Proposed: Middle Age Starts at the Median Age

03Sep11

Wikipedia tells me that middle age has been defined in different ways, starting somewhere between 35 and 45 and running on to somewhere between 50 and 65.  I’m not too clear, yet, on the line between middle and old age.  But since I’m 55, I think I have probably at least entered middle age, and may therefore qualify to have an opinion on when it starts.

It seems like a mistake to move middle age too far from the middle.  The median age of Americans in 2011 is 36.9 — a year or so higher for women, a year or so lower for men, but overall about 37.  In other words, a person who was over the age of 35 in 2010 was among the older half of all living Americans.  People younger than him/her outnumbered people older than him/her.

Keying the start of middle age to the median age makes sense over the long haul.  Someday, people may live 200 years.  Calling them middle-aged at 35 wouldn’t fit very well.  Likewise, in some times and places people haven’t lived much over 35.  Right now, in fact, the life expectancy at birth, for a child born in Swaziland, is below 40 and may be as low as 32.

Certainly people are able to age, in non-numerical terms, at very different rates.  People who get married and have kids at age 13, or who run marathons (or have kids) in their 60s and 70s, can force some reflection on what aging is all about.  But my vote — influenced by my sense of a common experience of changing attitudes and priorities in one’s 30s in today’s America — is that middle age should be considered to start at the median age, currently about 37.

One side note:  when I turned 37, in 1992, the median age in the U.S. was around 33.  By my rule, I’d have had to go farther back, to around 1988, to find the point where I crossed over into the older half of the American public.  Interestingly, that’s just about the time when I decided I’d had enough of working in law firms in New York.  A year later, I was on the road to Colorado.  It felt like liberation rather than crisis but, either way, it was definitely midlife.

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