When do Americans think midlife begins?

A new sociological study examines when Americans think midlife begins:

The topic intrigued the 41-year-old associate professor of sociology at Florida State’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy (who views herself as middle-age, by the way) because “there are so few clear markers of its boundaries, unlike adulthood or old age.” Few studies have examined people’s views of middle age compared to young adulthood or old age.

So Barrett and graduate student Erica Toothman combed through two waves of nationally representative data collected in the United States in 1995-1996 and 2004-2006 that examined how various factors influence people’s views of the timing of middle age…

Here are some key findings:

• Both women and men view the start and end of middle age as occurring earlier for women than for men, consistent with the argument that a “double standard of aging” exists that disadvantages women.
• Younger adults tend to see middle age as occurring at younger ages than do older adults. In other words, as people grow older, they tend to see this life stage as occurring later.
• People who are more socioeconomically disadvantaged or belong to racial or ethnic minority groups tend to view this stage as occurring earlier than do their peers.
• Others likely to view middle age as occurring earlier include those in poor health, those who began families young, those who are divorced, and those without living parents…

According to Barrett’s research, most people think of middle age as beginning at 44 and ending at 60.

This seems particularly interesting in a youth-obsessed culture. Acknowledging that one might be in midlife means that one also has to acknowledge that their youth is over. Does this bring along ideas about not being as important in society and needing to step aside or to help the younger generation? A range from 44 to 60 is quite narrow – this means that only roughly 16 out of the 80 expected years of life are in the middle.

While Barrett there are few markers that signify midlife, I can think of at least two common markers of midlife in American culture today.

1. Having children. This often signifies something about responsibility and now needing to take care of another person.

2. Reaching milestone birthdays like a 30th or 40th. Just go check out the “humorous” cards available for these milestones to see what popular perceptions are about these days.

Overall, this research seems to be part of a larger push among sociologists to look for the cultural markers of certain life periods. For example, there has been a lot of discussion and research about the boundaries between being a teenager and adult, giving rise to talk of a new liminal period called “emerging adulthood.” These markers and life periods will certainly change as society changes.

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