catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Am I middle-aged?

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When I was young, some people – in reference to my preference for books on politics, economics etc over the normal interests of youth – used to tell me that I was ‘born 40’. Today I turn 40, so my chronological age has finally caught up with lifestyle. But does my 40th make me ‘middle-aged’? The Macquarie Dictionary thinks I still have five years to go: ‘intermediate in age between youth and old age; commonly, from about 45 to about 60 years old’, they say. The Collins Dictionary thinks that I am already there: ‘the period of life between youth and old age, usually considered to occur approximately between the ages of 40 and 60.’

What is the logic here? I don’t think the dictionary consensus of between youth and old age is quite satisfactory, especially as both contradict themselves in their definition of ‘youth’, the Macquarie going for ‘adolescence’ and the Collins for ‘adolescence and early adulthood’. So what are we between ‘early adulthood’ and 40 or 45?

With male life expectancy of about 78 years, and if we assume life is divided into a young phase, a middle phase, and an old phase, then ‘middle age’ should start at 26 and finish at 52. But to call someone in their mid-20s, at the start of their middle years, ‘middle-aged’ does not convey the normal meaning of the term. In this era of prolonged adolescence it would make no cultural sense at all, whatever its merits in dividing up chronological age.

If middle age is purely a cultural construct (as our friends in the Arts faculty may say), however, then the fact that it is forty years since I was born is irrelevant. I am whatever cultural age I think I am, or others think I am. But this won’t do. The senior citizens who insist that they are ’75 years young’ are in reality denial. Whatever their mouths say, their bodies are saying something else.

So ‘middle age’ seems to be some hard-to-pin-down mix of the physical and the cultural. Physically, I have can probably just get away with not being ‘middle-aged’. My hair is still there and the same colour as it was before, and I have no middle-aged paunch. Culturally, however, I aged prematurely. I probably was ‘middle-aged’ at 26, just as dividing the lifespan into three parts would suggest.

One of my favourite dead white males, Jonathan Swift, did not entirely age gracefully, as eventually a ‘Commission of Lunacy’ found him to be of ‘unsound mind and memory’. But long before then, when he was just 32 in 1699, he wrote this excellent advice on getting old. I think it captures what it means to be middle-aged – you are middle-aged when you should neither pretend to be young nor take on common characteristics of the old (Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious/
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.). Since that’s how I feel, I conclude that I am middle-aged.


Written by Admin

November 10, 2005 at 6:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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