Maybe it’s just me whining about my late fifties, but I think we need a better name for this stage of life. “Middle-aged” doesn’t cut it. Calling myself “middle-aged” feels vaguely mendacious. It’s like referring to yourself as a “seasoned veteran” on LinkedIn to skirt the fact that you graduated from college 15 years before the Internet was a thing. When I checked the definition of “middle-aged,” Google revealed that it generally comprises people 45 to 65 years old. That sounded okay until I realized I could call myself middle aged until I’m eligible for Medicare.
I lost an hour I’ll never get back doing the math on this subject. I decided that the demographers who coined the term didn’t count childhood in their calculation because someone in his mid-fifties isn’t midway through anything unless he plans to live to, say, 110. If you figure that adulthood starts when you graduate from college at 22 and ends when you die at 79 (the average American life expectancy), the halfway point between those numbers is 51, which is close to the center of Google’s definition. Score a point for Google.
But given how different one’s late fifties can be from one’s late forties, the same label doesn’t capture the nuances of this phase of life. People my age are defined more by what we’re finishing than what we’re in the middle of—namely our careers and parenting children. As we finish those projects, as our kids fly the nest and our careers wind down, we go through massive changes in our sense of self. It’s a time of intense transition and re-evaluation. If two of our biggest tasks are largely completed, what becomes of the identity we built while toiling on them?
People over 65 have lots of nomenclature for their stage of life. Most of it involves “silver” or “gold” to make it sound like getting older is a matter of accumulating wealth. Euphemisms like that, of course, are the currency of ageing; older people reserve the use of euphemism for themselves when matters of existential angst necessitate it. Pascal wrote that “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.” That something might just as well be nomenclature. Seniors have names that work for them, but people in their late fifties are borrowing a label from their younger peers like used socks from a sibling—and we need something we can call our own.
So what’s the nomenclature for my age—this strange shadow-world bracketed by parenting and professional accomplishment on one end and retirement on the other? I have no idea. But I’m working on it. Maybe I’ll figure it out about the time I hit 65, at which point it won’t matter. Then I can find some other preoccupation to distract me from this cliffside drive along Pascal’s abyss.
By the way, if you have any thoughts on this dilemma of great consequence, leave a comment! I can use a little help with this one!