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In Our Prime

The Invention of Middle Age
By Patricia Cohen

Read an Excerpt

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 invention accompanied the country’s astonishing metamorphosis into an urban, bureaucratic, and industrial society. Middle age was a product of scientific rationalism, which assumed that every aspect of existence could be managed, categorized, and controlled. It was molded by the buoyant growth of mass consumerism, which extolled the young and new as a source of vitality, innovation, and renewal at the expense of the old and familiar. Advertisements, movies, and later television dressed, powdered, and repackaged middle age and then circulated the image through the miles of cable and constellation of satellites that connect the far corners of the country and globe.

Our attitudes toward middle age were shaped by the American individualist ethos and never-ending search for fulfillment. The exuberant self-help ideology that assumes people are self-directed and capable of positive transformation is the legacy of a merit-based democracy. The task of improving our midlife selves is an expression of a profound belief in what the literary critic Alfred Kazin labeled the “most revolutionary force in modern times”: the “insistence on personal happiness.” This impulse has led to profound creativity and satisfaction, but it has also been cleverly exploited by marketers, resulting in wasteful consumption and a warped image of aging.

Middle age is also a story we tell about ourselves. Colonial- and Revolutionary-era Americans saw the middle years as part of a spiritual journey, a pilgrim’s progress that ended with an ascension to heaven. Early capitalists and social scientists set middle age in a Darwinian tale of survival where older workers were pushed out by more adaptable younger ones. Doctors, con men, and dreamers have written it into utopian fantasies, imagining a healthy, fit, and wrinkle-free aging process. Middle age has been cast in a series of roles: a measure of productivity, a threat to beauty and sexuality, a scientific conundrum, a marketing tool, a stage of psychological development, a social and political metaphor, a literary device. These interpretations or frames have affected how individuals have understood and experienced the middle decades and influenced the narratives we construct about our lives.

Our ideas about middle age are continually evolving, which is one reason it remains elusive, a changeling with no fixed entry or endpoint, clinging to youth and spilling over into old age. Forty has long been the traditional turning point in adulthood in the West, although there is no particular biological or sociological basis for it. Scholars believe the number’s symbolic power dates back to biblical times (i.e., the flood lasted forty days and nights, as did Jesus’s fast in the wilderness; the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years). The New American Heritage dictionary defines middle age as “the period between youth and adulthood, generally 40 to 60.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites 45 to 60, while Webster’s and the U.S. Census Bureau peg middle age at 45 to 64. The nonprofit Pew Research Center uses 50 to 64 (dubbing it the “threshold generation”) and classifies those between 30 and 49 in its “younger adult” category. Extensive surveys reveal that the definition shifts depending on a respondent’s age, sex, class, and ethnicity. Those with more schooling tended to mark its onset later, as do those who are older; men thought it began earlier than women did. Males between 25 and 34 said middle age commences at 40 and ends at 56, for example, while females between 65 and 74 said it starts at 48 and lasts until 62. As life expectancy has increased (by more than three decades in the twentieth century), people have stretched the ribbon of middle age like a rubber band, extending it into their 70s. In 2009, Pew asked people between 50 and 64 when midlife ended. Most chose age 71. Middle age is a kind of never-never land, a place that you never want to enter or never want to leave.

The mammoth ongoing study of middle age currently funded by the federal government and called Midlife in the United States opted for comprehensiveness over specificity. Its originators considered the core of midlife to be between 40 and 60, with outer boundaries of 30 and 70. Yet outside of a petri dish, a category that encompasses a 30- or 40-year period and includes a single woman finishing up a graduate degree, working parents with school-aged children, and a retired widower with grandchildren is not very meaningful. We are like the tourists in a John Donohue cartoon: “You Are Here,” a street-corner map instructs, with an “X” in the middle of a line labeled “birth” at one end and “death” at the other.

As Bernice Neugarten, a pioneer in the study of adult development, put it: “Life is restructured in terms of time left-to-live rather than time-since-birth.” Midlife is a point of no return, that place in a journey where the beginning is further away than the end.

Middle age is much more than chronology, however. Biology may leave its mark with a delicate fan of lines around the eyes, but it is insufficient for understanding the way middle age plays out in our culture and our psyches. Historically, middle age has frequently been defined in terms of social relations or psychology. It arrives when children leave home, careers are settled, or parents are failing or dead. Alternately, it is considered a state of mind, when a person confronts his or her own mortality or pauses to assess what came before and what lies ahead.

To tell the story of middle age, I reached back into history and ahead to the latest research, visiting laboratories and scouring newly constructed digital archives. Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of scientific management, who introduced efficiency, segmentation, and standardization into the workplace, the home, and theories about aging, is among the personalities, famous and obscure, who figure in the drama. I write about Serge Voronoff, the Russian surgeon who sparked near-riots in the twenties with his promise to return middle-aged men to vigor with grafts of monkey testicles, and about Bruce Barton, a founder of modern marketing who envisioned Jesus Christ as the first adman.

I begin in Madison, Wisconsin, where scientists are mapping the middle-aged brain, and travel to Las Vegas, where antiaging charlatans and visionaries who practice a new kind of middle age medicine gather annually to share the latest elixirs and technological advancements. I have interviewed neurologists and social scientists, television executives and writers, film directors and actors, advertisers, drug manufacturers, and many others to chronicle the varying forces that shape our current understanding of middle age.

I was frequently surprised by what I discovered. Living longer is not the primary reason middle age emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century; much more important was that parents had fewer children. Women in midlife, so often the target of deprecatory aging jokes, initially benefited most from the invention of middle age because it created a new episode in their lives aside from the child-rearing years. And what delicious irony to discover that the decade when research into middle age began in earnest was the 1960s, the era of not trusting anyone over 30. The flood of studies that followed revealed that supposedly common fixtures of a middle-aged household such as the midlife crisis and empty nest syndrome are actually quite rare. Even now, amid the ceaseless discussion of middle age in the media, members of some poor and minority enclaves don’t think of themselves as “middle-aged” or even use the term. It is a “missing category” from their lineup of life stages. In a place where employment is intermittent and grandmothers fill in for absent parents, middle age does not describe personal experience much more meaningfully than the term prauda or tagata matua.

Two themes run through the history of middle age. The first is the constant struggle over how it is defined and by whom. Whether the words “middle age” conjure up an influential, wealthy, and satisfied figure or a paunchy, sexless, and discouraged one depends on who is doing the conjuring: bureaucrats, doctors, philosophers, politicians, advertisers, novelists, or filmmakers. Each has an interest in relating his or her own version of middle age. Gray hair is unsightly if you manufacture hair dye, and male menopause is a genuine affliction if you produce pharmaceuticals; middle age extends to 70 if you worry about the solvency of Social Security and want to encourage people to work longer, or ends at 60 if you hope they’ll retire and create opportunities for the next generation.

The second theme concerns the tension between self-help’s ability to empower or manipulate us. The market has largely co-opted the vibrant tradition of personal improvement to draw its own version of the middle-aged face and body, to set midlife priorities and produce a sense of security or anxiety. The overt message of advertisements is that you, too, can have a middle age that is vital, innovative, sexy, and fun, but underneath lies the implicit threat that a failure to take advantage of proffered enhancements will leave you unhealthy, unwanted, unsexy, and unemployable.

Before the twentieth century, men and women were often seen as reaching the height of their power and influence in their 40s and 50s. When middle age grew into a subject of popular conversation after the Civil War, an orchestra of voices offered comments and assessments. Descriptions of middle age as the prime of life were as common as depictions of it as old-fashioned and stale.

By the 1920s, science and business had seized the discourse and defined middle age primarily as a biological phenomenon as opposed to a psychological or spiritual one. Factory work favored the young for their speed and stamina, while businesses created an array of products from smoothing creams to cereals that promised to help customers mimic an idealized youth. Midlife was narrowly measured in terms of productivity and youthful beauty. In this context, middle age became a powerful metaphor for decline—one that has remained with us.

In the fifties and sixties, psychologists “rediscovered” middle age and recast it as a psychological stage of human development. For the first time, social science researchers considered midlife to be a significant period in which positive change was possible, but they also burdened it with psychic maladies. Middle age was an unavoidable “passage,” to use the term Gail Sheehy popularized in her 1974 blockbuster book. “A sense of stagnation, disequilibrium, and depression is predictable as we enter the passage to midlife,” she wrote, when we are obsessed with our own death.

By the mid-1970s, a handful of researchers recognized that this definition, too, was wanting. The cultural revolutions that the sixties launched into orbit were settling into place, and the neat series of life stages carefully lined up like dominoes—childhood, adolescence, middle and old age—were toppled as women in great numbers entered or returned to college classrooms, joined the workforce, and delayed or rejected marriage and children. Divorce, single parenthood, cohabiting gay and straight adults, and frequent job shifts were all on the rise. As researchers attempted to redefine midlife to take account of these novel circumstances, they ended up transforming the way human development as a whole was studied. Stage theories were nudged aside by a more comprehensive perspective that emphasized development as a lifelong process continually shaped and pounded by physical, mental, historical, and economic changes.

The idea of middle age has shifted position in the popular imagination as baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) reached their 40s, 50s, and 60s and as Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) followed close behind. The association of midlife with deterioration and torpor is still strong, but a growing countercultural story that emphasizes more positive affiliations is gaining momentum.

Today, we exist in a world of multiple middle ages. We each have a personal midpoint molded by individual experience, a generational midpoint determined by the historical era of our birth, and a huge cultural storeroom of off-the-rack middle ages offered by Hollywood and marketers. Varieties of middle age also depend on whether we graduated from high school or college, work as janitors or bankers, use the women’s or men’s room, and live in rural Texas or downtown Chicago.

Our ability to defy biological, social, and psychological clocks and construct a more enriched version of middle age has never been greater. Yet instead of re-creating middle age, this generation is trying to disown it. Americans haven’t abandoned their youthful infatuations. The contemporary ideal of beauty continues to spurn mature voluptuousness, thickening waists, and wrinkles, and glorifies ice-cream-stick figures and whipped-butter complexions. Middle-aged men and women are applauded for their ability to simulate the attributes of those twenty to thirty years younger rather than for their experience and wisdom. A successful midlife has become equated with an imitation of youth.

There is a more capacious conception of middle age, one that contradicts itself and “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman put it in “Song of Myself” when he was on the cusp of middle age, “in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death.” This middle age recognizes the inevitable loss of youth and a foreshortened future, but it also celebrates a deeper well of experience and insight, and takes advantage of an expanded buffet of prospects. Middle age takes many forms. Men and women of a certain age push strollers, drop the kids off at college, embark on world tours, and take up pole dancing. They forsake basketball for golf, pack away the small sizes, fill prescriptions for Lipitor, try and fail and try again to give up fatty foods; they take care of their grandchildren, leave jobs, switch careers, get fired, marry for the first (or second or third) time, strike out on their own after a divorce, or avoid matrimony altogether. They are the anchor point for children, new graduates, and aging parents.

Think of the word “meridian” and its manifold meanings. It can refer to one of the many imaginary lines that circle the globe from north to south, dividing it in half, and it can denote the high point or peak of one’s powers. Middle age is like a meridian: it was imagined into existence, it can create a legion of pathways, and it marks a time when we are in our prime.

© 2012 Patricia Cohen

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