Tuesday 27 October 2015

Why is 'middle age' getting later and later?

What is Middle Age?

It is mostly about women, not men, since it is the reproductive span of women - in the context of lifespan, combined with the maturaltion rate of chidlren, that defines the basic cycles and stages of human life.  

So, three reasons why Middle Age seems to have gotten later...

1. As a stage of life

If middle age is defined as being around the middle of life, perhaps typically the beginning of the second half of life; then when natural life expectancy is 70 years, 35 is half-way.

In modern times life expectancy is more like 80 years, with 40 as half-way.

If this second half is divided into middle and old age - then middle age runs from either about 35-53, or 40-60 - when old age commences.

2. The dwindling and ending of fertility

The average menopause is women is about 50, but fertility declines with increasing rapidity from 35 - and perhaps 40 is the limit for conception for most women.

So middle age could be defined as starting at about 40. The span of conception has been extended by advances in medicine, and by prenatal testing with selective abortion for abnormal fetuses - therefore, although female reproductive span has not changed much or at all, in practice the age of average and last conception is much older... delaying the onset of middle age. 

3. The age at which offspring are mature and (culturally) ready to reproduce. This might be regarded as related to the average age of parents, especially the mother, at their first child.

In the past, the first child was usually about 20 (or less) but is now 30 (still increasing) - so middle age could be regarded as starting either as about 20 + 20 = 40 years old in the past, and 30 + 30 or 60 years old nowadays.

In other words, middle age is the age when you start having grandchildren.

Sixty years old seems absurdly late to be regarded as the onset of middle age - but I think this is more-or-less how it is now regarded; and to call even women in their fifties 'middle aged' would be regarded as an insult! - and I think this may be the reason why: Nowadays, women in their fifties frequently have children who have not (yet) married and not (yet) reproduced.

Until, or if, they have grandchildren, and themselves become grandmothers, women do not really feel themselves to be middle aged - hence the extraordinary delay in assigning the status of middle aged to women in modern society. 


Brandon said...

I grew up with the view that '40 is the new 30' and similar nonsense. Now, as I approach 30 and my parents approach 60, the awareness of the realities of aging have hit me with surprising force. No end to the delusions believed by so many. I was once told by a young female acquaintance that women are "evolving" to have children later in life. The mind boggles.

David Stanleyh said...

Being middle aged I am watching "Lewis" with my wife. The story is about a society called the Companions of Co-inherence. Bit low brow for you Bruce but interesting perhaps that CW is still fascinating a lot of people.

Nicholas Fulford said...

It is fuzzy logic thing. We judge based on our experience, not the experience of those who lived 100 years ago when the average lifespan was much lower.

What is tall today versus tall 100 years ago? Nutrition makes a big difference.

The average life expectancy from birth in Canada - where I live - was 79 for males, and 83 for females from surveys taken between 2007 and 2009. The trend is upward so it is probably even higher now. (see http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/health26-eng.htm ) From the same website, the average life expectancy from birth from surveys taken between 1930 and 1932 was 60 for males and 62 for females. The perception of what constitutes "Middle Age" varies significantly when the right-hand tail of the bell curve is extended.

Of course, life extension plays havoc with such things as Defined Benefit pensions. When these became a popular benefit that begins paying at age 65 the number of years that they were expected to payout was pretty limited. Today they extend much longer than anticipated when they first came into being, and at a time of low returns on investment they are particularly burdensome to the state and employers. Hence the move to Defined Contribution pensions which do not and cannot become an underfunded liability - short of fraud by the plan administrators.

Society faces other underfunded liabilities in the form of chronic health care costs, which when combined with a low birth rate leads to the younger cohort having to carry a heavier burden for a longer time, while at the same time finding the older cohort often grimly hanging onto senior positions that pay well. I hope that most of the members of the younger cohort don't start resenting the boulder that my very selfish generation has left them to carry. The extended lifespan they may experience is likely to be payed for being indentured servants.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DS - Yes, this unusual event has caused ripples in the CW world


Anonymous said...

With an average lifespan hovering around 80 years now, it may clarify matters to dub the years from age forty to sixty as the middle years of adulthood, with adulthood defined as aged twenty to eighty and beyond, a sixty-year span with the twenty years of middle age as the central one-third portion.

And: Forty will always be the new forty, as no one that age now was that age last year or will be the next. The culture's fund of unflattering associations or unfair stigmatizing or, most bitterly, reproachful expectations leads us to periodic public recasting of an age group to reassure the latest arrivals that they will not become the antiquated fuddy-duddies their immediate elders were. ("At least not if you buy our product...")