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.

63% of the elderly claim to have experienced discrimination

Discrimination is typically associated with issues that arise involving race and ethnicity and gender. But a recent study suggests a majority of the elderly also say they have recently experienced discrimination:

A startling proportion of older people report that they’ve experienced discrimination: 63 percent, in a study recently published in Research on Aging. The most commonly cited cause? “Thirty percent report being mistreated because of their age,” said the lead author Ye Luo, a Clemson University sociologist. Perceived discrimination because of gender, race or ancestry, disabilities or appearance followed in smaller proportions…

Dr. Luo and her colleagues used national data from the federal Health and Retirement Study to measure what nearly 6,400 people — all older than age 53 when the study began in 2006 – thought about discriminatory behavior. Dr. Luo wasn’t surprised by the high proportion of people who said they had encountered it. That was consistent, she says, with previous studies.

As the researchers had expected, some people were more likely to report discrimination than others. Blacks, those who were separated or divorced or widowed, and those with fewer household assets had higher levels of perceived discrimination, as measured by questionnaires. It was less commonly perceived by whites, by the married or partnered, and by those with more assets…

Interestingly, the discrimination effect was stronger for everyday slights and suspicions (including whether people felt harassed or threatened, or whether they felt others were afraid of them) than for more dramatic events like being denied a job or promotion or being unfairly detained or questioned by police.

The study also suggests the experiences of discrimination are related to poorer health outcomes.

So if this is a common experience, what could society do differently to limit this? Public service announcements? Lessons in elementary school? How much of this is related to a youth-obsessed culture?

I wonder if these issues will only grow as Americans live longer. Also, what might happen if there is more generational conflict over debt, paying into social security, and the differences in wealth between the young and old?

The morality of going to the gym

The adult life is often made of up little tasks that must be done to live: go to work, prepare and eat meals, do laundry, and various other activities. Perhaps there is another activity that must be added to this list: getting exercise and/or going to the gym.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

And the pectoral is political. The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness…

To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.

An interesting commentary. More broadly, these ideas seemed tied to American ideals of youth and health. We like politicians and athletes and movie stars who are physical specimens. We argue that disciplining the body is indicative of discipline in other areas of life. Being healthy is not just being an appropriate weight or eating right or limiting stress: it should include muscles and toning.

Some questions follow:

1. Do other cultures have similar ideas or are we unusual in this regard?

2. When or where did the emphasis on muscles, beyond just “being fit,” arise?

3. For the average American, how much of this judgment regarding exercise and going to the gym comes from people around them versus comparing themselves to media produced images?

4. How much have professional sports contributed to this? If you look at athletes in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not train as much. Today, being an athlete is a full-time, full-year job in order to stay in shape.

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.

Ageism the latest prejudice to be studied?

A sociologist at Virginia Tech suggests ageism is now receiving more scholar attention:

Ageism is the latest form of prejudice being studied, although certainly not new in American culture, according to Toni Calasanti, professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. Her research is the lead story in the winter 2011 Virginia Tech Research magazine.

We tend to resist signs of aging and want to keep passing for younger, Calasanti said, since being old affects our social status. She conducts interviews and studies Web pages, past scholarly articles, and other research to look at ageism. While people, including academics, do not want to think of themselves as growing old, “ageism oppresses the people we will become, cuts off our options for collective action now, and arms us for battles we cannot win alone, while leading us to ignore that which binds us,” she said.

With America’s emphasis on youth, I’m sure social scientists could find plenty of examples of this. It seems like there are plenty of anecdotal stories as well from the recent economic downturn with workers getting laid off.

Demographic trends suggest many Western nations will have a large proportion of older residents in the next few decades. If ageism continues, it will be actions made against a growing segment of society.

More demographic issues, this time in Southern Europe

Amidst news that Japan experienced a record population drop in 2010, today, the New York Times reports on Southern Europe where there is a lack of jobs for the young even as a growing elderly population requires support and how this has led to a “pervasive malaise among young people”:

Indeed, experts warn of a looming demographic disaster in Southern Europe, which has among the lowest birth rates in the Western world. With pensioners living longer and young people entering the work force later — and paying less in taxes because their salaries are so low — it is only a matter of time before state coffers run dry.

“What we have is a Ponzi scheme,” said Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University and an expert in fiscal policy.

He said that pay-as-you-go social security and health care were a looming fiscal disaster in Southern Europe and beyond. “If these fertility rates continue through time, you won’t have Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese or Russians,” he said. “I imagine the Chinese will just move into Southern Europe.”

The problem goes far beyond youth unemployment, which is at 40 percent in Spain and 28 percent in Italy. It is also about underemployment. Today, young people in Southern Europe are effectively exploited by the very mechanisms created a decade ago to help make the labor market more flexible, like temporary contracts.

Whoever is going to tackle these issues is going to have be very brave or thick-skinned.

While the consequences of long-term low birth rates are becoming more clear, why is there not more discussion about boosting these birth rates? How exactly did the birth rate drop so much? How did it become so desirable for nations and individuals to have so few children? Could governments provide incentives to families so that they would have more children?

It will also be interesting to track how this “malaise” works its way through the younger generation. Could this be the first generation in a while that has a tougher life than their parents in terms of having to work longer and harder just to keep society afloat? What are the social consequences of this malaise: less productivity, less interest in civil society, general unrest?

Leading the story with appearances of politicians

One frustrating aspect of political coverage is the common emphasis on the appearance of politicians. This is particularly common in stories about female politicians: the story often has to start with a quick summary of how (appropriate or fashionable) they look. Perhaps this is to be expected in a culture that prizes attractiveness and youth. But this emphasis can cross gender lines. Just consider this summary of Mitch Daniels found in the third paragraph of a story in a recent edition of Newsweek:

If you’ve heard anything about Indiana’s very slight, very balding, very unimposing governor—and that’s a big if—it’s probably just the opposite: that he couldn’t possibly win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and that even if he did, his chances of defeating Obama in the general election would be close to nil. The reasons, they say, are many. At 5 feet 7 (in boots), Daniels is shorter than Obama’s 12-year-old daughter, Malia. His rather uninspiring demeanor—reticent, stiff, and slightly skittish, with darting eyes and long blanks between words—better suits a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, which he happens to be, than a leader of the free world. And his comb-over is borderline delusional. As conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson recently put it, “I see [Daniels] as he strides toward the middle of the stage to shake hands with Obama before the first debate and comes up to the president’s navel. Election over.”

There are lots of reasons you could disagree with Mitch Daniels – the story goes on to discuss some of these points. But what do his height, “uninspiring demeanor,” and hair have to do with his ability to govern?