Archive | Trends/Studies/Research

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Pessimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I gave you five reasons to be optimistic about middle age. In brief: you’ll live longer, your brain will keep developing, you’ll be happier, your divorce may not be all that bad, and you’ll make loads of new friends on the AARP Facebook page.

But in addition to being an optimist, I’m also a realist. As promised, then, here are five reasons to be pessimistic about middle age:

1. Social services can’t keep up with aging population. Yes, people are living longer. That’s the good news. But the general aging of the population will also place enormous burdens on social services, including health care delivery, informal care-giving and the pension system. So a lot will hinge on just how healthy this new crop of centenarians is. About 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition and 50 percent have at least two. In theory, the health care reform bill passed last year in America should help address some of these problems. But some experts warn that our public policies  – including health care reform – just aren’t up to the task of ensuring that our aging population gets the medical care it needs. In the worst case scenario – not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well – the old and the young will enter into a zero-sum conflict, fighting for scarce health care and economic resources.

2. Suicide rates are up among middle-aged Americans. Alongside all the research discussed last week showing that happiness peaks at 50, a curious and sobering counter-trend has also emerged:  For the second year in a row, middle-aged adults have registered the highest suicide rate in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A variety of hypotheses have been tossed out to explain this trend, including easier access to guns and prescription drugs as well as higher rates of depression among boomers. One sociologist at Berkeley speculates that it’s a combination of having grown up during an era of cultural turmoil (the 60’s), together with greater competition for resources (due to baby boom) as well as the stresses induced by an extended period of young adulthood. Whatever the cause, it’s certainly nothing to be cheery about.

3. Midlife Crises Cost More. I noted last week that with the advent of a happy middle age, there may be fewer midlife crises. But for those boomers out there still looking for Plan B, it’s gonna cost them. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, mid-life crises – whether it’s traveling the world, playing the stock market or starting one’s own business (I’ll grant you, these are a bit tamer than some crises one might imagine!) – have all gotten quite a good deal more expensive in the last few years. Add that to a general unease in this age bracket about market volatility and you’ve got a recipe for widespread economic anxiety at middle age.

4. You’re more like to get an STD. So…late divorce isn’t so bad after all, as we learned last week. But sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are actually more of a problem for middle-aged populations right now than they are among the young (at least in the United States.) The highest number of newly acquired cases of HIV/AIDS have been found in middle-aged adults, ages 35 to 44. Next highest age group? Ages 45 to 54. The least affected group is the youngest group between the ages of 25 to 34. Some of this is because women over 50 – no longer afraid of getting pregnant – cease using condoms. So if you are planning on getting back out there with your new-found freedom, by all means come prepared.

5. Who wants to multi-task? One of my favorite cantankerous chroniclers of middle age is Howard Baldwin over on Middle Age Cranky. In a recent post, Baldwin wonders who really wants to learn that as we age, our brains actually improve their ability to problem solve and multi-task? Doesn’t that just mean that boomers will have fewer excuses available to them when they want to plea a senior moment? Just sayin’…

Image: condom display by vista vision via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by a barrage of recent scientific studies offering good news about middle age.

Middle age has long been conceptualized as that phase of life where we cease thinking about our potential as human beings, and start focusing on our limitations. No more. While not everything looks rosy (stay tuned for next week’s tip list), there are at least a few trends out there that do bode well for those of us hovering at the mid-point of our lives.

Here are five reasons to feel optimistic:

1. People are living longer. According to scientists, more people than ever before are living to older adulthood. In the U.S., the average lifespan has risen 30 years since 1900. And today’s older adults are better-educated, healthier, more active and more affluent than any previous generation. Plus, as I pointed out last week, the labor market is becoming more diverse and there will be more jobs for the over-55 set. So there’s lots more time – and more to do.

2. Our brains keep evolving. New research also shows that – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. The result? In some respects, we actually think better in middle age. Specifically, inductive reasoning and problem solving improves in the middle-aged brain. We get the gist of an argument better. We arrive at solutions more quickly. Even financial judgments peak in middle age.

3. People are happier over 50. This is also both surprising and welcome news. A survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age. Specifically, levels of stress, worry and anger all dropped significantly for people in their fifties, while levels of happiness and enjoyment increased. While the study wasn’t designed to identify the causes of increased happiness, scholars speculated that with age comes greater wisdom and emotional intelligence. A similar study carried out in Canada also found that self-esteem is highest among middle-aged boomers. The corollary of all this research? We can probably expect to see fewer mid-life crises.

4. Even divorce can be positive. As the endless analyses of Al and Tipper Gore’s break up tell us, late divorce (i.e. divorce in marriages 20 years or longer) is increasingly common. But it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. A large number of articles that followed on the Gores’ split emphasized late divorce as a form of autonomy and self-actualizationespecially for women – rather than just sticking it out for longevity’s sake. For me, at least, that was the first time I’d seen divorce as a cultural trend discussed in positive terms.

5. The AARP has had a makeover. Yup, that’s right folks. The American Association for Retired Persons (that’s AARP for all those in the know) has had an on-line overhaul in order to cater to the digital demands of the over-50 crowd. So for all you aging Facebook-ers out there, you have a new on-line hang out.

Image: AARP by Somewhat Frank via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Continuing Education: The Importance of Experimentation

I went to a three-hour lesson on pod-casting on Sunday afternoon. It was the first in a two-part course I’m taking at London’s adult learning centre, CityLit. The course is designed to introduce beginners to the art of internet broadcasting.

I’m a big fan of taking classes in adulthood. Since moving to London four years ago, I’ve taken classes in fiction writing and acting. In Chicago, I took classes in freelance writing and memoir. And once, many moons ago, I took a class in beginning Hebrew (not to mention the continuing ed. class to end all continuing ed. classes: I’m Jewish, You’re Not.)

According to a report released jointly by the Penn State University Office of Outreach Marketing and Communications and University Continuing Education Association in 2006, up to 45 percent of colleges and university enrollment in the United States is from adult learners. Revenues for continuing education rose 67 percent at the institutions surveyed in this report from 2004.

People go back to school as grown-ups for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it’s to pursue a hobby. You try something new (or return to something old.) You meet new people. You get out of your comfort zone. Above all, you have fun. (And yes, for the record, I’m still eyeing that course at CityLit entitled Actors Singing From West End to Broadway.)

Sometimes you go back to school because you need to re-tool professionally. From 2008 to 2018, the labor force is projected to grow more diverse and have more workers age 55 and older. Simultaneously, the highest-paying jobs – those that require at least a bachelor’s degree – are expected to increase at a rate faster than that of overall job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So it’s  a good bet that we’ll be seeing more Americans – particularly boomers – sharpening their pencils and buying new notebooks as they gear up for a second or third career.

But the main advantage of adult education is that it enables you to experiment. Chris Brogan – guru of all things social media – talked about this recently. Brogan thinks about experimentation in terms of labs. (He’s currently experimenting with a new travel site called Man On The Go.)

His main point is that experimentation is crucial to growth. Why? Because you test drive new ideas. You collaborate. You enjoy the fun of failure, as Gretchen Rubin likes to put it. Above all, you create ideas of your own, rather than just reporting on the ideas of others.

Which is why I’m learning how to podcast. I’m not yet sure exactly how I’ll incorporate podcasting into my life, and whether it will be more of a hobby or something that I use in work. But I have a few ideas. More importantly, I know that if I don’t start experimenting now – creating a lab, as it were – I’ll never find out.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll be the next Cezanne

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Apologies that my weekly tips for adulthood post did not appear yesterday. Due to the editing schedule over at www.PoliticsDaily.com, that particular post will come out next week.

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And speaking of Politics Daily, be sure to check out my post today on the new Pro-Islam ads running in London. It’s kind of the UK’s answer to the whole “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign. Except that it’s “What Would Mohammed Do?” Check it out…

Image: Podcasting by hawaii via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Death Of The Library

I walked into my local public library in London the other day and got a rude shock. All of my favorite librarians were gone. They’d been replaced by machines. Where the circulation desk once stood — manned by a friendly soul with whom I’d chat about politics or the weather or the latest London Review of Books — I now swiped my library card and pushed a button that said “borrow” or “return.”

They’d also done some remodeling. This particular branch sits in an elegant 1930s building located in the garden of the house where the poet John Keats wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale.” The main room — once cluttered with books that literally spilled onto the floor — now is a shadow of its former self. Rather than books, the main thing on display would appear to be tables — artfully dotted around the room as if this were a café or the premier-class lounge for an airline. (“It’s so bright even druggies wouldn’t inject here,” quipped a cynical online reviewer.)

And it’s not just in the United Kingdom where libraries are morphing into something else . . . if not dying out completely. I’ve seen numerous articles about the demise of them in the United States, whether it’s the closure of branches in Boston, reduced hours in Los Angeles, or the architectural makeovers that render library books merely decorative, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read the rest of this article at www.PoliticsDaily.com…

Image: NYC-Midtown: New York Public Library Main Building via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Worry Dolls: Why Grown Ups Need Them Too

Judith Warner has an interesting article in this weekend’s New York Times. It’s called “The Why Worry Generation” and it’s all about Gen-Y: the so-called “millennials” born between 1982 and 2002.

The thrust of the article is that even though these young people ought to be completely stressed out by the economic downturn, joblessness and high levels of debt they are confronting as they enter adulthood, they aren’t. They believe in themselves to the point that they are actually willing to wait for the right job to come along – one that’s fulfilling, not just pays the bills. And they believe that they are good enough to get it. In short: they just…don’t worry.

Warner bases her argument on a small group of  college grads with whom she conducted interviews. But her findings are borne out by a much larger study carried out by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press earlier this year. Pew also found the millennials to be remarkably hopeful and self-assured.

I read both articles and felt…anxious. Maybe it’s generational and maybe it’s just me. But I worry about everything. All the time.

I worry about money. I worry about my career. I worry about whether we’ll ever move back to the United States…or should. I worry about my kids: that they’ll be happy and well-adjusted and have lots of friends and never feel sad or lonely or excluded. I worry about my siblings. I worry about missing yoga. I worry about going to yoga. Sometimes I feel that even my worries have worries.

I have a lot of strategies for dealing with my worries. Sometimes I write them down in a little notebook. Sometimes I talk about them with my husband or my close friends or my life coach. Sometimes (she said, with a post-modern twist) I blog about them.

But by far the best remedy against my worries is a little tradition my daughter and I have started of late. As we were moving, I came upon a box of Guatemalan worry dolls that I’ve had for ages, dating back to when I lived in Central America many moons ago. If you haven’t seen worry dolls before, they are these tiny little dolls that come in a small, yellow wooden box. In the folk traditions of Guatemala, children are meant to tell a worry to each doll before they go to bed. In the morning – so the story goes – the children wake up and their worries are gone because the dolls have removed them.

Anyway, my daughter and I have built the worry dolls into our nighttime routine. Every night – just before she goes to sleep – we run through our joint worries, taking turns as we make our way through the dolls. What’s interesting  is how repetitive our worries are. My daughter always worries that she’ll “have a bad day” and “won’t like her lunch.” I always worry that I’ll “be stressed out” and “not get enough done.” Then we put the dolls in the box and close it with the lid.

It doesn’t always work. But there’s something deeply soothing about naming your worries out loud and then putting them in a box. It’s like a friend of mine who once cut out a picture of her ex-boyfriend and then stuck it in a bottle. The physical act of putting the proverbial “lid on it” really does help.

Added bonus? The whole process has reminded me of that great Dire Straits song “Why Worry.” Have a listen.

Happy Memorial Day.

Image: Worry Dolls by vintagecat via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Volunteerism, Fundraising And The New Politics Of The PTA

While reading the New York Times Motherlode blog the other day, I was struck by a piece about current trends in American education. Apparently, many public school districts in the United States are increasingly turning to parents in order to cover budgetary shortfalls.

In some cases, it’s the parent-teacher associations that are spearheading the movement to make up for things like teacher’s salaries and supplies when school boards can’t. In other cases, schools are making direct appeals to parents for monetary contributions, sometimes making them mandatory.

There’s a lot to say about this trend toward parent-funded public education in the United States: Is it appropriate? Is it enough? And — as many commenters on the Times post wondered aloud — what do you do in school districts where parents can’t afford or don’t have time for this sort of fundraising?

But as an American parent who’s lived abroad for nearly four years with two school-age children, what most caught my eye about this story is how utterly inconceivable it would be in the U.K., where I reside. I’ve done a ton of fundraising for my daughter’s school over the past four years. And it’s been an incredible eye-opener for me about the depths of cross-cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. on this front.
Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: 207/365 by ladybugbkt via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Middle Aged Women Drinking Too Much

A new study in Britain has found that middle-aged women are drinking more than they did in their teens. As alcohol takes a rising toll on both health and health care in the United Kingdom, the British government struggles with what — if anything — it should do about this problem.

Today I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about the health consequences of drinking to excess and how governments can respond.

Have a look…

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Over the weekend I was on PoliticsDaily.com talking about what a hung parliament might mean for governance in the U.K. Check it out!

Image: Alcohol! by lynda@dwc via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Are Computers Bad For Children?

Many parents have become hard-wired into thinking that computers are bad for children. But are they? New research suggests that it’s actually a mixed bag.

Yesterday, I was over on PoliticsDaily.com looking at this age-old, vexing parenting question in light of new research that tries to systematically estimate the effect of home computers on child and adolescent outcomes.

Have a look



Image: Macbook by Swansea Photographer via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Coping With Peanut Allergies: New Hope

There are plenty of things you don’t bargain for before you become a parent: just how little sleep you’ll actually get that first year (five years?)…just how inarticulate you’ll be the first time your kid asks you where babies come from (Um…that’s a really good question )…and – oh yeah – the fact that you’ll never go to a movie theatre again. (Hello, Netflix!)

I kind of knew all of those things were on the horizon. One thing I didn’t see coming was that my son would also arrive into this world allergic to more than 20 different foods, some of which might possibly kill him.

Today I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about some new research on peanut allergies coming out of the UK and what it means for parents like me. Have a look

Image: 52 Weeks – Week 5 – Food Allergy and Intolerance Week (25th-29th January 2010) via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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RIP Frank McCourt: The Promise of Old Age

I was very saddened to hear that author Frank McCourt died yesterday at the age of 78. McCourt’s best-selling memoir of his poverty-striken childhood in Ireland – Angela’s Ashes – received the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and stayed on the New York Times Best-Seller’s List for 117 weeks, including 23 at number 1.

But the most inspiring thing about McCourt was not just that he overcame an objectively “miserable childhood” – featuring an unemployed, alcoholic father, a life-threatening illness of his own and the death of several siblings – to achieve international literary recognition. What’s inspiring about McCourt is that he published this memoir when he was 66 years old.

I remember once reading an interview with McCourt back when the book first came out in which he admitted that while he’d sat down to tell his life’s story several times, it was only at age 66 that he finally found his voice.

And he’s not alone. Increasingly, old age seems to be a phase of life when people not only discover new talents or take on new hobbies (on that note, be sure to visit my favorite jokes website), but actually flourish professionally. I recently got an email from a friend who told me that her mother – a scientist  – who recently died felt that she’d done her best work in her sixties. Then there’s architect Frank Gehry who just celebrated his 80th birthday and is still going strong.

A recent study by the Pew Research center on aging in the United States found that most adults over age 50 feel at least 10 years younger than their actual age. Older adults also said they had experienced the negative aspects of aging — including illness, loneliness and financial difficulty — far less often than younger people anticipated.

As I begin to feel those creaky aches and pains and watch as both my kids crush me in Monopoly, it’s tempting to conclude that I’ve reached the beginning of the end. But people like Frank McCourt remind us all that there’s always more life ahead.

Thank goodness for that.

*****

If you’d like to hear my rant about that newest American rage – the all-pet airline – head on over to PoliticsDaily.com.

Image: Frank McCourt by Irish Philadelphia Photo Essay via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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