The concept of "middle adulthood" is relatively new, made more significant by the fact that improved medical technology has increased the average life span. The extent to which middle age creates a shift in your psychological and social development -- and whether those shifts are positive or negative -- depends not only on your personality, but your society's attitude toward age. In the youth-obsessed culture of the United States, middle age can be daunting, though it doesn't have to be.
When It Begins
Whether or not it's precisely the middle of life, people typically associate age 40 with the onset of middle age. Robert Atkinson, Ph.D., director of the University of Southern Maine's Center for the Study of Lives, points out that 14th century poet Dante declared himself in the middle of life at age 40, although the life span in his time was considerably shorter than today's and he died at age 56. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung -- who revolutionized the concept of adult development -- believed the human psyche undergoes a major shift between the ages of 35 and 40.
In the middle of life, American baby-boomers have gravitated toward psychological extremes. According to "The New York Times," Americans aged 45 to 54 had the highest rate of suicide in 2007, a statistic usually held by people over 80 years old. However, a 2008 Gallup telephone poll of more than 340,000 people found that those over 50 years old had the highest rate of happiness. The University of Wisconsin's Institute on Aging reported in 2004 that men overall, and people of either gender who were who married or had outgoing personalities, were less prone to depression than women in general or people who were single or shy.
People in their teens and 20s tend to have the highest stress rates as they worry about their futures and keep the focus of their lives narrow to achieve life goals. In middle age, upon achieving or abandoning those goals, some may turn inward and become isolated. Others will enjoy the fruits of their labors and turn outward, helping younger generations and developing a deeper sense of their own value. "Many people become more attuned to internal feelings," Atkinson writes, "and recognize a desire to be of service to others."
The Importance of Connectedness
In a 2010 blog entry for the online version of "Psychology Today" magazine, University of California professor of psychiatry Tamara McClintock Greenberg speculates that ever-changing technology may play a role in the psychosocial development of the modern middle-aged. Young people who have grown up with online social connections may find them more rewarding than middle-aged people who haven't. "The reality is, much of our population does not feel connected online," she writes. Such a lack of connection may explain more severe depression among some middle-aged people.
- University of Arkansas: Middle Age and Adulthood
- "Psychology Today" magazine; 21st Century Aging; Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S.; July 19, 2010
- "The New York Times"; Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged Is Continuing; Patricia Cohen; June 4, 2010
- University of Wisconsin Institute on Aging: Midlife in the U.S.