The Invisible Middle?

Generation gap? We know it exists.

If you ask me, it will always exist, but that doesn’t mean we need to pit one against the other, and further polarize.

Today, with a short but catchy headline in a New York Times opinion piece, “Old vs. Young,” I’m fuming over the clear absence of discussion on the “middle.”

Yes, that would be me, and possibly you. Those of us aged 41 to 64, according to the article on age gap and related political leanings.

Focusing on data that looks at Americans under 40 and over 65, the article in question contends that the “gap is back,” and there are age-based differences in political inclination that we should look at. Meanwhile, this opinion piece is remarkably silent on the millions of Americans who sit in that midlife range. More than 81 million of us, to be precise.

No longer young, once you hit 40? Reasonable, I suppose.

Accurate to describe you as old, when you’re 65 or over? Reasonable again, theoretically.

Age Matters

Does it matter if we’re labeled or not? Don’t those labels contribute to perception – and perception, as the saying goes, is reality? Yes, I know. That’s another topic.

And yes, I’m also aware that the article intends to highlight the (very) young and the (not so very) old.

However, I consider “old vs. young” as relative, though age is a measure of our time on this planet. But the categorization of young versus old becomes divisive, and to some degree, irrelevant. And both data and conclusions in this article don’t “fit” with my (observed) reality.

Might I also say I’ve known 40-year olds who seem dreadfully stodgy in their ways and mindsets, and 65-year olds who put my energies to shame? Could we agree that demographics are helpful for broad-brush generalizations, but often sidestep examination of issues in a substantive manner?

I would argue that demographics become a distraction and a hindrance to the sort of thoughtful questions – and answers – we ought to be seeking. And if we’re looking at political leanings, aren’t job status and education more relevant than age?

Invisible Middle-Age

But let’s return to that invisible middle, shall we? The dreaded “midlife,” the trying transitional years (or decades), the growing invisibility (if we’re not careful) that takes hold between young and old.

The huge segment of midlifers who are not addressed by this article, with the exception of a small amount of income data as it has changed between 1990 and 2010.

I find myself wondering if the millions of us in the “middle” are to determine the outcome of the election. Are the millions of us in the middle one big question mark? Do we need to speak louder – in all our demographic diversity – and without assumptions?

Are we really more than 81 million strong – and if so, where are our voices?

Midlife Numbers

A quick peek at Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in 2011 offers this:

Between 2000 and 2010, the population 45 to 64 years old grew 31.5 percent to 81.5 million. This age group now makes up 26.4 percent of the total U.S. population. The large growth among 45- to 64-year-olds is primarily because of the aging of the baby boom population.

Not exactly the slice of demographics I was searching for, but “close enough for government work.” More than 81 million Americans between the ages of 45 and 65.

And our social, economic, and political inclinations? Our apparent invisibility when it comes to the assumptions in the Times article?

I will mention that the one statement about the AARP (in the article) is dismissive, and juxtaposes the “power” of the AARP (for the 65+ crowd) against the lack of “American Association of Non-Retired Persons.”

Jobs, Money, Retirement Dreams

Retired? Who’s retired? At 40 or 50 or 60 or even 70?

Are we talking about the 62-year olds who take “early” retirement because they can’t find work? Or should we be talking about 80 as the new 65, when it comes to retirement?

On that note, according to CNN Money, in an article written last year:

A quarter of middle-class Americans are now so pessimistic about their savings that they are planning to delay retirement until they are at least 80 years old — two years longer than the average person is even expected to live.

And aren’t we voting our pocket books more than ever – regardless of age?

Middle-Age Myopia?

If the purpose of the Times op-ed is to use economic data to highlight presumed voting differences based on age, it’s chock full of assumptions: older Americans will vote conservatively in order to hang on to whatever is left of their retirement; those in their 20s and 30s will vote differently having been hit harder, with less to fall back on.

There are a host of other (muddled) assumptions as well; I find little reason to look at our political persuasion by the (less than compelling) data which has been provided.

I would offset the article’s contentions relative to younger voters being worse off with the following: absence of age discrimination, the lesser need for healthcare services (or picking up healthcare costs on their own), and greater flexibility when it comes to moving in order to secure work.

If you tell me “yes, but… younger people are also raising families,” then I will point to a “yes, but” of my own: millions of us in our 40s, 50s, and even 60s are still supporting children and young adults, and also caring for aging (elderly) parents.

Where are the relevant numbers for all of this? Where are the assumptions about political leanings for the 26% of Americans caught in this No Man’s and No Woman’s Land?

Or better yet – might we skip the assumptions and talk issues in more depth, as we could all benefit from seeing our world in a more comprehensive manner?



  1. Educator says

    I am still using my well deserved teacher vacation to read you. You are right that ignoring the “middle age segment” is incomprehensible. Similarly I am wondering why the otherwise wonderful New York Times would publish a piece with so little substance and questionable statistics. The author of the article is wondering why a strong case is made about the age dividing line? Age, economics and attitudes are correlated with varying degrees in different circumstances. I do not think what is going on now in the US is exactly revolutionary when it comes to the differences.

    It is unusual for the New York Times, but in this case I believe that ink and paper were wasted on this opinion piece.

  2. says

    It’s not a good idea to ignore the baby boomers. This demographic is extremely strong in their purchasing power and loyalties. After all, we are the generation that defined radical social causes with the Vietnam War protests, Civil Rights and Equality. When we get organized, we’re a best friend or a worst nightmare!

  3. says

    This idea of retiring two years after you’re dead–it’s like what Tom Lehrer said about genius. “[It] makes you realize how little you’ve done in life. It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age he’d been dead for two years.”

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