I can’t remember how I came across that word apart from it being accidental. I found it almost funny and did more searches, and even came across an article in a medical journal reporting on the average hemoglobin (iron) in the blood samples of Chinese women middlescents.
Surfing the internet just brought more and more finds, mostly advice on handling this segment of the population. There were even a few detours on handling “man babies” and “manfants,” which I will define in a minute.
Some of you might have a hunch by now on who the middlescents are, but it turns out the definitions vary with the age range: 25 to 40, 30 to 45, 40 to 60, 40 to 65!
What the discussions do agree on is that it is a period between young adulthood and old age and is one marked by what most of us still call a midlife crisis, mostly psychological but also with physical changes, or rather physical deterioration. The term itself suggests crisis, taking off from “adolescent,” so a middlescent is older but still like an adolescent with life problems.
The differences in definitions are not surprising, and are related to culture. Let’s focus on the Philippines to understand the differences.
Young or old
Looking at our languages, we find the terms reflect a simpler time when you were either bata (young) or matanda (old). You are born bata (okay, okay, there’s being a sanggol, which is a brief period) and remain bata indefinitely. As long as you were not married you were bata or more specifically binata for men and dalaga for women. There are limits, of course, to being bata, even if you remain single. At some point, you become matandang binata (old bachelor) or matandang dalaga (spinster). In rural areas and even among urban low-income groups you would get those labels earlier because everyone marries so young. By the time you are in your 40s you are lolo or lola, which is not surprising because with young marriages, you would be a grandparent early.
And when average life expectancy was really low—in the early part of the 20th century it was something like 60—you were truly matanda even in your 50s.
A similar pattern was found in the rest of the world, even in the West, where you went through childhood and then became an adult as early as 14 or 15, which was when puberty used to happen. Males could be sent to work, or to war, and girls were married off. Look at paintings and photographs up to the early 20th century and you find children dressed like adults.
Adolescence and teenage came about fairly recently in human history as societies carved out a longer dependency period of formal schooling. Marriage was postponed, and people became more conscious of a strange human subspecies called teenagers (the term coming from the numbers, but we don’t usually think of a 10-year-old as an automatic teenager, maybe 12, 13 onward, or whenever puberty comes in) with strange behavior, sometimes antisocial, sometimes supersocial, but always marked by rebelliousness.
We know today that there is a “teenage brain,” one struggling along into adulthood, neurons trying to connect. I see it already in my two teenage children, giving you the “dedma” look when you talk to them, as in you want to ring them up on their cell phone even if you’re face to face.
Pediatrics has spun off adolescent medicine and terms have been coined to refer to smaller age intervals: Infants were those aged 0 to 1, toddlers up to the age of 5, and then there was a skip to adolescents. In recent years, there has been more attention given to “middle childhood,” which would be from 5 to puberty, with their own physical and mental health issues. (Did you know your middle-childhood kids, especially girls, will already have crushes, sometimes quite intensely, as in “gigil na gigil” in Filipino?)
Filipinos are interesting in how we keep our young as children. Note how we’ve kept sanggol for infants, but “baby” for children who might already be close to puberty. My 11-year-old son protests when store clerks call him “Bhe” (from bhe-bi). “Baby” is a popular word. Note how even in the West a girlfriend or wife is still called “baby” or “babes,” but feminists hate the term because it’s seen as a condescending way of keeping women “infantilized.” I tell my American feminist friends that in the Philippines, you will find women in their 70s still called such, as in “Lola Baby,” because that’s their nickname.
But back to western definitions. After teenhood, you have young adulthood—more or less people in their 20s, maybe into mid-30s. Then it’s middle adulthood, which extends all the way up to the 50s. Then… old age, but with so many old people now, there are all kinds of divisions: “young old” (60s and 70s), also sometimes the “new young,” and “old old” (80s to 100 and over).
I do appreciate “middlescence” as an attempt to be more sensitive to the needs of people across the life span. One article in the Harvard Business Review deals with the challenge of middlescence among employees. These middlescents would have worked for several years in a firm and may not be in executive positions. Some are beginning to get bored, even alienated and unhappy. Their physical health is affected, with adverse effects on their mental health—the so-called midlife crisis. I thought of our own workplaces where these middlescents might find younger employees threatening, so that they refuse to share skills or knowledge. A good human relations manager should find ways to make this middlescence period more interesting, inspiring employees to pursue new interests and find new talents, even as they tackle old responsibilities.
Middlescence also marks off a period of physical development and very real health challenges. In early adulthood we still feel invincible despite smoking, drinking and keeping late hours. Then comes middlescence, and the years of bad health habits catch up. So-called “degenerative diseases” emerge—diabetes, heart problems, kidney problems, cancers.
This is a time to push harder for healthier habits and lifestyles, and the cultural factor is important. People think of themselves as matanda and might resist the call for more physical activity. Companies should push and say, Hey, it’s not only okay but desirable to go out and jump, run, dance, and I leave it your imagination what other physical activities should be pursued more strenuously, even creatively.
In the context of societies with a growing gray population, discussions about middlescence pushes old age further away. It’s nice to know, for example, that I’m still a middlescent even if I could retire this year at 65. There’s a nice young ring to middlescent—better, definitely, than middle-aged.
Now, what Filipino term should we use for it?
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