Old Age as Defined in The Atlantic

posted in: Aging, Midlife | 2

I just want to do a quick follow-up to my review of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, part of which attempted to define when midlife happens.

Joe Pinsker, in his article in The Atlantic, “When Does Someone Become ‘Old’?” similarly explores how to define the when of old age as well as the language we use to describe such. Not surprisingly, how we define “old” has implications for what we mean by midlife or middle-age.

He begins by referring to a 2016 Marist Poll which

asked American adults if they thought a 65-year-old qualified as old. Sixty percent of the youngest respondents—those between 18 and 29—said yes, but that percentage declined the older respondents were; only 16 percent of adults 60 or older made the same judgment. It seems the closer people get to old age themselves, the later they think it starts. Overall, two-thirds of the Marist Poll respondents considered 65 to be “middle-aged” or even “young.”

This somewhat aligns well with the age range I suggested for midlife: mid-to-late 30s through the mid 60s. I would hesitate to call 65 young, although Pinsker’s article did make me contemplate pushing that upper limit.

The ongoing disclaimer will be that any suggestion as to when middle age is depends on an individual’s personal experience.

Pinsker’s article also ties into another concept that came up in my Midlife review. He points to the limitations inherent in calling an undefined period of one’s life “old.” He writes that “[t]he word old, with its connotations of deterioration and obsolescence, doesn’t capture the many different arcs a human life can trace after middle age” (italics Pinsker’s).

Even Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development leaves only one stage (integrity vs. despair) after 65.

Especially with people living longer, we need to consider the ways in which one’s later years provide a greater variety of experience.

Pinsker helpfully points to more recent research that addresses this variety:

For at least a couple of decades, gerontological researchers have been making a distinction between the young old (typically those in their 60s and 70s) and the old old (definitions vary, but 85 and up is common). Another academic term is third age, which refers to the period after retirement but before the fourth age of infirmity and decline (which some would argue unjustly legitimizes distinctions based on physical abilities). (italics Pinsker’s)

Although I am inclined to stick with my original time frame for describing midlife, Pinsker’s articles almost makes me want to consider raising the upper limit.

He quotes Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity:

“In the research world and in the policy world, [65] is the number people use to demarcate entry into old age…It’s been reified: You’re eligible for Social Security, for Medicare…and the research literature is focused on people 65 and older, so even though 65 doesn’t mean anything in a real way, it has come to represent real things.”

However, Pinsker reinforces the idea that 65 “doesn’t mean anything in a real way” by calling it “arbitrary.” He quotes Karl Pillemer, who, among other things, is the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and a Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Cornell University.

Pillemer says that “‘[f]or policy-planning purposes, ‘over 75’ is a much more meaningful demographic than ‘over 65.’’” This is based on the fact that that is the time when people are more likely to develop a chronic disease. He goes on to say that “‘People between the ages of 65 and 75 are often more similar to people in middle age.’”

Much of Pinsker’s article addresses the language we use to talk about people over the age of 65 and the prejudices that come along with that language. The struggle with the terminology relates to the implicit assumptions that older people are entering a stage where they are less active and facing various limitations, thus his hesitation to equate stages of life with physical abilities. All of this is outside my concerns about midlife, but he does end his article with a relevant observations:

All those people who call 65 “middle age” aren’t delusional—they probably just don’t want to be denied their right to have ambitions and plans for the stretch of their life that’s still ahead of them, even if that stretch is a lot shorter than the one behind them.

The stretch of life still ahead is a shared concern for those of us more soundly in midlife and will only grow more of a concern as that stretch of time shortens.

2 Responses

  1. Dennis

    Age is a state of mind. I have been an old man my entire life. And yet, at 55, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Stages of life are something I’ve never felt the need to define for myself – an exceedingly rare example of something I tend not to overthink.

    Now, back to my Swedish Death Cleaning.

    • Tom

      True, there is something to the idea that you’re only as old as you feel, but there are cognitive, physical, and emotional (among other) changes as we get older. Any talk of stages relates to these and of people’s shared experiences that denote some trends. And there is a lot of cultural assumptions surrounding the idea of being in midlife. PLENTY of things to overthink, and, clearly, I’m compelled to do so.

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