Bulletin No. 2, 1994

Table of Contents:
Director's Notes

Changing Family and Work Life During Middle Age

Director's Notes
The main events of midlife, familiar and predictable as they are, nevertheless create much diversity of experience. There are different rates of disabilities, divorce and separation, deaths in the family, and other midlife occurrences, for income, for race, and ethnic groups. There are differences within a society at different times in its history. There are obvious differences between societies around the world.

We note, too, that often what looks like the same midlife experience turns out not to be so. There are personal differences in the meaning of what could be described objectively as the same event. One person's divorce is benign and someone else's is destructive; the death of a parent can be an emotional and economic loss to one person, but an economic windfall and emotional freedom for another.

We can see, also, that for the major social transitions between ages 30-64, there are no sharp peaks of occurrence at any age. Midlife is more flexible than are childhood and old age. It is less driven by a biological clock that causes the changes in childhood and old age. The same events of midlife can occur at different ages for different people. We know, too, that there is no set order, no series of stages, in which these familiar events may occur. There are different sequences for different people. Thus, though most of us will share the events of midlife, there is no single path that we all take.
Orville Gilbert Brim 
Table of Contents

Changing Family and Work Life During Middle Age

Midlife Graph 1 Sometime between the ages of 30 and 64 many of the following events will happen to you: Your mother and/or father will die. Your children will leave home and then provide you with one or more grandchildren. You'll be working less than full-time, and one or more of your children may move back in with you.

One MIDMAC research project describes changes in family and work during midlife. The project report is organized into five sections: Parents at Midlife, Adult Daughters and Sons at Midlife, Marital Status and Living Arrangements, Assets and Employment, and Health and Well-Being. This excerpt focuses on selected status transitions in family and work.

The two charts presented here show differences and similarities between men and women as they move through the experiences of midlife.

Most people enter midlife with young children and living parents. With time, parenting responsibilities shift from the care of young children, through the parenting of fledglings, to interactions with newly (or semi) emancipated young adults; relationships with parents progress from a period when both generations are in the health and productivity of midlife, through the declining health and loss of one parent, then the other. Most persons approach late midlife as the senior generation of their extended family, without surviving parents and with helping relationships with their adult children and grandchildren. The figures on the empty nest are the current state reported by the respondents and since many children have returned home -- the refilled nest -- they underestimate the number of people who have actually had this experience.

Married Life
Midlife is a time of relative stability in marital status, as most marriages and marital disruptions precede midlife and most widowhood occurs at older ages -- though a significant number of transitions do occur near the beginning and end of midlife. On the other hand, marital history is an extremely important feature of this midlife experience. Most people spend midlife married, but a substantial minority are unmarried, and these statuses alter significantly the challenges and rewards of middle age and have important implications for the conditions under which the elder years will be entered.

Critical economic features include employment and asset accumulation, usually concentrated in home ownership. For men, and increasingly for women, stable employment is both economically necessary and socially prescribed. Only for a few men, more often the disadvantaged rather than the privileged, does the process of labor force withdrawal begin before age 60. The early sixties, however, constitute a very steep slope during which a dramatic employment change occurs for the great majority.

While midlife is a healthy life period for most, the beginnings of illnesses associated with life's later years occur early for a minority. One of the striking aspects of health differences in midlife (though not depicted in these charts) is the "socioeconomic gradient" whereby differences are not just associated with poverty, but health becomes progressively better with increasing status throughout the socioeconomic distribution. Understanding this gradient is the focus of one of the special task forces of MIDMAC.

There are many predictable life transitions that collectively define midlife as a period of momentous change. Midlife is a distinct time in life defined by it's own content, not just by it's boundaries.

On the other hand, there is no single transition, or set of transitions, that define either the youngest, or the oldest ages of midlife. Definitions such as ages 30-64 serve well as approximations of the ages of midlife for research purposes, but it is clearly a period of life with boundaries as definitive, yet ambiguous, as those of "adolescence" or "old age."

(NOTE: This is an excerpt from a research report, A social map of midlife: Family and work over the middle life course, by Dr. Larry Bumpass, 1994.
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