. Taught to push hard, compete fiercely, and anticipate continuing rewards for their sacrificial efforts to climb the ladder, they are so heavily invested in work that their identity is in large measure defined by what they do. Thus when the moment of judgment arrives it is not simply a man’s job that is at stake, but also his fundamental sense of self.
Ironically, when the verdict is finally issued, a man discovers that it’s not an answer but a question. Now he must begin the search for his own answers, evaluating what his achievements really mean, and what he really wants next.