Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When Does Midlife Start & End?

Photo by wordsnpix.
Late life or older adulthood is the focus of my blog. Consequently, I have made efforts to define "older adult."

Defining "older adult" is complex, because you can't just choose a specific chronological age. 

Roles, function, and perception contribute to the definition of late life--and any life stage.

Recently, people have asked me to define midlife. I'm finding this to be even trickier. 

Midlife starts when young adulthood ceases and before older adulthood starts.  

My forays have found age ranges for midlife landing anywhere between 25 (for those who settle down early) to 75 (for those who still maintain a lot of midlife adult tasks).

The US Census identifies midlife as 35 to 54, a pretty young age range. 

Let's look at the age ranges posited by a few well-established psychologists. 
40 to 65 for Carl Jung.   
30 to 60 for Robert J. Havighurst. 
30 to 60 for  Erik Erikson.
40 to 65 for  Daniel Levinson.
These psychologists' definitions range between 30 and 65.

However, increased longevity of people in Industrialized nations, the late launching Millennials, and the very vocal and self-directing Baby Boomers are pushing midlife well past age 60. From all the information I see about "active aging," I fully expect to see Baby Boomers claiming to be middle aged well into their 70s. 

Even the American Psychological Association recently moved their definition of midlife from 40 to 60 up to ages 45 to 65.

Functional Definitions

As with late life, I favor a functional definition of midlife. So what are the tasks of midlife?

Rebirth photo by H.A.S.
For Jung (b. 1875), people enter midlife when the focus on the process of individuation.  His definition is the most abstract and spiritual. 

For Jung, this involves shedding the social expectations that children and youth adopt in order to please authority figures and instead finding the authentic self, their true life's work. 

Individuation means changing careers or changing life partners for some. 

For Havighurst (b. 1900), midlife tasks are more specific and tangible. They include the following: 
  1. Achieving adult civic and social responsibility.
  2. Establishing and maintaining an economic standard of living.
  3. Assisting teenage children to become responsible and happy adults.
  4. Developing leisure-time activities.
  5. Relating to one's spouse as a person.
  6. Accepting and adjusting to the physiologic changes or middle age
  7. Adjusting to aging parents.
For Erikson (b. 1902), midlife is less complex than childhood and adolescence.  For each stage, people choose between a productive state and a destructive state. For people in midlife, the choice is between Generativity and Stagnation.  Generativity tasks include the following: 
  1. Express love through more than sexual contacts. 
  2. Maintain healthy life patterns.
  3. Develop a sense of unity with mate.
  4. Help growing and grown children to be responsible adults.
  5. Relinquish central role in lives of grown children.
  6. Accept children's mates and friends. 
  7. Create a comfortable home. 
  8. Be proud of accomplishments of self and mate/spouse.
  9. Reverse roles with aging parents. 
  10. Achieve mature, civic and social responsibility.
  11. Adjust to physical changes of middle age.
  12. Use leisure time creatively. 
For Levinson (b. 1920), midlife happens when a person feels his or her mortality, when they start to mentor young adults, and when the re-evaluate the structure of their life and possibly make big changes.  His model was more tightly tied to specific ages and transitions are emphasized:
40-45: Midlife Transition.
45-50: Entering Middle Adulthood
50-55: Age Fifty Transition
55-60: Culmination of Middle Adulthood 
Levinson's work has been criticized because his initial research subjects were all male and from the same social class. 

Contemporary Definitions Are More Subjective

But these theorists' work is becoming dated, and more people today rely on their own perceptions and their social functions to define their life stages.  

As with the adage, "You're as young as you feel," an oft-quoted recent survey of 2,000 Britons pushed the start of midlife into their 50s.  Some of their "signs" are culturally specific (tea, pubs, National Trust), but if you click through, you'll see others that are relatable for non-Britons.

The MIDUS study is an ongoing longitudinal study of midlife in the United States (hence, the acronym).  Here is a link to a series of newsletters on specific topics.  Most relevant to this post is the newsletter on subjective aging, also known as self-perceptions of aging.

Dr. Bill Plotkin has a theory of life stages based on the nature--using models from time of day, seasons of the year, and points on the compass. He multiplies life stages from the 2 or 3 that early psychologists posited.  Plotkin's model has 8 stages, showing a lot more growth and development following adolescence. While he doesn't use the term "midlife," his 5th and 6th stages describe development and life tasks that occur after adolescence and before elderhood.  Consequently, those correlate most directly to what others label as "midlife."

Dr. Thomas Armstrong (educator, author, public speaker) further divides the lifespan into 12 distinct stages.  He places midlife as the 9th stage, occurring between 35 and 50. That's a stage with many tasks, which prepare people for three more distinct life stages. 

For me, I took the following as signs that I entered midlife:
  • seeing my parents moving out of midlife and into old age
  • watching my peers become grandparents
  • acquiring age-related physical complaints
  • boredom with pleasure seeking, thrill seeking, infatuation and pretty men
  • seeing young adults as surrogate children rather than as younger peers
  • less interest in stockpiling information and more interest in synthesizing information
  • worrying about financing my late adulthood 
  • feeling the need to connect the generations below me with the generation above me
So how about you? Are you entering midlife yet? Are you clinging to midlife for as long as you can get away with it? Share your thoughts below.

What about the Midlife Crisis? 

Note this post doesn't discuss the oft-mentioned midlife crisis. This is largely a myth since people of all ages can have a dramatic reassessment of the purpose, meaning, and vocation.  Also, people in midlife have very different ways of responding to life stressors; not everyone buys a convertible or dyes his or her hair.  Dispelling this myth deserves an entire post at some point, I suppose. 



  1. I am always fascinated my generations and demographics. It is much easier to divide generations by when they grew up, such as Baby Boomer, Gen Y, etc. We keep those definitions forever. The other type, such as young adult, midlife, senior, is much more difficult. I'm in my 50s so I am clearly in midlife. But it is very iffy, as your studies show, when I will be considered past midlife. It's not something I want to think about.

  2. This is a great post Karen! I have to admit that I am one of those who is hanging on to mid-life for many of the reasons you share. And while I know I'm not a young adult by any means, I also don't relate to being a senior in the slightest way (okay I do take a discount when offered for 55 or old because I'm basically frugal! )--but that's it. I loved how you broke it down for different philosopher/psychologists too--and then threw in your own list. But I do know that as I age I relate to the many advantages that my age has brought me that I never considered as a younger person. And part of my personal mission is sharing the uplifting and good news about the process. As long as I can stay reasonably active, energetic, curiously openminded, engaged with life and purposeful I aren't even close to being a senior yet! ~Kathy

  3. I always thought mid-life was the middle of life. Thus since the average person might live to be 82...you are at mid-life at 41. But since I am out of that mid-life section but just a year, I am waiting for your old age blog.

  4. I hope you've been reading James Hollis on this topic. He is the present day master on this topic!

    1. I have to admit that I don't do much research on midlife. I focus on the stage AFTER midlife, but I've had several people ask me about when they leave midlife and enter elderhood, so I wanted to look at this a little bit. SoI'll leave midlife to experts like you and Caryn P.

  5. 0 - 1 infancy

    2 - 4 toddler years

    5 - 9 childhood

    10 - 12 pre-adolescence

    13 - 19 adolescence

    20 - 25 post-adolescence

    26 - 45 prime adulthood (or 'young' adulthood)

    46 - 65 midlife

    66 + senior citizen

    There are many reasons why it's uncalled for to move the start of midlife sooner or later than 45/46 (I won't get into them here). Also, most reputable sources list midlife as 45 - 65.

    There are many things worthy of debate, but this isn't one of them.