Last Updated on July 8, 2022 by Editorial Staff
By Rachel Lankester, Mutton Club Editor
Middle age is a stage of life that can strike fear into the hearts of millions. Many of us dread reaching middle age because we equate it with being old. But middle age is exactly that, the middle of life. But what age is middle age? When does it start? How long does it last?
How do we define middle age?
I think that depends on how old you are as well as where you live in the world. Younger people seem to think middle age starts and ends earlier. Older people tend to think middle age starts later and ends later. Different cultures have different ideas of youth, middle age and older age. I’ve also noticed that middle age seems to start and end earlier in the UK, for example, than in the US. I’ve noticed that women in the US still consider themselves middle-aged in their 60s.
(I should have got more clarity before on this and also the extent to which women especially do not want to admit they are middle aged. I’ve spent the last six years trying to market services to women in a stage of life with which they have no desire to identify!)
How does the dictionary define middle age?
Most dictionaries reckon middle age is the stage of life from 45 to 65. I was rather surprised by that. I’d always thought it was from 40 to 60 and that 60 demarcated the beginning of my third or older age, or as I like to say elderhood. A British survey found that Britons saw middle age starting at the age of 55. If that’s the case, I’ve only just begun to be middle-aged rather than already approaching the youth of my elderhood as I actually believe.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines middle age as the period of life from about 45 to about 64 years of age. So according to that, I have another eight years to go… The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines middle age as being between the ages of 40 and 60, but also that it immediately precedes the onset of old age. So by 61, in 5 years’ time, I will be old aged. Not sure about that! There seems to be a lot of flexing of boundaries going on…
Why are we so binary when it comes to age?
Here’s where I really struggle with terminology and the binary nature of how we talk about age. There’s more on that in my elderhood article, but I question why, when we are moving away from the binary in other areas of our lives, we are still so binary when it comes to talking about age?
We go from young, often straight to old. Middle age is a kind of wasteland in the middle. But if the Encyclopaedia Britannica has me as old at 61, what am I going to be at 91, another 40 years hence? 61 might have been old 200 years ago. It certainly is no longer that now. When we classify everyone from 60 to death as old, it’s a really lazy age categorization to be doing. Someone of 61 is a whole lifetime younger than someone of 101!
What about the generations?
But we love to label people, especially when it comes to age. How about the generations? We dump loads of people together who may have so little in common, other than that they happen to be born within a certain time period. But at least this shows there is a little more variety in population ages, than simply young, then old.
Here are the generations I found:
- Gen Alpha: born after 2012 (roughly)
- Gen Z: born between 1997–2012
- Millennials: born between 1981 and 1996
- Gen X: born between 1965–1980 – that’s me but I’m a positively ancient Gen x-er
- Baby Boomers I: born between 1955–1964
- Baby Boomers II: born between 1946–1954
- The Silent Generation (Post War): 1928 to 1945
- The Greatest Generation: born between 1901–1927
I’d never heard of the Alpha, Silent and Greatest generations before doing my research for this article! The boomers sometimes get split into two because the span is so large – another example of lazy age categorization after a certain age!
Does midlife always mean a crisis?
Middle age is often referred to these days as midlife. I created a business called Magnificent Midlife because I wanted to redress some of the negative connotations associated with this stage of life, especially for women. The world has a terrible problem with ageism, but gendered ageism makes that far worse for women.
Midlife sounds a bit better than middle age to me. But I think, if I’m honest, that’s just me not liking the term because I’m being ageist against the phrase middle age! Would middle adulthood be any better? There are so many terms around and so many labels with which to put ourselves in boxes. But the older we get, the more unhelpful those labels become.
Whether or not we work with middle age or midlife, there’s no doubt that when you search in Google on these terms, it’s not long before crisis comes up, especially for midlife. It seems impossible to have midlife without a crisis. We’re still so wedded to the silly notion that it’s a downward slope from midlife on. In fact, we get better with age not worse!
The crisis seems to hit both men and women but the added bonus of menopause does make midlife rather more challenging/difficult/exciting/infuriating/empowering for women. I’ve written extensively about how I actually see menopause as a catalyst for a new and very magnificent next chapter for women – I wrote a whole book about it – Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond.
Moving beyond the crisis
Brené Brown describes midlife less as a crisis and more of an unravelling. Like Brené, I believe that rather than being a crisis, midlife is much more a time of reckoning and re-evaluation. It’s when we need to take time to reflect, unpack who we are now, and re-connect with who we’re becoming.
Big birthdays can add to the inclination towards introspection in midlife. We reassess what we’ve done with our life so far, and ponder where to go next. Midlife is the ultimate reckoning point for many, but it can be an opportunity, rather than a crisis.
There’s also the U-curve of happiness – it’s been scientifically proven that we’re happiest at the beginnings and ends of our lives with a big dip in the middle like a letter U. Research shows that 47 is our unhappiest age, the depths of midlife malaise. There may be nothing in particular making you unhappy; it’s just a natural phase of life. Hoorah!
It’s the middle that can get us down simply because it’s the middle. If your 40s are a bit gloomy, there’s every chance that around 50, the fog will begin to lift. There are clearly other factors that may prevent that outcome, but all things being equal, that’s the normal trajectory of life. The U-curve holds.
Feeling good about middle age (and what’s to come)
Ultimately, the better we feel about ageing, the more healthily we will age. There’s scientific proof for that. It may just be that if we feel better about ageing, we take better care of ourselves, but ultimately the less we fear getting middle-aged or older-aged, the better will be our experience of both.
That’s not to say age is just a number and that denial is a good idea. I believe age is a very important number and I celebrate every year I’ve been on this planet. Each year makes me more magnificent! The more we can embrace the gifts that age brings, the less we will be consumed by the negative narratives and ageist stereotypes that dominate our youth-obsessed Western culture.
So let’s embrace middle age, midlife, elderhood, older age, all these rich stages of life that come after youth. And never let a label stop you living the very best life you can, in any one particular moment.
Listen to Dr Louann Brizendine talking about how women’s brains get stronger and better with age on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast
You may also like: Elderhood – A New Way Of Looking At Ageing and Loss Of Confidence In Midlife – How To Overcome It
Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond.