Seeing college as part of the earlier steps of life

In thinking about how I have passed the statistical midpoint of my life, a rough calculation based on life expectancy figures from the CDC, I am reminded that the college years tend to occur early on in many people’s lives. If students graduate from college anywhere between age 21 and 26, they will have, on average, more than fifty years of life after college.

Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto on

These numbers present a different perspective than a description sometimes attached to college: “the best years of your life.” They may be good, interesting, unique years. (They also may not be.) But, if they are the “best years,” what does this mean for the decades of life after college? What happens with all of those years after graduation?

This perspective of decades of life post-college might also provide depth to the idea of life-long learning. Even as college happens relatively early in life and it is a relatively short experience, there is potential for the content, relationships, patterns, and dispositions learned and formed to affect multiple decades afterward. Many are worried about what job or career comes right after the college degree; a longer-term view puts college in the context of a longer life with more twists and turns.

As people age, a college experience recedes further and further back in years. In the growing decades after college, what remains from college?

How residents of Great Britain choose where to live

A new study looks at why people live where they do in Great Britain:

Not surprisingly, the key things that matter to people about the neighborhoods they live in include a mix of housing costs, being close to family, and proximity to where they work. More than a quarter (28 percent) of respondents cited housing costs and proximity to friends as key factors in the neighborhoods where they live, followed by the size and type of available housing (22 percent), and proximity to their workplace or their partner’s workplace (21 percent)…

The full report offers this conclusion:

Where people choose to live is largely determined by their stage of life. Young people aged between 25 and 34 prioritise proximity to the workplace, cost of housing, and access to leisure and cultural facilities when choosing where to live. Those aged between 35 and 55 tend to value access to good schools, and the  size and type of their houses. And those aged over 55 prioritise access to countryside and green space.
These preferences help to explain the differing demographics seen across cities and their surrounding areas – different parts of cities are more able to offer amenities that are prioritised by people at different stages of their lives.

Overall, it sounds like two factors matter most even with the age differences: a favorable location in regards to social necessities (jobs and relationships) and good but affordable housing. Of course, obtaining these two goals may be quite difficult for many given that: families and friends don’t necessarily prioritize living near each other as opposed to living close to work or going where the jobs are, employers tend to be concentrated in certain locations, affordable and desirable housing can be very difficult to find in many popular areas, and consumers can’t exactly find housing that is everything that they want.

If age or life stage matters so much, should planners and others really go after lifestyle sorts of communities appealing to just one group or provide options for multiple groups within individual communities?

How life stages affect decisions about housing

Life stages, including cohabitation or kids leaving the house, can trigger different housing choices:

Unmarried. Singles are more likely to rent and live in locations that are closer to entertainment and employment, which is why these areas are more in demand today than usual.

Togetherness. Cohabitation has been on the rise in recent decades, but homeownership rates for these couples are much lower than rates for their married counterparts.

Marriage. Marriage often increases the desire to own a home; many location and housing choices depend on income and nearby family.

Children. The addition of little ones makes owning a home feel like a necessity for many, given the desire for yards, good schools and social circles for the kids.

Children moving out. An empty nest often results in lifestyle changes, including different home-size preferences, social circles and floor-plan needs. Locational preferences also begin to shift.

The first two stages suggest a decrease in homeownership, the next two based around marriage and kids involve the more traditional American Dream, and the last seems to revert to the first two when more options are available. Are we headed toward a housing market where owning a home is primarily about kids? This has always been a key factor in moving to and living in the suburbs, which is closely linked to homeownership.

The flip side of this is to ask how real estate agents and builders will respond to these life stages. Can they afford to target each stage with specialized housing? Are there ways to have more flexible housing that can transition as the lifecourse changes?

Sociologist/time management consultant on the rush of Baby Boomers to new homes

A sociologist and time management consultant offers some thoughts about the upcoming years for many American Baby Boomers:

Jan Yager, a sociologist and time-management consultant, predicts that within the next decade “tens of millions” of baby boomers will sell their current homes and move to different abodes more suitable for retirement.

No matter where they plan to move, boomers who’ve lived in the same home for many years will face the enormous task of sifting through accumulations and upgrading their property for market. And all who try to tackle this project need a strategic plan to manage their time, says Yager, author of “Work Less, Do More,” a time-management book…

If possible, Yager encourages those who need to clear through a vast collection of belongings before selling to allow a full year for this project. But she’s aware that most sellers don’t have this much latitude and that they may need some help to expedite the process.

“It could be a good idea for you to hire a professional organizer,” says Yager, who recommends that home sellers consider seeking a local referral through the National Association of Professional Organizers (

Four things strike me here:

1. Moving is not made easier after decades of consumption and accumulation. While our houses have gotten larger, our household sizes have gotten smaller, suggesting we need more space for our stuff or like more private space.

2. Is there a lot of potential for contractors and companies to offer remodeling or flipping services to Baby Boomers who don’t have the time to upgrade their own homes? New buyers have their own tastes and there could be a lot of money spent on upgrading homes built during the construction boom after World War II.

3. The potential move of so many Baby Boomers has the potential to have a large effect on demographics and other features of American life such as electoral politics, the housing industry, and advertisers. We’ve already seen some of this in Sunbelt growth in places like Florida and Arizona.

4. Americans have been known for their mobility, their interest in trying out new places and tackling new opportunities. Is this an extension of this spirit, another example of the American can-do spirit? Or more of a recognition that life truly changes as we age?

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.

Sociological study links reading as a teenager to better jobs at age 33

Sociologists looking at a long-running British longitudinal study have uncovered a link between reading as a teenager and job outcomes at age 33:

Of all the free-time activities teenagers do, such as playing computer games, cooking, playing sports, going to the cinema or theatre, visiting a museum, hanging out with their girlfriend or boyfriend, reading is the only activity that appears to help them secure a good job.

This is one of the conclusions of an Oxford University study into 17,000 people all born in the same week in May 1970. They are now grown up and in their early 40s and the sociological study has tracked their progress through time.

At the age of 16, in 1986, they were asked which activities they did in their spare time for pleasure. These answers were then checked against the jobs they were doing at the age of 33, in 2003.

Mark Taylor, the researcher at Nuffield College, Oxford found that there was a 39 per cent probability that girls would be in professional or managerial posts at 33 if they had read books at 16, but only a 25 per cent chance if they had not. For boys the figures rose from 48 per cent to 58 per cent if they read books.

This reminds me of a recent argument from two American sociologists that giving college students more opportunities to read and write led to better educational outcomes, which presumably might be related to better jobs down the road.

I suppose this could also lead to an interesting discussion about whether this motivation should or could be used with teenagers. Would teenagers buy into an argument that reading now will help them down the road? My guess is that this argument would be difficult to make as the future and its jobs might seem a long way off. Also, should we be pushing people to read for instrumental reasons (like getting a job) or do they have better life outcomes if they read because of curiosity or for pleasure?

How women are “taking the lead” in retirement decisions

Within a story about the large number of people who wish to move when they retire, a sociologist suggests that a shift in retirement has taken place: while men have often decided where a couple might go, women are now playing a more active role in deciding where couples should go:

“Retirement used to be a male transition that wives really just accommodated,” says Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. “Now women are taking the lead and planning what is going to come next. There’s a ‘his’ and a ‘her’ view of things.”

The “her” view catches many men by surprise. Cheryl Rampage, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, recalls a man who wanted to retire to Palm Springs, Calif., and play golf. The wife wanted to stay in Chicago. “He took it as a huge slap in the face,” Ms. Rampage recalls. “He had developed this dream in his head without being in a conversation.” After some therapy, the couple agreed to move to a city they both liked.

I would be interested to hear a longer explanation about why this shift has taken place: feminism? More participation of women in the labor force? Changes in what retired people or people near retirement expect to experience in retirement?

A growing number of “encore careers”

Retirement is an interesting topic these days in the United States: can people retire after the losses in the recent economic crisis? How will society pay for Social Security and medical benefits when all those Baby Boomers retire? How will states (and other organizations) pay for pensions that have been underfunded?

One answer: have those who have retired enter an “encore career.”

Daly is part of the growing “encore careers” movement — an effort to match older workers who can’t or don’t want to retire with public service jobs that benefit society. The movement, begun in the late 1990s, has spawned non-profit groups and programs from Boston to Portland, Ore., aimed at helping older workers find new work. Many of the programs are run by people who have made the transition.

At a time when 77 million Baby Boomers ages 46-65 are moving toward traditional retirement age, analysts say the movement could grow exponentially in the coming decades. A 2008 survey by MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a national think tank on boomers and work, found more than 5 million Americans in encore careers. Half of those ages 44-70 expressed interest in them.

Moving from one career to a more altruistic job late in life isn’t easy, however. Analysts say there aren’t enough of those jobs yet, the pay is usually low and employers often favor younger applicants.

It seems to me that there is a larger issue underlying these practical obstacles: as a society, do we value the kinds of contributions older citizens can make? Those who have retired or are nearing retirement have a wealth of experience, related to jobs and working but also a variety of important life lessons and skills,  that the rest of society could benefit from. But if we are a society that tends to value youth and novelty, then these encore careers might not be something we encourage.

Ultimately, a movement like this could end up being a nice solution to some of the demographic and financial issues that face the country in the next few decades. If the number of these jobs could grow, those who have retired can share their experiences and wisdom while also earning some money in order to ease the financial burden on broader society.

Laughter and fun declines precipitously during the life course

A study from the University of Glamorgan found that age 52 is when “both men and women begin to suffer a sharp decline in their sense of humour and get increasingly grumpy.”

Also, humor and the laughing drops quite a bit from being an infant to being a teenager and then drops again after having kids:

The study found that while an infant can laugh aloud as many as 300 times every day, life rapidly becomes far less fun.

As Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry so deftly depicted, things soon change. While teenagers are the age group most likely to laugh at other people’s misfortunes, they laugh on average just six times a day.

Things get even bleaker in what should be the relatively carefree twenties, when we laugh four times a day.

This rises to five times a day throughout the thirties, when having children is cited as a major factor in restoring a sense of humour.

By the time we reach 50, Brits are laughing just three times a day, while the average 60-year-old manages a hearty guffaw just 2.5 times in the same period.

Just five or less laughs a day throughout all of adulthood? Assuming that this can be somewhat generalizable to Americans, it suggests that we need to laugh more.

Quick Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is in its second week in theaters. Featuring the same band of characters, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and friends, plus some new toys and humans, Pixar has served up another successful film. My thoughts:

1. Andy is off to college. An interesting plot device as the toys have to switch gears – but also seems connected to a Pixar interest in chronicling life changes. Up contrasted an old man and young boy. Cars looked at changes in a small town. These films are not just about a moment of time but they involve complicated contexts for the current story. These transitional periods, such as a move from childhood to college or from mourning and grumpiness to meaning and joy after the loss of a spouse, have much potential for exploration.

2. There does seem something a little strange about watching a movie about a kid playing with toys. Andy is depicted in his youth running around his house with his cast of toys – no shots of him sitting at a computer, in a movie theater, texting. Older Andy is tied more to his computer. Yet we are paying money to see a sentimental movie about a kid playing with his toys. Does a movie like this inspire kids to be more imaginative with their toys or simply encourage them to watch more movies?

3. Pixar is really good at invoking sentimentalism without being mawkish. Andy eventually reflects on what the toys mean to him – and it is a touching moment. The typical sweeping Hollywood soundtrack is not present (thankfully) and the characters are not overdramatic. Even though Pixar makes animated stories, the key to their success are engaging stories.

4. If you were curious, the door is left wide open at the end for another film with a new set of human characters.