The terms ‘middle age’ and ‘midlife’ mean much the same. They describe the third quarter of life – the period after young adulthood and before old age. As life expectancy has increased, each life phase has changed. In 1950 people moved into midlife at about 35 and claimed a government pension at 60, which signalled the start of older age. In the 21st century midlife started at about 45 and superannuation was claimed at 65 – typically signifying the end of the midlife period.
In the 2013 census there were 1,094,979 people aged between 45 and 64, comprising 26% of the total population. Of this age group 48% were men and 52% women, which was very close to the proportions found in the overall population – women do not begin to significantly outnumber men until both groups reach their 70s.
Middle-aged people are sometimes thought to be vulnerable to a ‘midlife crisis’ – youth has passed and old age is approaching, causing emotional turmoil. Crisis victims supposedly make radical life changes such as starting a completely new career, ending long-standing relationships and adopting new appearances. The stereotypical male suffering from a midlife crisis buys an impractical sports car and leaves his wife for a new partner half his age. In reality, there is little evidence that midlife adults have more crises than other age groups.
In the mid-20th century work was plentiful. Most families consisted of married parents and their children. Fathers worked full-time, mothers stayed home to care for children, and when young people left school they generally went straight to work, usually leaving home as well. Because life expectancy was lower – around 68 years for men and 73 for women in the mid-1950s – fewer people had to care for ageing parents.
In many homes in the 21st century, all adults worked full-time. By the 2010s life expectancy had risen to 80 for men and 83 for women, so many midlife adults had one or both parents alive, who were likely to need help as they aged. Midlife people often had dependent children at home, as it was common to have children later in life. Most young people moved into part-time or full-time study when they finished school, sometimes remaining in the family home. Since the 1990s young people have had to pay for their tertiary education, and their parents were expected to support them until they turned 25. Some midlife people also looked after their grandchildren.
There were also significantly more blended or stepfamilies, as well as single parents. Many midlife adults supported people outside their original family – stepchildren, step-grandchildren and stepparents, current and former in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. In one 2004 study, only half the children who received help were born from their parents’ current relationship.
Midlife adults in the 21st century were sometimes termed the ‘sandwich generation’, because they were often responsible both for children and ageing parents. While almost all gave more help than they received, especially to children and grandchildren, being the ‘meat in the sandwich’ was not as uncomfortable as it sounds. Assisting other generations often enhances family relationships. Children who have received parental help are likely to act similarly towards their parents, and their own children, in the future.
Relatively few midlife adults care for older people at home full-time, but many help ageing parents who live elsewhere. Midlife people who live near their parents can help in person more regularly.
A 2010 study found that 79% of midlife adults gave their parents emotional support – they checked on them by phone, visited, took them out, read to them, wrote letters and shared leisure activities, like playing cards. They also helped with jobs around the house (69%), transport (56%), shopping (49%) and health needs (48%). They were less likely to give their parents financial help (40%). Women did more emotional caregiving than men, but men tended to give their parents more practical support.
Supporting elderly, unwell parents is a challenging but rewarding experience for some people. In a 2004 study Shona said: ‘It is better now that Mum is living with us. I still have to take time off for medical appointments and a lot of things … I organise from work. Sometimes I have to work from home if mum is sick, particularly confused or upset with something. … She has osteoporosis and dementia. She is still able to bath herself and dress herself, although gets confused with some articles of clothing. We provide the emotional support and companionship.’1
Most midlife adults offer this help gladly, though they admit it can be challenging. Some feel privileged to repay the support they received from their parents. For others it is a chance to show their affection in a practical way.
In the 21st century, instead of the traditional ‘empty nest’ after children have left home, there were more ‘cluttered nest’ families. As well as caring for ageing parents, many midlife adults supported adult children at home and children who had their own families. Women had children later than in the past – many started in their 30s – so some midlife adults were raising children while also caring for their ageing parents.
Adult children who still live in the family home are sometimes referred to as ‘parasite children’ or ‘boomerangs’. Many of these people have previously left home, but returned for a variety of reasons: relationship break-ups, job losses, or because they are saving to buy a house or go overseas. Some live otherwise independently, but others are treated like young children or teenagers again. Simon, aged 30, said: ‘It is like living in a hotel. There’s no expectation that I have to contribute at all. I’d only been back a few minutes by the time she’d ironed my first shirt. I feel very guilty about it.’2
While adult children get less practical help than their grandparents do, they get more emotional support and far more financial help. Overall, adult children are twice as likely to get money from their parents as they are to get help with daily tasks. Sons are more likely to get money than daughters. Most financial help goes to children in their early 20s, usually for tertiary education but also because of high levels of youth unemployment.
Parents from lower-income households are just as likely to help as parents who are better off. They do not want their children starting their adult life in debt, even if it means making sacrifices themselves.
The kind of help depends on culture as well as income. Māori parents expect to continue helping children financially and emotionally long after they leave home. Pacific families expect their children to contribute to household expenses and parental support as soon as they begin earning. Pākehā parents who can afford it might help their adult children buy a house or establish a business, but most expect their children to support themselves once they leave home.
A 2009 survey found that the most common age to become a grandparent was 50–54. A quarter of grandparents look after their grandchildren on a regular basis, but the proportion is much higher among Māori (34%) and Pacific people (52%). Most do regular care because the parents are in employment. Their help also gives parents a break from their children for social activities, study or daily tasks.
Some grandparents juggle paid work and caring commitments, while others give up paid work or change their working hours so that they can care for their grandchildren. While most are happy to do this, childcare can be financially and physically demanding.
Support is not one way. Midlife adults get help from their parents as well, in the form of emotional support (70% in a 2010 study), help around the house (47%) and money (38%).
Reciprocation is common in Māori and Pacific families, who typically share resources within their whānau. For many Māori, giving to kin and supporting the whānau is not only an obligation but a deep source of satisfaction. Sharing money, food and hospitality creates bonds of aroha (love) and reciprocity that knit the whānau together. In Pacific families, giving support to older parents often means sending money and goods to relatives overseas as well as helping out at home.
In December 2015, 80% of midlife adults were employed either full-time or part-time. The proportion of midlife adults in the paid labour force decreased with age, from 85% of 45–49-year-olds to 70% of 60–64-year-olds.
Career development and remuneration often peaks in the earlier years of midlife, when most women who have taken time out to raise children have re-entered the workforce and are making progress in their careers.
In 2013 the age group with the highest median annual personal incomes was 45–49-year-olds ($42,300). The median income for all over-15-year-olds was $28,500.
Many midlife adults keep working because they have financial commitments, want to maintain a good lifestyle, are successful in their careers and enjoy what they do. They like the companionship, mental stimulation and sense of purpose work gives them. They are happy with their work–life balance, especially when they work part-time. Māori and Pacific people are more likely than others to want to stay at work for economic reasons.
After the 2014 election, the average age of Members of Parliament was 50. People typically become MPs after they have established a record of success in their careers or in community service.
Most people leave work for health reasons or because they want to do something different. About one in 10 leave because they need to care for someone else. Having grandchildren and wanting to spend more time with family are important reasons why midlife adults want more time away from work. More people work part-time as they get older – 18% of employed 45–49-year-olds worked part-time in 2013, as did 24% of 60–64-year-olds.
In 2013, 17% of people aged 45 to 64 had done some voluntary work (other than caring for a child outside the home or for someone with an illness or disability) in the four weeks before census night. Overall, people were more likely to do voluntary work as they got older. Women were more active as volunteers than men.
Midlife is often a time when family structures and relationships are changing. Parents of teenage or adult children often have more time to themselves, especially if their own parents do not need caring for or live in a different place. Many are at the peak of their earning potential, which allows them to live a comfortable lifestyle, especially if they own their home mortgage-free.
Some midlife adults decide to change direction. They may embark on a new career path, travel overseas for extended periods or undertake tertiary study. Midlife women are more likely to study than men. In 2013, 65% of students aged 45–64 were women. Two-thirds of midlife students studied part-time.
In 2008 Aucklanders Margaret and Fred Gilles, both in their late 50s, rented out their house, sold the contents and temporarily moved to the northern hemisphere. They planned to work and travel in Europe and Britain. Margaret said, ‘We’ve got ourselves established, got our mortgage paid off, our children are off our hands. We’ve had a lifetime working.’1 The couple wanted to enjoy the chance to travel while they were still fit and healthy.
In between caring and work responsibilities, midlife people take time to enjoy themselves. A 2010 study of midlife adults’ leisure found that most (86%) were satisfied with how they spent their leisure time. Almost 90% took part in outdoor activities such as walking, gardening, swimming, cycling, fishing and golf. They also enjoyed dining out, and attending family events and social occasions.
People with higher levels of education and income were more active than those with less education or income. Overall, women were slightly more socially active than men, possibly because they were less likely to be employed full-time.
Most midlife adults rate their own health as excellent or very good, but some have to confront certain conditions that become more prevalent at this time, mainly in the later stages. High blood pressure, diabetes (particularly in men), arthritis and osteoporosis (particularly in women) are some examples. Mood disorders in men peak in the 55–64 age group, whereas for women this happens much earlier (25–34). Most women experience menopause between 45 and 55. The risk of developing certain cancers, such as breast and bowel cancer, increases significantly after 50.
By midlife, death rates begin to show a steady upward trend after remaining stable through people’s 20s and 30s. In 2006 the death rate per 100,000 people was 434 for 45–64-year-olds, compared to 95 for 25–44-year-olds and 1,724 for 65–74-year-olds. Midlife people, particularly those in their later years, are more likely to experience the death of peers than in their past.
Breheny, Mary, and Christine Stephens. Older adults’ experiences of family life: linked lives and independent living: a qualitative analysis of interviews with thirty-six older adults. Wellington: Families Commission, 2007.
Fleming, Robin. The common purse: income sharing in New Zealand families. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1997.
The Kiwi nest: 60 years of change in New Zealand families. Wellington: Families Commission, 2008.
Koopman-Boyden, P., ed. Transactions in the mid-life family. Hamilton: Population Association of New Zealand, 2000.