The New Male Midlife Crisis

Their lives are fun and fabulous, their women are up for anything, so why are these 30-something guys still unable to commit?

shirtless guy wearing only a white tie with woman sitting behind him in bed
(Image credit: btrenkel)

For the last two and a half years, David, who works for a bank in New York City, has shared an airy duplex loft with his girlfriend, Emma. In addition to helping run their successful small business, Emma is an attorney who throws fabulous dinner parties for their friends, collects mid-century chairs and designer cocktail dresses, and is the first to offer the futon when a buddy of his needs a place to crash. To their friends, David seems happy and duly proud of his witty, accomplished girlfriend. But earlier this year, without telling her, he leased a second apartment across town. For months he paid two staggering city rents, though he never spent a night in the second place. It was his insurance policy.

A few months before, Emma had raised the idea of planning a vacation and David couldn't commit to it. He couldn't commit to her, despite the life they'd built together. So Emma, in her mid-30s, put it on the line: Propose by the end of March or it's over. March came and went. After logging endless hours with a couple's counselor, they stayed together "with the understanding that I'm supposed to impregnate her by the end of the year," says David, who has since given up his bachelor pied terre. "I've never met anyone as together as Emma. She's super-smart, has a kick-ass job, and she doesn't have any baggage. She's strong for the two of us, and if I don't do this, I'll lose her. But if I do, I might wind up in this constant state of semi-unhappiness, quietly miserable for the rest of my life." Welcome to the new male midlife crisis.

The classic version looked like Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road: the guy in the gray flannel suit, waiting on the platform for the 7:08 to take him to his soul-crushing corporate gig. By his 40s, he was stuck in middle management, middle life, middle everything, his existence wiped clean of all spontaneity, his wife as lusty and hip to his internal struggle as Betty Draper. He'd snap and buy a Boxster, do some sit-ups, take up with a sweater girl from the steno pool.

How things have changed: Job security went the way of the pager — now the average man will have six gigs before he turns 30. He might leap from one to another, or opt out and start a small business, or adopt the magical title "consultant." If he does stick to corporate life, his uniform is likely khakis and a graphic tee; meetings happen in "idea pods"; he hits the office climbing wall at lunch.

But the biggest transformation has come in Betty. Modern gals are fine with living in sin (6.4 million American couples do it), tying the knot later, and waiting to have kids until they've established their careers, which allows them to contribute to the coffers: Four out of five American couples are now double income, and recent reports show many women outearning men in entry-level and top-echelon positions. Outside the office, these women use their type A careerist energy to become multitasking machines — they run the board of their favorite charities, challenge their men on the ski slopes, have a healthy post-Cosmo attitude toward threesomes, decorate to Martha Stewart's standards, make steak chili on game day, and, while dishing it out, present a solid case for why the Steelers should go for it at fourth and one. The men who love them may be struggling like their dads did in their 40s, but for altogether different reasons: The old midlife crisis was triggered by the pressure and routine of providing for a family that relied on a guy for survival; the new one — which comes before kids, often before marriage — stems from trying to keep up with a woman who may not need him at all.

Last winter, John, a 36-year-old bank operations manager, proposed to his girlfriend of four years, and she accepted. But right around the time they put the deposit down on the wedding hall, he got involved with a colleague. His fiancée, Jennifer, found out, and called off the wedding. A month later, he begged her to take him back, saying he'd just been scared — though Jennifer hadn't pushed him to marry. "The wedding was his idea," says the 34-year-old teacher who, despite earning about half what John does, had built up her savings while he dug himself into debt buying clothes, electronics, and flights to his native U.K. "He started acting antsy and short-tempered" a few months before the big day, she says. She tried to draw it out of him, but he'd just grumble something about work. "I offered to cancel or postpone. I said that I wanted him, not the party," she says. She counts the thousands of dollars he owes her as a loss.

When the new male midlife crisis hits, the woman in the picture is well versed in psychobabble and wants to help her guy find the root of his malaise. She may want children, but she's not asking him to bury his libido along with his hopes and dreams in a suburban backyard — and she doesn't feel the time crunch thanks to in vitro, egg freezing, and the mature single mothers she sees every day. Meanwhile, she offers a financial safety net, the patient acceptance of his neuroses, and blow jobs in equal measure. Still, he wonders, do I really want to fill a slot, to be the final check mark in her idea of the "perfect life"?

"If I could take a pill to make me want what she wants, I would," says Christopher, a 35-year-old IT manager, of his wife of five years. A high-flying ad exec, she spends weeknights at glam work events, and on weekends mentors an inner-city high school student and works on her screenplay. She wants kids eventually, but Christopher came to the realization that he'd rather spend his time improving his scores on Xbox 360, rooting for a rotating parade of sports teams, and traveling to the far reaches. "I love her, but I want to spend my life doing what I want to do. And raising kids is not that," he says. When he finally shared this with her, she cut him loose. He immediately booked a flight to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro.

These guys are part of a cause-less generation. They didn't grow up burning their draft cards or fighting the Nazis. They weren't part of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, or any other movement. They were spoiled as kids and now they want to spoil themselves as adults. The old cliché was that a man would wake up one morning and realize that he wanted his youth back. The new version is that he never reached adulthood in the first place. And our culture is romantic about its man-boys. Just as Sex and the City provided a new permissiveness to every thirsty, libidinous, shoe-worshipping woman in America, society loves its free-spirited, pleasure-seeking dudes, whether they're the bachelor-pad-sharing players on every MLB team, the badly behaving characters in dude-centric sitcoms (see: Neil Patrick Harris, the Entourage guys), or real-life Hollywood players like Leonardo DiCaprio, John Mayer, and their Harley-riding ringleader, George Clooney. This crew feels entitled to fun; sacrifice is not in their vocab. They crave love like anyone, but they'd rather spend their cash and time on the latest iPhone and rafting the Zambesi, than on a wedding and curtains and raising kids.

In their most conscious moments, these new midlifers realize their partners are witty and smart and want to make life easy and fun for them. But at some base level, they're turned off by the sweaty maneuvering of the type A girl, the Tracy Flickishness in how she knows what she wants and goes after it without apology.

"I remember when I was 25, I told myself that by the time I was 30, I wanted to be head of my own department for a major cosmetics brand," says Dana, 30, the head of global marketing for a major cosmetics brand. "I moved up quickly because I'm hard-working, and I push for what I want. But the flip side is that I'm always looking for the next thing. I'm never satisfied." Often, that means working until 10 p.m., spending her Mediterranean vacation with a BlackBerry glued to her ear, and waking in the wee hours to read e-mail. Meanwhile, her husband, an engineer for an online search engine, is much less driven. "I have specific goals," Dana says. "My husband's are more general. I'll say, 'We should buy a place in the suburbs within the next two years.' And he'll say, 'Let's take it as it comes.' That's when I freak out and start yelling, 'But what's the three-year plan?!'"

Allison, a 32-year-old housing attorney, worries about wearing out her graphic-artist boyfriend, Peter. "I know my neuroses and tendency to overanalyze, and to push him on questions like when we're gonna have kids, are endearing to him now," she says. "But I wonder a little if my type A-ness and his type B-ness mean that eventually it'll get old, and he'll say, 'Fuck this, I'm out of here.'"

The same thought has occurred to Dana. "Sometimes I think I'm just lucky that he sticks around," she says. "No other guy in the world would put up with this shit."

As David stares down his baby-making deadline, he hasn't ruled out leaving. "I feel like a deer in the headlights," he says. "I have this punching fear in my stomach of leaving this — and of staying in it." The new midlife crisis strikes again.