Recently, a friend of mine celebrated her 40th birthday. This was obviously a significant milestone for her, even though on the morning of her birthday, she had aged precisely one day, just like every other morning. It’s not the slow and inexorable passage of time that bothers us, it’s the lines we draw in the sand to mark its passage. A few days later, my friend was filling out a survey form, and had to check the next box in the age range category. Another decade was over, a major dividing line had been crossed, and the spectre of middle age was now approaching.
It’s approaching, but when exactly does it arrive? Here’s one way that I define it: it’s the age that we want to be. When we are very young, we always want to be older – little kids, when asked how old they are might say “I’m eight and a half”. However, once we become older, we want to be young again. Adults (to my knowledge) never include fractions in their age. Therefore, in my way of thinking, middle-age is the age at which you are content; the age at which you want to be neither younger nor older. In my opinion, this idyllic age is 23 or 24.
Here’s another way to define it: I’m probably revealing my own middle-adulthood by saying this, but as a child, I remember watching the television show One Day At A Time. In one particular episode, Bonnie Franklin, who played the mother, had just turned 36, and was worried about reaching middle age. Valerie Bertinelli, who played her daughter, tried to comfort her by saying “Don’t worry about it Mom – I was reading in the paper the other day that the average life expectancy is 72. So, in order to be middle-aged, you’d have to be… um…” [short pause for a little mental arithmetic followed by the requisite canned laughter].
At the risk of sounding like Sex And The City‘s Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is middle-age anyway? Is it the halfway point of our life’s journey, or the age that we want to be forever?
After thinking about it a little more, I discovered another way to define middle age. When you’re young, just about everyone in the world is older than you. At some point, you’ll notice that doctors and policemen are getting younger, and even soldiers are starting to look more like boys than men. As the years progress, more and more people start calling you “sir” or “madam”. Eventually, and almost imperceptibly, most of the people in the world are now younger than you, instead of older. This age – the point in your life where half the world’s population is older than you, and half is younger – is my next definition of middle-age. In a population graph, this age lies at the 50th percentile, which is also known as the median age.
It’s now time to view the world and examine our ages from The Bob Angle. So… why not just express our ages this way? Just for fun I’d like to propose that we redefine concept of age and measure it as a percentile. Your age will be quantified by comparing it to the ages of those around you, rather than to the number of times that the Earth has circled the sun since we were born. The current way is egocentric and inward-looking; this new method is more progressive and outward-looking because your age is defined by ages of everyone except you.
For your amusement, I have constructed a population percentile chart at the bottom of this article, using data from the StatsCan and census.gov web sites. There are three population samples: Canada (2010), the United States (2006), and the entire world (2010). Some extrapolation was done on the American and World data, in order to arrive at percentiles for individual years.
Due to varying standards of living, life expectancies vary in each of these sample areas. This means that there are now three different values for my new definition of middle age (the 50th percentile): In Canada middle age is 39.4, and in the United States’s it’s: 35.3. Surprisingly, the median age for the entire world’s population is 28.7.
Using this new percentile method, if someone asks your age, and you say 25, it now means that you are older than 25% of the Earth’s population, and conversely, that 75% of the population is older than you. Let that person figure out how many times the Earth has revolved around the sun.
I realize that this way of measuring ages will be impossible to implement, which is why I’m presenting it as an intellectual diversion, rather than a practical suggestion. Let’s examine some of the drawbacks:
- The first challenge will be getting people to understand percentiles, and getting them used to this new system. Percentiles may not come naturally to everyone, especially to people used to charting the passage of time on a straight line.
- Birthdays will become meaningless, since the day and month of your birth will no longer be significant. However, we could celebrate the passage of time by holding “percentile days”, and of course the length of time between each one would always vary.
- Imagine walking into a bar and reading a sign that states “All customers must be older than 24.42% of the Canadian population”.
- What data set will you use? The entire planet’s population, or just your country’s? Using world population data is more accurate, but data from your own country is probably more relevant. Also, what data will you use when you travel outside your country?
However, this system does have a number of advantages that I believe will make our lives more interesting and even more pleasant. One benefit to measuring age by percentiles is that the more you are past middle-age, the more slowly your percentile age will increase. This is comforting, since the years seem to pass more quickly as we get older.
The second benefit is society’s slowly increasing life expectancy. As our collective life expectancy increases over the decades, it puts downward pressure on an individual’s percentile ranking. While your percentile age wouldn’t actually decrease, its increase would be slowed a little.
Our increasing life expectancy also means that many people are now living past 100. With this new system, your age will always remain in the two-digit range!
A third benefit is that using percentile ages may actually encourage people to adopt a healthier lifestyle, since this number contains a built-in accomplishment. Right now, you are merely marking the passage of time on this planet; by expressing your age as a percentile, you are announcing to everyone that you have lived longer than a certain percentage of your country’s population! This number is not just an age, it’s a rank – you against the rest of the world – and who wouldn’t want to try to continually improve their ranking?
So, what does all this mean for my newly-40-something friend? Sadly, it means that middle age is not some distant point on the horizon – according to my percentile chart, it’s already come and gone! Middle age is 39.4 for Canadians, and 28.7 for the world’s population. It also means that depending on the chart she selects, she can announce one of two things. She can now proclaim proudly that she is 50.66 – older than half of the Canadian population, or that she is 66.54 – older than two-thirds of the world’s population! On second thought, maybe I should give her some time to get used to her brand new decade before showing her this article…
Percentile Age Chart