Bring back 'middle age'?


Chronological ages it seems are getting younger. Seventy is the new sixty, sixty is the new fifty, fifty is the new forty and so on , I’m sure you get the drift.

Most people live longer, healthier lives and the onset of ‘old age’ is being delayed.

Shakespeare described the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ when the average life expectancy was only 45. More recently we spoke of youth, middle age and elderly.

Then we tried 4 ages, with ‘third age’ defined as 50-74. Now older people and older workers are part of our jargon. We have policies and programmes for older people: but older than what ?

Apparently older than 50. So ‘older’ now means everyone aged 50 to 100 plus. So is everyone aged 0 to 50 ‘younger’ ?

Whilst chronological age shouldn’t be used to categorise groups of people, we do need suitable language to describe phases of life and policy relevant to them.

The introduction of age legislation in October 2006 makes it more important to understand what we mean by age.

The frontiers between youth and adult within the 16-25 age range (voting, criminal justice, training schemes, civil rights, minimum wage etc) need clarifying.

The start of working age is taken as 16; but this makes little sense when the majority remain in education to age 18 or beyond. It distorts data on ‘working age adults’ and employment.

At the upper end, working age is linked to State Pension Age (SPA) – and from next year will be inextricably linked to the new national default retirement age. But with 1 million people over pension age already working, and apparently as many again wanting to, then does this linkage make sense any more ? Shouldn’t we get rid of the term working age altogether because it splits life into artificial chunks ?

There is increasing segmentation in the pensioner population. Gordon Browne is keen on benefits for those 70+ or 80+, recognising that frail elderly are different from the ‘young old’. Many young pensioners are looking after their older parents, or their children and grandchildren.

All this suggests that the use of the term ‘older people’ to define policy, actions or organisational identities is too vague. No sensible economic or social analysis addresses all those aged 50+ as a meaningful age group.

TAEN’s focus is on development and change in the mid-range. Those with whom we work do not see themselves as older because they’re over 50. They certainly don’t see themselves entering old age at this point. They rail against the prospect and sound of the Saga magazine dropping through the door on their fiftieth birthday.

‘Old’ is their parents’ generation.

So, what about bringing back middle age - which is broadly about life after dependent children and before old age ? We can define it as stretching from any time between 45 and 65 or beyond.

Employment, volunteering, active-ageing, choice and family responsibilities for generations above and below are the features of the middle-aged.

The middle aged are still interested in having choice and opportunity in the labour market.

Public policy services for older people can then concentrate on the 65+ or 70+ population, or to echo the Beatles, When I’m 64….and more.


About The Author

Patrick Grattan
Patrick Grattan

Patrick is Chief Executive of the Third Age Employment Network (TAEN), an independent charity, working for better opportunities for mature people to continue to learn, work and earn for as long as they want, or need, to do so.