Doing Middle Age: Evidence from Finland and the U.S.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Ilkka PIETILA, University of Tampere, Faculty of Social Sciences, Finland
Neal KING, Virgnia Tech, USA
Hanna OJALA, University of Tampere, Faculty of Social Sciences, Finland
Age differs from other forms of inequality in that people talk about aging as a process, and recognize themselves and others as necessarily changing statuses. As they do so, they negotiate the boundaries between age categories in various everyday interactions. In this regard, previous research shows that people will resist being categorized as "old" because of its denigrated status.

In this paper, we draw on data collected from Finland (N= 33) among metal workers and engineers aged 50-55, and 65-70; and from the U.S. (N=19; ages 42-61). Respondents all claimed to be middle aged, even those in their 70s. We suggest that they do so in an effort to avoid being categorized as old. Chronological age does not seem to be the sole basis of age categories. Respondents also suggest that they are middle aged quite differently from previous generations, and they characterize this as active versus inactive. Finally, they ascribe to middle age other positive characteristics, such as maturity and freedom, which compensate for the loss of their young bodies, and which further differentiate them from old people whom they see as more constrained. We conclude that the expansion and positive valuation of middle age, and the invidious comparisons of their parents to themselves together position them in a status higher than that of old age. As the one inequality in which all people assume they will shift in status over the courses of their lives, age invites an expansion of the last status prior to the most stigmatized one, old age.