Monday, June 30, 2008

Middle age: coming and going

Countless eons ago when Mr Neff turned 35, I posted an announcement on his office bulletin board: “If, as Psalm 90:10 attests, ‘The days of our years are threescore and ten,’ congratulations to David for having reached middle age!’” Last October when our younger daughter turned 35, I tried congratulating her on the same achievement. “Mother,” she protested, “35 is not middle-aged.”

So I decided I needed an objective definition of middle age. I went to the Web, of course, and found that the Collins French Dictionary and Grammar is right in saying that midlife boundaries are indistinct (one online English-French dictionary defines middle-aged as "of a certain age;" another defines it as "fiftyish").

Though medical researchers often refer to people aged 35 to 55 as middle-aged, most English-speaking Web sites define middle age as the years from 40 to 60: Check out, Encarta, Collins, American Heritage, and thefreedictionary, for example.

As lifespans increase and Boomers refuse to grow up, however, many sources are now extending middle-age upward. Wikipedia notes that for the OED, middle age begins at age 45, whereas for Erik Erikson, it ends at age 65. Merriam-Webster suggests ages 45 to 64; WebDictionary, 45 to 65, and Your Dictionary, 40 to 65.

Even the 40-to-60 span reflects changing attitudes: the 1913 edition of Webster defined middle age as "being about the middle of the ordinary age of man; between 30 and 50 years old."

Depending on which definition you choose, my daughters may possibly be middle-aged, or they may hang on to young adulthood for up to ten more years. By the same definitions, I may be middle-aged, or I may have left that category as long as ten years ago. Most likely, though, I'm going to change categories six weeks from tomorrow, when I turn 60. (My kids and grandkids began the celebration early by performing a wicked parody of "I Will Survive"--for the original, click here--and by giving me DVDs of my favorite British comedy, As Time Goes By. I'm guessing this means they think I am leaving middle age behind.)

For the sake of discussion, let's say middle age does end at 60. That makes sense in France, for example, where people retire at 60 and thereafter belong to
le troisième âge (le quatrième âge begins in the mid-70s). But just what is a post-middle-aged pre-retired American?

Are we middle-aged longer than the French because we don't know when to quit working?

Or have we become prefixes (post-middle-aged, pre-senior, semi-retired) or present participles (aging, graying, or, in French, les croulants--the crumbling ones)?

What is this space between midlife and old age?

Followers of the Benedictine tradition learn to pause at the threshold when passing between rooms, when entering buildings, and, by extension, when changing activities, experiences, and ways of life. Maybe these are the threshold years--a time to stop, take stock, give thanks, breathe deeply, get ready for the next step.

Threshold: Nice concept, rotten label.

So it's back to middle-aged. "Neither old nor young," says Wiktionary. That's fine. Whatever the term and whatever the age, Epicurus offers this good advice:

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.

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