Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When does "middle age" begin? Well, it depends on who you ask!

                               C & H @ Watch Hill, Summer 2013

Did middle-age creep up on us without us even noticing it? 
A while ago, I was taken aback when one of my research assistants, a woman younger than me by two or three years, referred to herself and to me as "middle aged." Yes, I was 36-years old at the time, but I had never, not even once, thought of myself as  middle-aged. To be clear, I was mostly amused by the very notion of "middle age-ness," what does that even mean, I wondered? 

Its been a few years since then (and yes, I am now even older and apparently completely unable to "wiggle out" of middle-age, lol); but this year I am teaching an "Ethnographic Research Methods" course and had the opportunity to assign the students a research exercise that sought to measure when people perceive middle age begins and when it ends. We had a lot of fun with this one in the class! 

I instructed the students (all of whom are between the ages of 19 and 21) to each survey 8 people and to try to get a random sample of ages using the instrument depicted above (from our methods textbook). In the end, we collected 40 surveys and the results were actually very interesting. Here is what we found:

Let me explain these results in regular, non social science-methods language. What we found is that 47.5% of respondents believe middle age begins at 40 and ends at 65 (this is obviously tied to the American labor calendar and the age of retirement). Yet, the majority of respondents in this sample (or 75%) were younger than 30 years old. This fact led us to formulate our hypotheses one and we found that indeed age DID inform THEIR BELIEFS about when THEY THOUGHT middle-age starts. Essentially, the younger, the sooner they believed middle age begins and the older, the more likely they were to postpone the beginning date of middle-age.

When we discussed the perceived characteristics of the notion "middle-age" in American society students said things like: "it means you are settled," "it means you have a job, a house, kids," "my mom says middle-age does not apply to Latinos, that it is an American thing," "it means you are boring,"  "it means you have done what you wanted to do." 

So apparently middle-age did creep up on me...and I am fine with that! Though statistically (as documented above) my age qualifies me as middle-age, I don't feel that my life embodies all the characteristics the students described...because I am still planning to do lots and lots and lots of fun, interesting and new, non-boring things! (lol)

What does middle-age mean to you?


  1. I had so much fun doing this mini experiment in class! This article offers a unique perspective on being middle aged somewhat similar to your own thoughts. While I don't completely agree with all she has to say, it is still an interesting insight into one woman's way of viewing the world.

    1. Thanks Kendra! : ) I was tickled by the article's mention of Victor Hugo's notion that the 40s are "the old age of youth," a clever observation to be sure. I agree and practice her suggestion about "wearing black" to high pressure situations (lol). Lots of good insights, I am curious to know which parts you don't agree with (you can tell me in class)... it might also have to do with generational and cultural outlook : )