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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Broken Dreams

An Intimate History of the Midlife Crisis

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Broken Dreams

An Intimate History of the Midlife Crisis

The midlife crisis has become a cliché in modern society. Since the mid-twentieth century, the term has been used to explain infidelity in middle-aged men, disillusionment with personal achievements, the pain and sadness associated with separation and divorce, and the fear of approaching death. This book provides a meticulously researched account of the social and cultural conditions in which middle-aged men and women began to reevaluate their hopes and dreams, reassess their relationships, and seek new forms of identity and fresh pathways to self-satisfaction. Drawing on a rich seam of literary, medical, media, and cinematic sources, as well as personal accounts, Broken Dreams explores how the crises of middle-aged men and women were shaped by increased life expectancy, changing family structures, shifting patterns of work, and the rise of individualism.

336 pages | 9 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

History: British and Irish History

Psychology: Social Psychology

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"Medical historian Jackson examines in this thought-provoking scholarly study the social and cultural factors that made the midlife  crisis 'a key feature of private lives and public debate in the mid-twentieth century. . . . Jackson’s expansive range and nuanced readings of popular culture more than make his case. This is a pinpoint dissection of an influential if slippery concept."

Publishers Weekly

"The midlife crisis has always been an embarrassment for the affluent societies that produce it. . .. So what is the elusive social dysfunction that even the cynical can sense in their fortunate lives? Jackson’s study of midlife turmoil, Broken Dreams, presents the full answer to this question with a history that honors the many variations of human experience to which the midlife crisis lays claim."

Hedgehog Review

"This history of the midlife crisis is a first (to this reviewer's knowledge), and the result is a delight to this just-passed-midlife reader. . . . The introduction gives one a sense of the wide range of the material Jackson explores: psychoanalytic, social scientific, cultural, and literary. Most of the classic studies come from masculine models of life stages; the midlife crisis was a gendered concept from its origin. The author concludes his historical study with some timeless advice: ‘avoidance of internal conflicts and external pressures is a high-risk strategy at midlife. . . . Left unattended, our midlife delusions will continue to ruin lives long after we have gone.' . . . Highly recommended." 


"The book is intended for a general audience but loses none of its academic rigor. It is thoroughly evidenced throughout its humorous, engaging, and clearly written prose. The structure allows the author to present Dante’s Comedy of Errors and David Nobbs’ Reginal Perrin alongside the psychiatric work of Carl Jung and Elliott Jacques without jarring the reader at all."


“In what will surely be recognized as the classic account of how the midlife crisis became the lens through which we perceive and experience middle age, Jackson uncovers the cultural, demographic, economic, and social scientific factors that led us to see midlife as a uniquely problematic life stage. Whether you consider midlife as a point at which discontented women and men compulsively seek to preserve their youthful dreams and vitality or as an opportunity for reinvention and renewal, Broken Dreams will prompt you to view middle age in a fresh light: as a stage that is perhaps life’s most complex and challenging.”

Steven Mintz, Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin, author of "The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood"

“Synthesizing his account from a wide variety of source materials, Jackson demonstrates convincingly that even though midlife itself resists neat definition, it nevertheless transcended biomedical, social, and cultural domains from the early twentieth century onwards. Covering a diverse range of themes, but focusing particularly on gender, this important book will serve as a touchstone for all historians concerned with ageing, family, sex, and the life course.”

James F. Stark, Professor of Medical Humanities, University of Leeds, author of “The Cult of Youth: Anti-Ageing in Modern Britain”


Who—or what—killed Reginald Perrin?

Created by the comic brilliance of the English novelist and dramatist David Nobbs, Reggie Perrin figured as the protagonist in a series of novels, the first of which, The Death of Reginald Perrin, was published in 1975. Reggie was 46 years old, lived with his wife Elizabeth and their cat in a white neo-Georgian house in Surrey, and commuted to work each day by train, which always arrived at Waterloo station precisely eleven minutes behind time. As a beleaguered middle manager at Sunshine Desserts, located in a ‘shapeless, five-storey block’ on the South Bank of the Thames, Reggie was a slave both to the timeless rhythms of the working day—the clock above the main entrance having been ‘stuck at three forty-six since 1967’— and to the idiosyncrasies of his imperious boss, CJ. The Perrins’s two children, Linda and Mark, had grown up and moved out, leaving their parents living in a house that was no longer a home.

Reggie’s sense of midlife malaise is evident from the opening pages of the novel. Visiting the company’s doctor, who is suffering himself from the insecurity and anxieties of middle age, Reggie admits to feeling ‘listless and lazy’, being unable to concentrate and having lost his ‘zest for living’. Over subsequent days, his behaviour becomes impulsive and unpredictable; he is tempted by thoughts of infidelity, argues with his children, dictates abusive letters to clients, and compares himself unfavourably with the self-assured solidity of younger men. While his wife is visiting her mother in Worthing one day, Reggie begins to erase the traces of what appears to him to have been an insignificant, now spiritually bankrupt, life:
He threw the wedding photos on the fire. Hats curled and blackened. He threw the small-bore rifle team on the fire. Campbell-Lewiston, E. L., curled and blackened. His past went up in smoke, heat and little bits of ash.

Burning the past was not an unfamiliar gesture for fictional middleaged men. Joe Lampton, the 35-year-old working-class anti-hero of John Braine’s Life at the Top, published in 1962, had harboured hopes that a spring bonfire would effectively obliterate the emotional and material baggage that had weighed him down during ten years of marriage and allow him to make ‘some kind of fresh start’. For Reggie Perrin, too, the seemingly trivial act of incinerating records from his youth constituted the seeds of a plan to convert his alienation from a meaningless, materialist world—‘I am not a mere tool of the capitalist society,’ he writes on the crossword page of his daily newspaper—into self-affirming action. Having written suicide notes to his manager at work, his fancied mistress and his wife, Reggie drives to the coast of Dorset, undresses and walks ‘naked and hairy’ into the sea.

David Nobbs’s ability to capture the multiple registers of middle-age disaffection becomes apparent not only in the last third of the novel, but in the iconic television series, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–9), that followed. Reggie Perrin does not drown. Instead, he swims back to shore, changes into new clothes, disguises himself with a wig and false beard, and drives away to start a freer life, unencumbered by anxieties about his capacity to perform satisfactorily either at work or at home. Reggie’s midlife detour lasts no more than a few days. Nostalgia for his previous life leads him—in his new identity as Martin Wellbourne—to reconnect first with his daughter and then, at his own memorial service, with his wife and friends. By the closing scenes, Reggie (as Martin) is back working at Sunshine Desserts and on the verge of (re)marrying Elizabeth. Although the irony is evident, the outcome of Reggie’s existential crisis is more hopeful than disheartening. Aware of Reggie’s deceit, Elizabeth welcomes the opportunity that her husband’s death and rebirth offers: ‘Our marriage wasn’t working all that well,’ she explains to their daughter. ‘Now it is going to work.’

Suspects in the counterfeit death of Reginald Perrin are legion. It would be satisfyingly simple to explain his desertion in terms of a personal psychological breakdown, a form of para-suicide precipitated by the monotony of commuting to work—itself a metaphor for a fruitless journey—and his fear of ageing, fading virility and death. However convincing this emphasis on private anguish might seem—and there is much to commend it as a semi-plausible account of Reggie’s demise—it pays insufficient attention to the social and cultural, and particularly the relational, factors that prescribed middle-age lives and pleasures in the post-war period. The boundaries and possibilities of adulthood, parenthood and family life after the Second World War—and the fall and rise of Reginald Perrin—were fashioned in part by longer life expectancies, most clearly visible in the extended period of time available to individuals and couples beyond the age of forty or fifty. The contours and inflection points of this protracted arc of life were marked by demonstrable physiological changes, particularly in women, whose biographies were often reduced to the calendar of menstruation, reproduction and menopause. But the seemingly natural biological boundaries that bookended adulthood in women, and to a lesser extent in men, were coloured by gendered expectations of self, family, work and home. It is not coincidental that Elizabeth—also of course at midlife—remains implausibly stable and dependable, the fixed domestic point around which characters in The Death of Reginald Perrin revolve in the face of her husband’s crisis, her own agency flattened in the interests of family cohesion and narrative ease.

Reggie Perrin’s rejection of home and work—an option not open to his wife—indicates that in men the stages of life were customarily measured not in terms of biological milestones but in relation to the onset, modulations and cessation of working life—that is, in terms of radically different perceptions and experiences of time and productivity. In the decades following the Second World War, the challenges of negotiating conflicting expectations across the life course, the uneven distribution of domestic responsibilities and contrasting opportunities for paid employment and leisure were thought to be the primary causes of post-marital unhappiness, the breakdown of families and accelerating levels of divorce. As many contemporary studies of marital tensions indicated, these facets of midlife were not without economic, political and cultural, as well as conjugal, contexts. According to the British sociologist Ronald Fletcher, writing in 1962, stresses and strains in relationships were not the outcome of decaying family life, as some were suggesting, but the ‘unforeseen consequences’ of broader social transformations. Reginald and Elizabeth Perrin were just one among countless couples struggling to cope with the political uncertainties and crises of the Cold War; with the accelerating pace of technological and cultural change that generated what the American writer Alvin Toffler referred to in 1970 as ‘future shock’; with the boredom and monotony of work and domesticity; and with the atomizing imperatives of economic liberalism with its insistence on self-realization and self-fulfilment regardless of the impact on others.

Reggie’s acting out of his midlife turmoil was therefore neither incidental nor unique. In spite of contemporary literary and scholarly preoccupations, nor was it confined to men. Passages of pain and self-reflection were demanded of everyone by a Western society—almost a world—in perpetual crisis, by imbalances of power and the disruption of social relations that blighted the middle decades of the twentieth century. The propensity for happy young lovers to turn into sombre married couples, who had come to detest or fear each other during middle age, as Marie Stopes put it in 1928, emerged alongside fully realized fears of economic depression and fascism. Attempts to resolve individual and marital tensions at midlife, or to heal fractured families, were devised by self-help authors, marriage guidance counsellors, divorce lawyers, psychoanalysts and politicians, who insisted that after the Second World War life could and must change—or at least return to some idealized impersonation of the past. Reginald Perrin’s fretful, but ultimately fruitful, metamorphosis into Martin Wellbourne and the coincidental resolution of the crises imposed on his family were emblematic of the alternating dreams and despair of a world in disarray.

David Nobbs’s comic optimism that Reggie could navigate his way successfully through midlife was not necessarily shared or replicated elsewhere. Longitudinal surveys and ethnographic studies carried out after the war suggested that some people blossomed in midlife, adjusting relatively comfortably to major life events. But many researchers emphasized how middle age was experienced as a period of anxiety and turmoil; as a phase of life in which physical and mental health, intimate relationships, families, career prospects and financial security fell irretrievably apart. Shaping this bleak view was a long-held conviction, expressed in medical texts, novels and the media throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that middle age constituted at best a plateau period, and at worst a phase of steady decline, within the life course. The forces of stagnation or involution were always personal, buried in the biology and psychology of everyday life. But they were also shaped by circumstances beyond the control of individuals and families. During the late 1940s and ’50s, the freedom and contentment of men, women and children were constrained by beliefs in an ideal life course and an optimal family structure that were promoted—most notably by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, in 1943—as one of the pillars of political promises to secure domestic and social stability after the war. Like so many middle-aged families living through and beyond the Second World War, Reginald Iolanthe Perrin (RIP) and his wife and children were derailed by uncomfortable comparisons between present achievements and past aspirations—leading to fear of the future.

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