A good way to look at the changes that come with middle age is to think of life as consisting of a set of social roles and to see how these roles change in importance and in their claim on the time of a man or woman. Life for a middle-aged person involves meeting one's self-expectations and the expectations of other people in the following roles:
The Parental Role. As children grow up and establish themselves in jobs and homes of their own, the parental role becomes less demanding. The successful parent has set his children free and become more free himself in the process. As for grandchildren, the grandparents can usually enjoy them without feeling responsible for them.
The Home-Maker Role. With children grown and out of the home, there is often a chance to move to a less pretentious dwelling, usually smaller, more modern, and easier to keep up. Leisure time can be used in gardening and fixing up the interior; and people may take particular pride in the physical condition of their homes.
The Role of Spouse. Husband and wife are likely to spend more time together. Not only do their children need them less as parents, but, as spouses, they may need each other more. They may feel the need of greater mutual emotional support.
The Worker Role. As a man (or woman) reaches the peak of his career, the worker role changes its significance. He may relax and take his work more easily; or he may do just the opposite--strive to better himself in a hopeless struggle against his own aging. A good many women in middle age take up the worker role again, finding that they have time on their hands.
The Association Member. A variety of changes may take place in one's participation in clubs, churches, labor unions, fraternal or professional organizations. One may drop out of certain organizations, such as the Parent-Teacher Association, and one may join some social club for which he finds both time and money. One may take leadership in clubs, or one may give up leadership. About all that can be said with certainty is that this period of life gives a person a chance to take stock of his associational activities and to change them if he wants to do so.
The Citizen Role. Plato thought that a person should reach the prime of citizenship around the age of 50. By this age his youthful impetuosity would be replaced by the wisdom of experience, and he would act in the best interests of society. Some people today do develop into the best of citizens in their later adult years, combining wisdom with greater freedom from other demands on their time, to fill the role of citizen in a really distinguished way.
The Friend Role. Friendships are likely to become somewhat more important at this time, largely because there is a gain in leisure time, and perhaps there is more of an investment of interest in people outside the family as involvement with one's children decreases.
The Role of User of Leisure Time. This is potentially one of greatly increased importance since there is usually more leisure time available, free from the demands of one's family, and because there is promise of even more leisure in the future. Some people deliberately cultivate new leisure activities, or reactivate old ones. Other people drop into a rut with a few time-killers, while they cease doing other things for which they no longer have physical energy or motivation, such as dancing, athletics, or keeping up with a social club. Although the happy use of leisure should be a most important gain of middle age, some people cannot find satisfaction in their leisure, because they cannot give leisure the same validity that they give to paid employment, housework, or care of children.
Thus we see that the roles which make up life are apt to change a great deal at about the age of 50. But they may change for the better or for the worse.