In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age

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9781452606200: In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age

From the New York Times reporter whose beat is culture and ideas comes a fascinating, revelatory, and timely social history of the concept of middle age. For the first time ever, the middle-aged make up the biggest, richest, and most influential segment of the country, yet the history of middle age has remained largely untold. This important and immensely readable book finally fills the gap.In Our Prime is a biography of the idea of middle age from its invention in the late nineteenth century to its current place at the center of American society, where it shapes the way we view our families, our professional obligations, and our inner lives. Patricia Cohen ranges over the entire landscape of midlife, exploring how its biological, psychological, and social definitions have shifted from one generation to the next. Middle age has been a symbol both of decline and of power and wealth. Explaining why, Cohen takes readers from early-twentieth-century factories that refused to hire middle-aged men to twenty-first-century high-tech laboratories where researchers are currently conducting cutting-edge experiments on the middle-aged brain and body.

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About the Author:

Patricia Cohen is a New York Times reporter covering culture and ideas. She has also worked at Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and New York Newsday.

Pam Ward has performed in dinner theater, summer stock, and Off-Broadway, as well as in commercials, radio, and film. An experienced narrator, Pam has recorded many titles for the Library of Congress Talking Books program. She is the recipient of an AudioFile Earphones Award and the prestigious Alexander Scourby Award.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
The Prime Meridian

For the first time, middle-aged men and women are the largest, most influential, and richest segment in the country. Floating somewhere between 40 and 64, they constitute one-third of the population and control nearly seventy percent of its net worth. In booms and recessions, a trillion-dollar economy feeds and fuels their needs, whims, and desires. Better-educated and healthier than their predecessors, these early and late midlifers are happier, more productive, and more involved than any other age group. Women are part of the first generation to enter their 40s and 50s after the feminist movement, and they have options that their mothers and grandmothers could barely imagine. Life spans have increased as scientific advances have overcome many of the body’s once-unavoidable limitations. Viagra has recharged the sex lives of middle-aged men. Beauty treatments like Botox and facial fillers can erase the stigmata of facial wrinkles. New surgical procedures and recuperative strategies for worn-out knees and creaky rotator cuffs allow aging bodies to ski moguls and surf twenty-footers.

A century ago, circumstances—from the disillusionment that followed World War I to the emergence of Hollywood and mass consumerism—conspired to create a cult of youth. “The hero of our 20th century” was the adolescent, the historian Philippe Ariès declared in his seminal book Centuries of Childhood (1963), celebrated for his “purity, physical strength, naturism, spontaneity and joie de vivre.” Those circumstances have changed. Now, with an unprecedented number of Americans in midlife who can expect to live three, four, or five more decades, it seems the twenty-first century belongs to the middle-ager.

Yet if this is the best possible moment to be middle-aged, why then is this period of life still commonly greeted with resignation or regret, disappointment or evasion? No one is eager to show off the AARP membership card that arrives in the mail unbidden shortly before you turn fifty. Birthday congratulations are replaced with jokes about hearing loss, plunging libidos, and afternoon naps. Middle age is a punch line.

Hundreds of self-help manuals, spiritual handbooks, and memoirs promise to guide anxious readers through the middle decades. Cooking with Hot Flashes, How to Survive Middle Age, In a Dark Wood: Personal Essays by Men on Middle Age are among the titles that offer advice on sex, exercise, diet, looks, childbirth, elderly parents, menopause, midlife crises, divorce, remarriage, religion, and memory loss. Countless online blogs and print columns supply personal recollections, counsel, and relentless cheerleading. Facebook and Twitter are flooded with middle-agers’ quotidian dramas.

Such anxieties and ministrations would have thoroughly baffled Americans living in the early 1800s because the concept of middle age did not exist; it had not been invented yet. Middle age may seem like a Universal Truth, a fundamental law of nature, like Earth’s rotation around the sun or the force of gravity, but it is as much a man-made creation as polyester or the rules of chess.

The notion that the term “middle age” would be a source of identity, shaping the way we envision our inner lives, view our family and professional obligations, and locate ourselves in the community and culture, would have been as alien to our ancestors as iPads and airplanes. For ordinary men and women, middle age was not a topic that merited reflection or analysis. Scholars did not devote years to its study. Periodicals and books did not publish essays on the topic, nor did correspondents and diarists devote pages in their letters or journals to its qualities. Advice manuals did not refer to behavior, clothes, or activities that were appropriate for people in their middle years as opposed to any other time of life. There were no medicines, organizations, leisure activities, treatments, music, or empowerment gurus designated specifically for people in middle age. Prior to 1900, the Census Bureau did not even bother to ask for a date of birth. You were young, you were an adult, and then you were old.

Life stages are all manufactured. As Ariès showed when he traced the invention of childhood back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or C. S. Lewis when he dated the invention of romantic love to the Middle Ages, even the most familiar assumptions were not always a part of our mental map. Only over time did they become second nature and recede into the grain of everyday existence to become “just the way life is.”

Of course, people have always fallen in love, just as there have always been children. But Lewis, in The Allegory of Love (1936), pointed out that the happily-ever-after story based on mutual respect, affection, and individual choice first arose in the West among medieval troubadours. In Centuries of Childhood, Ariès demonstrated that children were perceived as miniature adults until the Renaissance, when their status changed among the aristocracy. The idea finally trickled down to the rest of society in the late nineteenth century as evidenced by the push for child labor laws and universal schooling.

Similarly, Aristotle and Shakespeare refer to the “ages of man.” Dante begins the Inferno “Midway in the journey of our life.” But only in the last 150 years was middle age acknowledged as a discrete category of development with unique characteristics; only then was it subjected to bureaucratic dictates, scientific classification, political concerns, and business and marketing interests.

The choice to chop up the uninterrupted flow of years is just that—a choice. Whether age 13 signals the coming of adulthood as in the Jewish religion, whether 18 or 21 is mature enough to vote and drink, whether a minimum age of 35 is necessary to be president, whether 65 is the time to retire are choices made by a particular group at a particular moment for particular reasons. Currently, academics and policy makers are debating the existence of a new stage—“emerging adulthood.” Americans between 20 and 34 are taking more time to finish their education, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children, and become financially independent. The road to adulthood has lengthened because of a shift from manufacturing to a globalized, technological, and service-based economy, the women’s movement, and shifting attitudes about single parenthood and marriage. Other experts suggest that extended life spans mean people between 55 and 70 or 75 constitute a new stage—post–middle age, pre–old age—because of their ability to keep working and pursue personal or civic endeavors.

Whether or not these are genuinely new stages, they do illuminate just how contingent our notions of midlife really are. Middle age is a “cultural fiction,” constructed differently around the globe, says Richard A. Shweder, a University of Chicago anthropologist. Outside America and Europe, middle age is often defined by one’s position in the family. Hindu women in the Indian state of Orissa have a term—prauda—for the period when a married woman takes over the household, but not for middle age. In Samoa, where birthdays are seldom celebrated, there is no word for midlife; instead tagata matua is used to denote a person of maturity and good judgment.

I thought about our cultural fiction one sun-bleached afternoon while sitting on a beach with some friends, all of us past 40. As our children busied themselves building crab condominiums in the sand, we talked about the cycle of our lives, the opportunities and experiences we had compared with our parents and grandparents. According to the calendar, we were in middle age, but that was not at all the way we felt. For those of us born after World War II, the middle age we inherited did not fit quite right. We slipped our arms into the sleeves, but middle age pretty much hung there, heavy and oversized, like a bulky, drab woolen greatcoat. The oldest members of the baby boom generation have been trying to tailor midlife to suit them better, but it still feels like a hand-me-down. When my mother watched me play in the sand, she was in her 20s. By the time she reached middle age, I was finishing up graduate school and traveling. I married at 39, became a parent at 40, and still thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Some of my friends were on my mother’s timetable, while I was checking out preschools and shopping for tricycles.

Considering how dramatically the experience of middle age had shifted in one generation, I wondered what it was like even further back. I wanted to examine how specific ideas about midlife were created and why one won out over another. When the average life expectancy was 40, did people think of 20 or 25 as middle age? Now that it is pushing past 80, has the traditional 40-year-old starting line moved forward? Before the twentieth century, did Americans view the middle years as a time of decline and retrenchment, a prelude to death? Did they lie about their age to make themselves seem younger? Were women embarrassed about creases around their mouths? Did men fret about the first gray hair? How is it that midlife is portrayed simultaneously as crisis-ridden and dully uneventful? Despite a freighter’s worth of books written about midlife, hardly any explore its history in depth.

This book is a biography of the idea of middle age from its invention in the second half of the nineteenth century to its current place at the center of American society, where it wields enormous economic, psychological, social, and political power. This stage’s advent has generated an unfamiliar landscape of possibilities, creating new conceptions of our selves, our business opportunities, and our avenues of social control.

The history of middle age is a companion to America’s entry into the modern world. Its inv...

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