Sunday, January 15, 2006

middle age

People between 40 and 60 years of age are considered middle-aged. About 21 percent of the U. S. population is between 40 and 60. Research on the psychological and social characteristics of middle age is relatively new, so that generalizations about this period of life need to be made cautiously and tentatively. Long-standing folk wisdom, however, has it that "life begins at 40," and to some extent this idea appears to be confirmed by research studies that show that individuals in middle age re-evaluate their lives to determine anew the things they value, to re-examine their career choices, and to reconsider their goals. By this period of life, the natural, almost accidental, strength and beauty of youth have begun to decline, so that psychologists observe that individuals reaching midlife need to learn to emphasize their powers of mind because these will help them to withstand the forces of aging.
Perhaps the most famous characterization of middle age was made by psychiatrist Erik Erickson, who described the period as one where one either develops "generativity" or slides into "ego stagnation." In essence, generativity means creating things and doing things that will last beyond one's own lifetime. Most often individuals achieve creativity through their family relations and/or a successful career, but creativity in the arts and altruistic service to others also represent possible avenues.
Ego stagnation, on the other hand, is a state of boredom, psychological poverty, and sometimes excessive concern with physical and psychological decline. Erikson, a psychiatrist who developed his observations about middle age from therapy sessions with individuals and small groups of clients, is not alone in his view that midlife is a time of change; this view is also shared by other researchers who have made large-scale surveys of the American population.
Erikson, however, argues that all stages of life are times of change--each stage of life requires a struggle to achieve a positive psychological development (e.g., in midlife this is "generativity") in response to the unique challenges of that stage. Just as infants must struggle to become autonomous, independent beings (or else, according to Erikson, slip into shame and doubt) so the middle-aged adult must successfully grow into generativity or collapse into stagnation.
Studies by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging appear to contradict the popular notion that individuals go through a "midlife crisis." Although their research was restricted to men, they designed a questionnaire derived from extensive analysis of writings about' 'the midlife crisis," and administered it to two separate groups of men. In neither group was there any evidence of a crisis, leading the two scholars to observe that "The mid-life crisis, whatever it was, did not appear to be confined to mid-life." They concluded that most people maintain a vigorous and positive approach to life, and that they adapt readily to the changes brought by aging.
The General Social Survey supports the Costa and McCrae finding by showing that there is no decline in happiness in the American population in midlife, even though this is a period of considerable adult responsibility and pressure. At this age, for instance, the incidence of death in one's family reaches a lifetime peak-as much as 55 percent of the middle-aged population sees one or more family members die, according to the General Social Survey.
The middle aged have also been labeled "the sandwich generation," because people at this stage of life may find themselves responsible for helping their adult parents while their children still need assistance in getting through college or with starting family life. Research shows that the majority of individuals successfully navigate these and the other challenges of midlife.
Saline, C.: "Entering Middle Age: What To Do With The Rest Of Your Life." In Aging, ed. Goldstein, E. C., Vol. 2, Art. 61. Boca Raton, Fl. Social Issues Resource Series, Inc. 1981.
Schaie, K. W., and Willis, S. L. Adult Development and Aging, 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.
Ward, R. A. The Aging Experience, 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Russell, C. H. Good News About Aging. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989.
Russell, C. H., and Megaard, I. The General Social Survey, 1972-1986: The State of the American People. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.

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