to Middle Age

The 12 steps of middle adulthood


Elsewhere I have addressed the development of young adults and older adults. This column is about adult development in middle age. For many, somewhere in the early 30’s we enter adulthood. While most folk 35 don’t consider themselves “middle age” (which we generally associate with the 40’s) they do believe they are fully functioning adults—what might be termed “early middle age.” Middle adulthood is the period from the early 30’s until we become an “older adult” somewhere in our sixties. If you are in your low 30’s here is what you will probably face in the next 30 years of “middle adulthood.”



1. Great productivity.

The next 30 years will probably be the time of your life’s greatest productivity. It’s not that you didn’t accomplish a lot in your 20’s, or that you won’t make a contribution in your 60’s and 70’s, but middle adulthood is prime time for making the contribution of our life. This means most of us should be doing the right thing by the time we enter middle adulthood. The church should have something to say to adults about thus period of great productivity.


2. Midlife Crisis. 

Some experience a “midlife crisis” during the 40’s, but not everyone. Daniel Levinson argued for  midlife crisis in Seasons of a Man’s Life, but later research has not shown such a crisis is very common. However, if your life isn’t turning out the way you had hoped (and you cannot successfully make “the great compromise” of middle age adapting to lost dreams) you might (especially if you are male) experience a midlife crisis. It can be a dangerous to your faith and family but the church can help. But if you don’t experience a big crisis, you still might face a period of self-evaluation and changes in life structure. Certainly the church has something to say to adults facing a crisis of midlife or even to those who are in the midst of making “the great compromise.”


3. Teenagers

When you enter middle adulthood you might have a few kids. When you leave it they will be gone. In between there are teenagers. Having teens in the home can be a wonderfully fulfilling time. More often, teens add to the stress of life.  As your adolescents wrestle with identification, responsibility, and maturity and your own limitations of influence becomes apparent you may get a feeling of helplessness. There are things you cannot do for your teens—they have to do it for themselves, and others become greater influences than you seem to be. It is common for wonderful parents to think of themselves as failures when their children go through adolescence. A denomination that pours millions into youth programming certainly must have something to also say to the harried parents of these youth too.

4. Marital ups and downs.

It is stating the obvious to observe that by middle age the honeymoon is over. Stagnation can settle in on a marriage in the 40’s. If divorce is an option, the first marriage may dissolve. The median duration of first marriages is about 7 years.[1]  However 65% of all married couples (not just Christian couples—all married couples) will still be married 10 years after the wedding and many marriages last much longer.[2] However of those who remarry, divorce is still a possibility; in fact it is more likely.[3] Yet, even for happily married couples, marriage satisfaction rises and falls over the course of the marriage.  The most frequent pattern of marital satisfaction is U-shaped: Satisfaction begins to decline just after a marriage begins, and falls until it reaches its low point somewhere around teenagers then it slowly returns to higher levels, often reaches its highest point after the kids have left home. This means you must learn to “work it out” in marriage and learn to wait through some of the dry periods. Sometimes things don’t need “fixed” so much as “waited through” since the stress is external and not a core problem of the marriage. The church certainly has something to say to couples experiencing the periods of drudgery in married life and something to say to those considering divorce.


5. Job Burnout

If you are a hard-working professional you might experience “burnout” in middle age. Burnout occurs when highly trained professionals experience dissatisfaction, disillusionment, frustration, and weariness from their jobs. You may feel “trapped” or “on a treadmill” just putting in the hours. You may feel like you are stuck in a dead-end job and your passion has leaked away. You might feel “used” by your kids and spouse as you trudge along in an unfulfilling job, making money for others to spend. You might even think you “missed your way” and return to think about earlier career dreams. It should not surprise us that more than half of the people in ministerial training in some denominations are second career people in middle age.[4]  More common recently due to the current economic climate, some middle age adults are giving reconsideration of their career paths due to losing a job.[5]   The Bible should have something to say to people plodding on in the treadmill of life, feeling burned out, losing a job, or thinking of switching careers.


6. Empty Nest

In the 50’s you are likely to enter a totally new era of life: the empty nest. It starts earlier then you might think (about the time the last child gets a driver’s license). It is labeled empty nest syndrome when parents experience feelings of unhappiness, worry, loneliness, and depression resulting from their children's departure from home. This challenge is harder for many stay-at-home moms than for working moms, but the empty nest syndrome is more myth than reality. Most parents experience “the best marital satisfaction of life” after the kids have flown the coop. The church should have something to say to empty nest parents (and something for them to do too).


7. Boomerang Children

There has been a significant increase of young adults who come back to live at home with their middle-aged parents. These are called boomerang children.  Young adults have trouble making ends meet, and the median marriage age is now in the late 20’s, so the after-college boomerang kid is now common. Young men are more likely to come home than women. In the current economic climate we should expect even more boomerangs, simply because jobs are not materializing like they used to. Does the church have anything to say to parents who have adult children living with them…again?


8. The Sandwich squeeze

An increasing number of middle age parents are sandwiched between their own boomerang kids who moved home and their parents who also have moved in with them. With their kids living in the basement and their parents in the guest room they must fulfill the needs of both their children and their aging parents adding stress to their late middle adulthood. Couples are marrying later and parents are living longer. Getting caught in the sandwich squeeze produces a role change: being parents to your own parents and becoming colleagues of your kids—and often financially supporting both. Sometimes these arrangements are mutually positive and at other times they are stressful.  Does the church have something to say to parents in the sandwich squeeze?


9.  Health scares & grief

Somewhere in your middle age you will likely have a close call with death, or maybe your spouse will die. By the time you are in your late 50’s you will see death coming down the road toward you. You will start noticing the age of people in the obituaries—and see the steady march of people dying that are your own age. A close friend will likely get cancer and die. You or your spouse will likely face some major scare and that young adult sense that you are immortal will fade fast. At some point in the 50’s you will start counting down instead of up—you’ll say, “I have 15 years of active work left.” This brings a new wisdom but it changes perspective. And, if you escape these things you are likely to at least face them with your parents. Certainly the church has some important things to say to adults facing the shortness of life or to people who have just lost their loved ones or are facing death themselves.


10. Becoming a Grandparent 

Certainly one of the unmistakable symbols of aging is becoming a grandparent. It is also often one of the greatest joys of this period—all the benefits without any of the responsibilities! But that is not always the case. An increasing number of grandparents are now raising their children’s children. Grandmothers tend to be more involved than grandfathers (or at least the grandfather is involved in a different way). African-American grandparents are more involved with their grandchildren than white grandparents but either way having grandchildren is one of the highlights of this period. Does the church have something to say to grandparents?


11. Conjunctive faith

As for faith development many middle adult reach the stage of “conjunctive faith[6].” They have considered all the options, settled on their own choices and often become broader in their thinking than they were when they were younger. Kids often marvel that their 55 year old parents now watch movies they wouldn’t let in the house before. 50 and 60 year olds often seem “more liberal” than they were as 30-40 year olds. While most young adults imagine older adults to be narrow-minded –since they themselves have gotten more conservative when they had children they assume that trend will continue into old age, but they are wrong.  Actually many adults in their 50’s and 60’s settle into an irenic openness that they never had before. True, some freeze in and become stuck-in-tradition, but many find “Conjunctive faith.” The best evidence of this is openness if their reaction to worship styles—older adults put up with alien worship styles far better than the students I teach. The older adults may not like it and they might complain often, but they still attend church and tithe. When young adults don’t like the music they simply walk out. By middle age, especially later middle age, faith often “comes together” for adults.[7] Of all the steps listed above the church certainly has something to say about faith development in middle adulthood. We spend so much time on children, youth and young adults as if faith is fully formed and finished by age 30—actually it is just getting ready to be guided into “conjunctive faith.”


12. Generativity or Stagnation.

Erik Erikson in the Eight Ages of Man suggests that middle adulthood encompasses the period of generativity versus stagnation, when adults face a choice between pouring their energy into guiding and encouraging future generations (generativity) or spending their energy on themselves (stagnation). The adult who chooses the path of generativity can leave a lasting contribution to the world through their time and energy as they look beyond their own life and interests to the life through others. Other adults choose “stagnation” as they “spend their children’s inheritance” in play and amusement living the rest of their life full of triviality. The church certainly must have a lot to say about this choice of middle adults.



So, if these are the “12 steps” (or perhaps we should say “12 possible experiences”) of middle adults where is the church weakest on helping middle adults grow and change as Christians as they face the stresses and challenges of life? Where are we doing a good job? What is most lacking? How can we improve out ministry to middle adults?


So what do you think?

During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   February 3, 2009





[1] The median duration of first marriages that end in divorce: Males: 7.8 years; Females: 7.9 years; the median duration of second marriages that end in divorce: Males: 7.3 years; Females: 6.8 years.  The median number of years people wait to remarry after their first divorce: Males: 3.3 years; Females: 3.1 years.  Source Divorce magazine.

[2] Percentage of married people who reach their 5th, 10th, and 15th anniversaries: 5th: 82%; 10th: 65%; 15th: 52%; 25th: 33%; 35th: 20%; 50th: 5% ibid

[3] Perhaps divorce from a second marriage is higher due to increased stress with blended families; Or, once you have experienced divorce it might be easier to walk away a second time?

[4] I have heard these numbers quoted by denomination officials in my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church but I do not have the actual data at hand to quote the source. If anyone can provide this for me I will add it to this footnote.

[5] I have been amazed at the number of recent inquiries I’ve seen from middle adults about ministerial training. They say, “You know I was thinking about the ministry in college but entered a different line of work, lately I’ve felt a fresh calling to the ministry and need to get back on track.” After discussing it for a while they tell me they were laid off recently than that “is how God brought this back to me.”

[6] I am referring here to the work of James Fowler, developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in the book Stages of Faith.

[7] This is not to say there are not great faith trials coming—perhaps the greatest trials of all face the older adult—see next article in this series on older adult development.