Navigating the Transitions of Midlife Adult Faith

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Navigating the Transitions of Midlife Adult Faith

Jim Merhaut

 

Life becomes less clear in our 40s and 50s. Midlife is an ambiguous time characterized by a deeper search for meaning and a renewal of commitments. In this essay, we will examine the developmental and faith lives of adults in their 40s and 50s.

Key Developmental Issues

Identity

Rather than asking the characteristic young adult question, who am I? midlife adults continue to seek a definition for self, but the question becomes Who am I with you? Relationships take on deeper meaning and compel them to explore how the self is adjusted in the context of committed family, work and civic relationships that have become so important at this stage of life. Midlife invites adults to prioritize relationships over accomplishments.

Goals for the Second Half of Life

Midlife draws one closer to life’s personal destiny. One’s ultimate future comes into sharper focus, and there may be departures form earlier life commitments. Considerations of second careers, travel and exploration, and the possibilities associated with the empty nest begin to open up. Donald Capps puts it this way:

(The fifth decade) is the decade when one undergoes a profound ‘identity crisis’. . . . After all, one has lived long enough to have some rather distinct impression of who one is and has become, and these very impressions are likely to produce uncertainty as to how one feels about oneself, especially with regard to one’s character (moral strength, self-discipline, fortitude, and so forth); life goals (how effective one has been in pursuing them, whether they should be altered or revised, whether they reflect the core of one’s being, and so forth); and origins (how they have fostered or impeded one’s development into the kind of person one aspires to be, whether they afford previously untapped resources that one may use more effectively in the second half of one’s life, and so forth). (Capps, 89)

The life goals that were established a decade or two ago are reevaluated in midlife. Am I in the right career? I’m well established, so is it worth the risk to try something new? Looking to the future causes middle adults to open up to new goals. What one thought was so important years ago doesn’t seem so important now. The causes for which one stood up and fought in earlier years still matter, but the relationships associated with those causes start to matter more.

Community

Midlife adults are engaged in the life of their communities. They are typically raising children and teens and are drawn into a whole host of community organizations and school activities because of their children. They nurture friendships with parents of other children that often last for the rest of their lives. And whether or not they are married, they possess a developing appreciation for ideas and values that are different from their own. They want to explore diversity within communities of dialogue. They want to contribute to their community. They have a growing urge to build a legacy.

Family Life Cycle: The Sandwich Generation

The family life cycle shifts from raising small children to raising adolescents. Families with adolescents must establish boundaries that are more permeable and less rigid than families with younger children. Adolescents open the family to a whole array of new values as they bring friends and new ideas into the family arena. When children marry, this movement reaches a new level. Parents are challenged by the twin tasks of allowing for the increasing independence of the new generation, while maintaining appropriate boundaries and structure to foster continued family development.

Midlife adults are sandwiched between their own children and their aging parents who are seeking new levels of support from them. Midlife adults not only must deal with the change in their own status as they make room for the next generation and prepare to move up to grandparental positions, but also with a different type of relationship with their own parents, who may become dependent. For couples, all of these shifts call for new ways of being married. (McGoldrick and Shibusawa)

Generational Perspectives

Portrayals of Generation X, roughly 84 million U.S. citizens, have tended to revolve around their individualism, independence, proficiency with technology and high levels of education. Half of Gen Xers grew up in homes where both parents worked and almost two in ten grew up in single-parents households. Perhaps this “latch-key kids” phenomenon coupled with their experience as the first generation to grow up with computers spawned Gen Xers fierce self-reliance, resilience, resourcefulness, desire for freedom, techie tendencies, and focus on entertainment.

Employment and Education

Eighty-six percent of Generation X adults work part-time or full-time; 70 percent spend 40 or more hours working and commuting each week; and 40 percent spend 50 more hours each week working and commuting.

Half of all Generation X have completed a post-secondary degree and 43 percent have earned a baccalaureate. (“Active, Balanced, and Happy,” Miller) Generation X adults have earned graduate and professional degrees at a higher rate than any previous generation and continue to do so—22 percent has completed at least one advanced degree and 10 percent have completed a doctorate or professional degree. Today, 11 percent of Generation X adults are enrolled in formal courses or schooling—almost 4 million adults. (“Lifelong Learning,” Miller)

Marriage and Families

Two-thirds of Generation X are currently married and 71 percent report having children at home. Gen Xers place very high importance on family objectives: 83 percent said that “finding the right person to marry and having a happy family life” is very important to them; and 66 percent said that “having children” was very important to them. (“Active, Balanced, and Happy,” Miller) Having spent their formative years in the era of growing divorce rates (divorce peaked in 1980 and has been declining since 1996) and slowing birth rates, Gen X was expected to run away from marriage en masse. That has not happened.

Generation X parents report a high level of involvement with their children. By large majorities they expect their children/teens to graduate from college; they help their children/teens with homework, they talk to their children/teens about school weekly and attend school events monthly; and they take their children to museums, science centers, and libraries. For example 72 percent of the parents of pre-school children reported that they read to their child three or more hours each week. (“Active, Balanced, and Happy,” Miller)

Relationships and Community

Also called the “Friends Generation,” Gen Xers are highly connected. They have extensive social, occupational and community networks outside their immediate family: 66 percent entertain friends at least once a month, 95 percent talk on the phone with friends and family at least once a week (29 percent say at least once a day) and 33 percent are active members of a church or religious group. (“Active, Balanced, and Happy,” Miller)

Generation X adults have constructed extensive personal networks for themselves and their families. They have continued to build and use traditional networks around their families, co-workers, and churches, and other organizations. But they also build digital social networks that allow more frequent conversations with parents, siblings, and children. Gen X adults demonstrate a healthy balance in their personal and social networks. (“Social Capital,” Miller)

Technology Usage

Generation X adults have grown up in the Internet era. Many had computers at home or in school during their high school years. By the time they reach their 20s the Internet was becoming a part of modern life. Almost 100% of all Generation X adults report that they regularly use the Internet.

As of January 2015, 73 percent of adults in their 40s and 60 percent of those in their 50s were Facebook users; 25 percent in their 40s and 12 percent in their 50s were Twitter users; 25 percentage in their 40s and 11% in their 50s are Instagram users; 28 percent in their 40s and 27% in their 50s are Pinterest users; and 31 percent in their 40s and 30% in their 50s are LinkedIn users. (“Social Media Update 2014,“Pew Research)

Spiritual and Religious Perspectives

Faith Development

Adult faith development can span several of James Fowler’s stages of faith, but at midlife or beyond we may see the emergence of conjunctive faith. This stage involves the embrace and integration of opposites in one’s life. It means realizing that one is both young and old, that young-ness and old-ness are held together in the same life. It means recognizing that we are both masculine and feminine, with all of the meanings those characterizations have. It means coming to terms with the fact that we are both constructive people and, inadvertently, destructive people. Midlife maturity prompts one to move away from an us-against-them mentality and more towards a we’re-all-in-this-together mentality.

In the conjunctive stage, symbol and story, metaphor and myth, both from our own traditions and from others, seem to be newly appreciated. Apologetic approaches to faith formation are less effective than they were in adolescence and young adulthood.

Midlife and Spirituality

The midlife years are particularly pregnant with spiritual transformation possibilities due to the “crossroads” nature of midlife. How does one synthesize what has been and shift gears to move forward with renewed purpose into what is yet to come? In The Transcendent Self, van Kaam describes spirituality of midlife adults and proposes key practices that make the middle years fertile for spiritual growth. Van Kaam sees the midlife crisis as much more than a psychological phenomenon:

The midlife crisis is ultimately a spiritual one that challenges us to transcend a mainly vitalistic or functional appraisal of life…. New hobbies and entertainments can be part of the solution, but they are not the whole story…. Even those not much given to reflection on the meaning of their lives are forced now to search for a deeper reason to go on. That reason is found in a region of our personality where many of us do not feel much at home, for we must turn inwardly to the transcendent dimension of our spiritual life. (van Kaam, 12)

The first key to spiritually mastering the midlife transition is to detach somewhat from identifying one’s value with one’s accomplishments. The second key to spiritual transformation at midlife involves thoughtful reflection on what is really happening as one moves away from the vitality of the younger years. Recollection and prayer, particularly meditative prayer, are helpful practices as one detaches and refocuses at midlife. Deeper engagement in a community of spiritual practice is a third key to navigating the crisis at midlife. The appreciation for diversity and the rejection of black-and-white solutions to problems are signs of a deeper spiritual urge to move one toward an all-encompassing embrace of God’s creation. The whole of creation begins to feel like home rather than the limited areas of life where I have deep familiarity and high functionality.

Religiosity and Faith Practices

One in three Generation X adults is an active member of a church or religious organization and almost all of these adults report attending one or more church or religious activities or events each week. (“Active, Balanced, and Happy,” Miller)

In Gen X Religion, Richard Flory identifies five major characteristics of a Generation X approach to religion.

1. Generation X religion emphasizes the sensual and experiential, combining the sacred and the profane and incorporating text, image, music, dance, and the body as venues for the expression of religious beliefs.
2. Generation X religion is entrepreneurial in finding cultural and institutional space to create new religious expressions.
3. Generation X religion is rooted in the quest for religious identity in community, rather than a more purely personal spiritual quest.
4. Race, ethnic, and gender diversity and inclusiveness are key values of Generation X religion.
5. There is an insistence on an “authentic” religious experience. Superficial commitment to religion is sniffed out and challenged by Gen X. (Flory, 234-235)

Conclusion

The confirming and chaotic midlife years are a unique opportunity for growth. The increased levels of confidence due to significant life accomplishments can be both a blessing if relationships deepen. Midlife holds within it the promise of wisdom, and those who navigate midlife with intentionality and within a caring community can hope to know blessings in new and personal ways.


Series on the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation. This article is the third in a series of articles offered by the NCCL Adult Faith Formation Committee to raise awareness about the differing faith formation needs of adults.
The first two articles: Faith Formation for the Generations & Seasons of Adulthood by John Roberto and Faith Formation with Young Adults by Kyle Matthew Oliver can be found in the April 2017 Issue of the CL Magazine.
Webinars hosted in partnership with Ave Maria Press followed each article: Seasons of Adulthood on May 2, 2017 and Young Adult Faith Formation on September 19, 2017.
There will also be a webinar following this article about Mid-Life Adults on November 7, 2017.


Works Cited
Capps, Donald. The Decades of Life: A Guide to Human Development. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Davis, Russell Haden. “The Middle Years.” Human Development and Faith: Life-Cycle Stages of Body, Mind, and Soul. Ed. Felicity B. Kelcourse. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004.
Flory, Richard. “Toward a Theory of Gen X Religion.” Gen X Religion. Edited by Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Fowler, James W. Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development & Christian Faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Kelcourse, Felicity. “Finding Faith.” Human Development and Faith. Edited by Felicity Kelcourse. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004.
Kosmin, Barry A. & Juhem Navarro-Rivera. “The Transformation of Generation X: Shifts in Religious and Political Self-Identification, 1990-2008” Trinity College, Hartford, CT.
McGoldrick, Monica & Shibusawa, Tazuko. “The Family Life Cycle” in Normal Family Processes: Growing Diversity and Complexity [Fourth Edition]. Froma Walsh, editor. New York: Guilford, 2012.
Miller, Jon D. “Social Capital: Networking in Generation X.” University of Michigan, 2013. (www.lsay.org)
Miller, Jon D. “Lifelong Learning.” University of Michigan, 2013. (www.lsay.org)
Miller, Jon D. “Active, Balanced, and Happy.” University of Michigan, 2011. (www.lsay.org)
“’Nones’ on the Rise.” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012. (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise)
Parker, Kim, and Eileen Patten. The Sandwich Generation. Pew Research. January 30, 2013. (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/01/30/the-sandwich-generation)
Schwadel, Philip. “Period and Cohort Effects on Religious Nonaffiliation and Religious Disaffiliation: A Research Note.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2010) 49(2): 311-319
“Social Media Update 2014.” Pew Research Center, January 9, 2015. (http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/09/social-media-update-2014)
Taylor, Paul. The Next America. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.
Van Kaam, Adrian. The Transcendent Self: Formative Spirituality of the Middle, Early and Late Years of Life. Pittsburgh: Epiphany Association, 1991.
“The Web at 25 in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, February 27, 2014. (http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/27/the-web-at-25-in-the-u-s)

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