youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind

This post is inspired and informed by Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017), but I didn’t review it recently because I wanted space to develop my own views.

Here are three definitions that are not tied to chronological age. They could–in principle–describe a person who has lived for any number of years:

  • Youth: You believe that you have important choices to make, or that you will face such choices in the future. You see your current situation mostly as the result of others’ decisions. You’ve been formed by your parents, your community, or the whole society, but you expect to make a mark through your own agency and choice.
  • Old age: You think that all the important choices involving you have already been made. You made choices in the past, or perhaps you never had much choice, but now the die is cast. If you expect to confront any decisions in the future, you assume that they will be mere Hobson’s choices: what to give up, which medical risks to take.
  • Midlife: You think that your current situation is partly the result of your own past choices, which you may either regret or recall proudly. You expect to make additional decisions in the future. You’re not starting from scratch–and not, perhaps, from where you would want to start–but you still have more moves to make.

Teenagers and young adults who enter YouthBuild USA estimate that they will live to an average age of 40 (Hanh et al 2004). They think that their lives are about half over. If Cathy J. Cohen’s analysis of African American youth applies to these teenagers (Cohen 2010), they will explain their own situations as a result of their own agency (they made mistakes, such as dropping out of high school) and structural injustices (their high schools were bad). Their mentalities are middle-aged or even old. YouthBuild, however, causes them to raise their own life-expectancies by almost 30 years. It makes them appropriately youthful by teaching them that structural factors explain their current situations but that they will have good decisions to make in the future, including decisions that can prolong their lives.

Something similar happens when a certain kind of hyper-serious 7-year old feels that she has made momentous decisions. Her “life is ruined” because of what she did. Adults should persuade her that her situation is adults’ responsibility and that her life is just beginning.

Now consider a person in his 40s who decides to start over and live his own life, because so far everything has been determined by others: parents, authority figures, then a disappointing spouse and demanding kids. For him, the past is others’ responsibility; the future will shaped by his agency. This is either a commendable move to reclaim his youth or a sign of immaturity, a failure to accept that he actually shaped who he is. In either case, it is tinged with sadness because he should have been youthful when he was chronologically young instead of now.

Or consider a person who is chronologically old and whose doctor tells her she is close to death. Yet she gains satisfaction in the way that the Stoics recommended, by planning how to spend her last weeks and how to die with dignity. She has put herself in midlife even though she is old.

For those of us who are actually in our middle years, this framework affords some satisfaction. Young people should be youthful. But midlife is maturity. It combines a recognition of limits–we have made choices that we cannot undo–with a sense of agency. We are what we have made ourselves, but we aren’t done.

Sources: Cathy J. Cohen, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford 2010); Hahn, A., Leavitt, T. D., Horvat, E. M., & Davis, J. E. (2004). Life after YouthBuild: 900 YouthBuild graduates react on their lives, dreams, and experiences. Somerville, MA: YouthBuild USA. See also Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; and to what extent do you already know the story of your life?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.