Thirty-nine and Holding

As I approach my 40th birthday, I have become increasingly aware of what psychologists call the “nine-enders.” What-if, perhaps indulgent, end-of-decade questions hum in the background of my everyday life. When will I finish the book I am writing? Will I finally learn how to make yogurt and cheese? Is there still enough time in my life to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?

Nine-enders like me are people whose ages end in the number nine. Before we turn 30, 40, 50, 60, and beyond, many of us engage in major self-reflection and oftentimes change. As writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” According to research from psychology and marketing professors, Drs. Adam Alter (New York University) and Hal Hershfield (UCLA), approaching a new decade makes many of us take stock of our lives and the status quo.

Alter and Hershfield’s research, which included six studies to measure “an ongoing or failed search for meaning,” indicates “people search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age.”

The first two studies conducted focused on whether people entering a new era of their lives were more likely to question the significance of their lives; Study 3 investigated the frequency of male nine-enders (25 to 64 years of age) to register on a dating website which caters to people seeking extramarital affairs; Study 4 examined the number of suicides per 100,000 individuals (25 to 64 years of age) across the United States (2000-2011); Study 5 sought to investigate if nine-enders engaged in “productive meaning-seeking behaviors,” namely if “nonelite runners completed faster marathons when they were aged 29 and 39, rather than the 2 years before or after those ages;” and finally, Study 6 investigated “whether nine-enders tend to be overrepresented among first-time marathon runners,” which, of the 500 first-time marathon runners randomly drawn from the Athlinks website, 74 were nine-enders, an overrepresentation by 48 percent.

Critics of the findings, first published in November 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, applaud the innovative research topic and the diversity of studies conducted. However, Simon Kühne, Thorsten Schneider, and David Richter also point out methodological problems with the diverse study cases, primarily that the evidence presented shows “the standardized effects are very small.” Admittedly, Alter and Hershfield acknowledge the critique in a response to Kühne and colleagues: “As we note, these effects should be small because they’re both subtle and determined by many factors beyond age.”

Part of me also wonders how Alter and Hershfield’s research is being used by marketers to tap into the common insecurities of nine-enders as we approach new (to us) decades. Since these findings were made public, almost four years ago, I am certain savvy advertising companies have constructed campaigns that tap into the collective angst or recalibration of those of us bidding our 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s adieu.

Regardless, I relish the opportunity to revisit Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As I, and many others, bump up against a new decade, it is important to remember the short shelf-life of one lifetime and the importance of the choices we have right now.