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Patricia Cohen's "In Our Prime: The Invention Of Middle Age"

Reinvention Of Middle Age

First Posted: 01/17/12 06:47 AM ET Updated: 01/17/12 06:55 AM ET

Middle age is a cultural fiction -- a construct that emerged in the last 150 years through a confluence of factors, including industrialization, modern medicine, government bureaucracy and, of course, media and advertising. That's the takeaway from the new book "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age," a cultural history of aging by New York Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen.

Cohen takes readers on an exhaustive journey of what it means to be middle-aged, from the first concepts of a distinct life stage in the 1800s to contemporary research on the midlife brain. She examines aging in media, medicine, marketing and mythology -- finding no evidence for the "midlife crisis" or "empty nest syndrome." (See slideshow below for the Top Seven Myths of Middle Age.)

Cohen sat down with The Huffington Post at the Times' offices. Fair-skinned with striking pale blue eyes and a cascade of red curls, Cohen tucked her legs beneath her in a chair and spoke passionately about her project of the last four years. Cohen married at 39, was pregnant at 40 and was enjoying a professional peak -- just a few of the factors that inspired her to reconsider midlife as "a time of extravagant possibilities" rather than decline.

"It's hard to think of yourself entering middle age when you're changing diapers and looking at preschools," she said. "In many ways the chronological definition of middle age is the least useful in our own lives. A number means much less than where you are in your own personal journey -- how old your children are, whether your parents are still alive, where you are on your career path."

Advances In Health and Industrialization

Middle age wasn't thought of as a separate life stage prior to the second half of the 19th century, Cohen explained. In the mid-1800s, 85 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. People harvested crops side by side, shared tiny homes, were educated in mixed-age classrooms, and socialized across generations at dances and church services. The word "midlife" didn't appear in the dictionary until 1895.

Several factors conspired to demarcate middle age, starting with advances in health. In 1800, the average woman had seven children and spent 17 years pregnant or breastfeeding, Cohen notes. Half of all deaths struck children 15 and younger. With advances in hygiene, pediatrics and antibiotics, mortality rates declined sharply, and by 1900 women had just three children on average.

"By age 40 to 45 women were finally done, the last kid was out of the house, and a new expanse of time opened up for 20 years or more," said Cohen. The Progressive Era followed between 1890 and 1920, and middle-aged women became the mainstays of social reform efforts and the suffrage movement, Cohen notes.

For blue-collar men, middle age was less of a gift. An industrialized world divided workers by gender and age, and the labor market put a premium on strength and speed. Cohen profiled management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose advances in efficiency revolutionized the workplace. Ford adopted Taylor's principles on its assembly lines, and reduced the average time to build a car from 12.5 hours in 1913 to just over 90 minutes in 1914.

"Farm people worked from the time they were adolescents to when they dropped," Cohen explained. "But factory work really valued speed, and gave younger workers an advantage. Blue collar men in their 40s were finding they were not valued anymore."

A Shared Consciousness Of Image

A growing bureaucracy began to segregate people by age -- in schools, clubs and civic groups. In 1900, the Census Bureau began to ask respondents for their date of birth for the first time. The turn of the 20th century brought a flood of magazines, movies and advertisements that disseminated youthful templates of beauty and style. "For the first time you had a national, shared consciousness of the way you were supposed to look," said Cohen.

The American experience in World War I also inspired youth-worship. "There was an incredible reaction against the older generation which had gotten us into war, with so many of the younger generation wiped out," Cohen explained. "Youth became very sanctified and sacred."

The idea that youth had to be revitalized combined with another social development: mass consumerism. "Industry had reached a point where you could produce and distribute products on a national scale -- and once it did, you had to have advertising," said Cohen. Ads began hawking new products to deal with the infirmities of age -- wrinkles, bad breath, sweaty feet.

In the 1960s, psychologists such as Erik Erikson came up with new framework for thinking about human development, introducing the idea of growth as a lifelong journey. "It's something that seems so obvious now but at the time was quite revolutionary," Cohen said. "Freud believed that most development occurred in first five years of life and nothing of much import happened after that.

"Erikson created a different kind of map of life stages," she continued, "and the stage representing middle age was really the most important, because it was when people began to look beyond their own personal achievements to what they could give back in helping the generation after them."

The "Midlife Industrial Complex"

Fast-forward to the mid-lifers of today, a generation wielding enormous social and economic power. "Alpha Boomers," people 55 to 64, number 35 million and spend more than $1.8 trillion annually, Cohen reported. They spend more on luxury cars, travel, dining, home furnishings and improvements, large appliances, cosmetics and beauty products than people ages 18 to 49. But only in the last few years have mainstream advertisers begun to acknowledge them.

On the other hand, certain industries maintain a laser-like focus on the demographic. Cohen argues that a "Midlife Industrial Complex" invents conditions that prey on middle-age anxieties. "Sexual desire disorder in women and male menopause keep coming up even though research shows no basis for it," she said. "But there's a highly lucrative business of testosterone supplements. These things are driven by pharmaceutical companies." In the book, she furthers this argument, offering a lurid history of age-related medical experiments, including the doctor who transplanted monkey testicles into men in an effort to restore their libidos.

Industry and marketers are also pushing a certain fabulous-over-50 "Stepford perfection," noted Cohen. "On the one hand, it's better than an aging, asexual house-frau, but it's a different kind of pressure," she explained. "The reality is that inhumanly thin bodies are still what's desired -- only now they're desired by 50-year-olds. That's why there's an epidemic of anorexia in middle-aged women that didn't exist a few years ago. As much as one can talk about the importance of inner beauty, we are all subject to wanting to look outwardly beautiful as well."

Cohen noted that Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent movie star played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film noir "Sunset Boulevard" is supposed to be 50 years old. She contrasts it with the last "Sex in City" film, which includes the 50th birthday celebration of Samantha (Kim Cattrall).

"Middle age is a 'Never-Never Land' -- when you're younger you never want to enter it and when you're older you never want to leave it."

Loading Slideshow...
  • Middle Age Myth #1: Midlife Crisis

    Research shows the midlife crisis is largely fiction. People in their 20s and 30s are more likely to experience the kind of "crisis" associated with middle age. Only an estimated 10% of middle-aged people have the classic midlife crisis.

  • Myth #2: The Empty Nest Syndrome

    Researchers have found no evidence of the so-called empty nest syndrome. Many parents relish and enjoy the transition, taking pride in the fact that all their child-rearing efforts have paid off, and their offspring are on the road to accomplishing their goals.

  • Myth #3: The Trophy Wife

    Men don't abandon their middle-aged partners for younger trophy wives as the stereotype suggests. Most marriages break up in the first eight years. The recent rise in divorce among the middle-aged is because second unions are breaking up (usually within the first eight years of marriage).

  • Myth #4: Menopause Stinks

    Hot flashes aside, nearly 62% of women in one survey said they felt "only relief" when their periods stopped, while fewer than 2% said they felt "only regret."

  • Myth #5: The Death Of Libido

    Despite the latest hype about testosterone supplements, low sex drive, depression and sagging energy levels were more likely to be caused by stress, poor eating habits and laziness in midlife than lower hormone levels. Meanwhile, many researchers think that warnings about female sexual dysfunction in middle age are highly exaggerated. What may account for women's flagging sexual life is that they are less likely to have a regular partner than men.

  • Myth #6: Health Inevitably Declines

    It turns out age really is about attitude: Research has found that believing that you can improve your health in middle age actually improves it. A sense of control in midlife can dramatically reduce disability and preserve one's health and independence later in life.

  • Myth #7: Happiness Plummets

    The truth is just the opposite: Many people view midlife as their happiest period. Several surveys have found that while happiness dips in the 40s, people start to feel more content with life after the age of 50.