Late Middle Age: Transition to the Third Age

By Helson, Ravenna; Cate, Rebecca A. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Late Middle Age: Transition to the Third Age

Helson, Ravenna, Cate, Rebecca A., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

"The crown of life, ... the time of personal self-realization and fulfillment, comes after our children have left us and after we have given up our jobs so as to enter what is now to be called the Third Age" writes Peter Laslett (1991, p. vii), a pioneer prophet of the new opportunities made possible by increases in health and longevity. Given peace and prosperity, is this a vision to be taken seriously? Some authors emphasize a degree of consistency (McCrae & Costa, 2003) or continuity (Atchley, 1999) in personality that would preclude major personality change in large numbers of people. Others conceive differently the situation produced by increased vigor in later life, looking at how people can be helped to maintain a sense of involvement in society after retirement, and whether volunteer work provides this to people who need it (Moen & Fields, 2002).

No one suggests that development changes radically at age 65, and information is needed about what people are like before the Third Age begins. This chapter looks at a sample of women in their early 60s, a period of transition for many people between peak social responsibility and an exit from center stage. The women in our sample are all graduates of a private women's college and long-term participants in a longitudinal study. Most of them are not wealthy but, because of their education and background, they are better able than the average person to do what they want to do. They are also quite diverse in personality. For these reasons, it should be instructive to look for the roots of a third stage that may be developing in their lives.

After a brief description of the study and of the women's lives at age 61, we consider several ways in which their personalities and lives have changed over middle age and how these normative changes may affect their prospects in the third stage of life. Then we focus on the women's attitudes toward work and retirement as indicators of transition to the Third Age. General trends are of interest, but so are individual differences. For example, Laslett (1991) thought that artists and intellectuals would be less affected by new possibilities for a Third Age of life than other people, because they use their work for selfdevelopment all along. We show that differences in personality in early middle age predict both the nature of work at age 52 and, at age 61 the groundwork being laid for the Third Age.


Design of Study

The sample consists of 123 women who provided personality inventories and life data as graduating seniors at Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1958 or 1960, and later agreed to participate further in a longitudinal study. The numbers of participants were 98 at age 27 (1963-1964), 108 at age 43 (1981), 105 at age 52 (1989), and 113 at age 61 (1998-1999). The sample is largely White and Protestant, as was the student body when the study began. Most of the women's fathers were in business or professions, and most of their mothers were housewives. The most distinctive common feature of the women's histories was that they started adulthood in the late 1950s with conservative gender-role assumptions and then experienced the large changes in gender roles that took place during the late 1960s and the 1970s. More detailed information about the sample may be found in subsequent sections of this chapter and in Helson and Kwan (2000) or Helson and Soto (2005).

The Sample at Age 61

Of 113 women who provided data at age 61, 70% lived in a stable couple relationship. Most women had been in the labor force, and of these, about half were now either retired or expected to retire within the next few years. Self-reported health was rated 4.1 on a 5-point scale, which was relatively high although significantly lower than at age 52, when the mean rating was 4.4. Since the age-52 follow-up the number of living mothers of the Mills women had dropped from 59% to 38%, and the number of fathers from 27% to 16%; by age 61, 72% of the women had been engaged in at least some care for ill or dying parents. …

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