Bulletin No. 5, 1996

Table of Contents:
Director's Notes

Discrimination in the United States
Health & Social Status
Sex in Midlife
Social Mobility

Director's Notes

Network members are analyzing the results of the survey of midlife development in the U.S. (MIDUS). This edition of the MIDMAC Bulletin includes four short essays that discuss identified areas of particular interest in the MIDUS data. We look forward to sharing some of the richest results of the survey with you this Fall.
Orville Gilbert Brim
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Discrimination in the United States
We have all witnessed discrimination against people due to their race, sex, or religion. Little is known, however, about just how often, and in how many ways people in this country experience discrimination in their daily lives. Nor do we know much about the personal characteristics upon which discrimination is most often based. Does more discrimination occur on the basis of sex than race? What about discrimination on the basis of weight, ethnicity, or age? We simply do not know. Nor do we have much sense of the psychological and emotional effects of the discrimination experienced by people with these characteristics.

In order to learn more about the nature and the consequences of discrimination in the United States, the MIDUS survey obtained information about 20 different experiences perceived to be due to discrimination. Half the questions concerned experiences that are major life events, such as being fired from a job or denied a bank loan. The other half addressed day-to-day experiences that can be a source of chronic stress, such as receiving poor service in a store or being treated as someone who is dishonest or not intelligent. We also asked about the frequency of discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, ethnicity, and physical appearance.

In our analysis of this information we will be looking at how often discrimination occurs and to whom. We will also attempt to assess the effects of these experiences on the health, well-being, and social functioning of those to whom the experiences occur. Qualitative data obtained from minority group members discussing discriminatory experiences suggest that seemingly minor discriminatory slights and insults to them are more emotionally damaging than occasional major discrimination, such as people who are very overweight or physically disabled. Little systematic research has been done to document the frequency of criminatory acts aimed at such people; only anecdotal information exists about the effects these experiences have on them. Based on these considerations, we anticipate that the MIDUS data will substantially advance our understanding of discrimination in the United States.
Ronald C. Kessler
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Health & Social Status
It comes as no surprise that poverty is bad for your health. What is novel are recent findings that link social class standing with poorer health even for those who do not live in poverty. Simply put, starting at the top, each descent in the socioeconomic hierarchy increases vulnerability to many aspects of physical and mental illness. Why is this so -- that even middle class persons have worse health than high social class individuals -- is a scientific mystery currently being explored by multidisciplinary "class and health" researchers.

Among factors studied to explain the class and health linkage has been access to health care, health practices, stress and environmental conditions. MIDMAC's task force on class and health includes physicians, epidemiologists, demographers, sociologists, and psychologists. Their collective wisdom led to a new focus: the role of psychosocial factors in accounting for class and health relationships. These include interpersonal characteristics (e.g., early family experiences, marital quality and interaction, friendship and social support networks), the intersection of work and family life (e.g., possible conflict or enhancement between the two), and psychological variables (e.g., "perceived inequalities" -- the view that one's lot in life is not as good as others' -- and the sense of mastery and control). The MIDUS survey will provide new data on these questions, enabling analyses of how these psychosocial factors are linked with class standing, and in turn, health.

The survey includes in-depth assessments of both positive and negative aspects of health (physical and mental), thereby extending the class and health agenda to new outcomes, such as psychological well-being. Of interest is whether social class position and psychosocial factors not only increase the likelihood of experiencing ill-health, but also decrease one's chances for positive health and well-being. Such analyses are important because the latter may serve as important protective factors in one's time of stress.
Carol D. Ryff and Larry L. Bumpass
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Sex in Midlife
For several decades, sex research focused on three topics: studies of sexual attitudes (towards pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexuality), showing a secular trend toward more liberal attitudes over the past three decades; studies of sex behavior (especially frequency of intercourse), beginning with the Kinsey research and most recently in the NORC surveys by Laumann and Gagnon; and types and effectiveness of contraceptive methods, in the past due to concern for teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and recently due to the HIV pandemic. With exception for the contribution of sexual satisfaction to marital satisfaction and stability, most sex research focused mainly on how sex attitudes and behavior varied by education, age, sex, and race.

In our first pilot survey, we included sex life as one of six domains of life for which we obtained ratings of importance and satisfaction, not merely as currently experienced by adults but as they perceived these domains five years ago, and as they anticipated each domain would provide satisfaction five years into the future. We found three trends of interest and significance of interest in such data:

1) Overall, satisfaction across the life course was highest for marriage and health, moderate for physical appearance and job, and lowest for respondents' finances and sex life;

2) Notable declining levels of satisfaction across the life course were found with adults in their 40s through their 70s, significantly so only for finances and sex life, moderately for health, physical appearance and job, but with stable levels of high satisfaction with marriage; and,

3) An analysis of the contribution of the six domain ratings on overall life satisfaction found that five domains contributed significantly and independently to the overall life satisfaction rating, the single exception being sex life satisfaction, which presumably was absorbed by marital satisfaction.

With these preliminary findings in hand, the MIDUS survey expanded the coverage of measures concerning sex life from the general satisfaction ratings past, present, and future, to more detail on behavior (e.g., frequency of sexual intercourse, number of sex partners during the past year, and sexual orientation). The fact that the survey contains in-depth measures of the major domains of life ( work and family in particular), together with personality, health, social and psychological well-being, and social responsibility, places us in an unprecedented position to explore sexual orientation and behavior in a multi-layered framework. We will be able to answer:

       How does coital frequency and number of sex partners differ by health status, marital status, and sexual orientation?

      What impact does having young children have on the frequency of sexual intercourse among young couples?

       Do married couples whose last child has left home experience a revived sex life as often claimed?

       What differentiates adults with high marital satisfaction despite low sexual satisfaction from adults with poor marriages but satisfying sex lives?

       Does sex play a lesser role in the lives of work-driven adults compared to those with more moderate investments in their jobs?

      Do women and men differ in what predicts high or low levels of sex life satisfaction?
Alice S. Rossi
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Social Mobility
Social scientists and social commentators alike have monitored the cause of social mobility in America. The wide prevalence of children ascending the socioeconomic ladder during the course of their adult lives, or, at least achieving a higher social status than their parents, is nearly an American icon. Images of socially mobile immigrants from Europe and southern farm youth of the early 20th century, the icon of Horatio Alger, even the Statue of Liberty herself, evoke a tacit belief that America is the land of greatest opportunity in the Western world, meaning here is a level playing field where even the tired and poor, with hard work, can ascend toward a better life than they left and than was achieved by their forebears.

Our best scientific evidence, however, does not always support these images and beliefs. Our most technically sophisticated examination of intergenerational social mobility -- for the U.S. in the late 19th century through the 20th century, and for several dozen European and Asian nations -- finds only modest differences in the rates of leaving a given social origin for a given social destination, after taking into account the different types of economies and the ranges of occupations and industries across these nations and time periods. The United States is not so exceptional as a "Land of Opportunity" in that sense. And downward mobility has always coexisted with upward, although on balance and up to the present decade, more have ascended than have descended. Recent commentaries and some recent research have called into question whether today's "Generation X" will improve upon the social and economic positions of its parents. Persistent, pervasive urban poverty, especially among minorities, once again reminds us that not all communities provide the basic ingredients -- or engender hope -- for even modest social advancement.

Beyond these issues of the myth and the reality of social mobility in America, research on social mobility also has paid attention to the "effects" of mobility on the health and welfare of the mobile. The early community-based studies -- mostly in the 1950s and into the 1960s -- were concerned about alienation and anomie that were viewed as potential risks of social as well as geographic mobility. Community mental health studies documented that not only downward mobility but also rapid ascension could weigh heavily on morale, sever the interpersonal ties, and separate individuals and families from community and family contexts.

The MIDUS survey breaks potentially new ground by examining the relationship of social mobility to three criteria of successful midlife development:

       Physical health       Psychological well-being      Social responsibility

We shall be cautious, however, in viewing the relationships as "mobility" effects. The long-standing concern in social mobility research is whether health, morale, and community integration are "causes" or "consequences" (or both) of mobility.
David L. Featherman
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Modified February 2, 1999