New York Times culture reporter Cohen looks at how the concept of middle age has changed from the 1860s, when it was first recognized as a discrete period of adult development, to the present day.
To understand the forces involved, the author interviewed social scientists and neurologists, TV producers, film directors, actors, advertisers and pharmaceutical-company executives. Before beginning her social history, however, Cohen takes readers inside the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, where researchers at an NIH-funded project called Midlife in the United States are building a comprehensive database on middle-aged Americans, and where the author had her own brain scanned in a fMRI machine. Her highly readable history of the concept of middle age stresses two themes. One is the difficulty of defining middle age: when it happens, how long it lasts and whether it is viewed positively or negatively. The other is the interaction of faith in self-improvement and the power of the marketplace, which has had a powerful effect on the public's perception of the middle years. Cohen describes the phenomenon she dubs the "Midlife Industrial Complex" and its promotion of products—sex aids, human growth hormones anti-aging creams—and procedures such as plastic surgery, which can ameliorate the supposed afflictions of middle age. Even movies and TV come under her scrutiny as she examines the differences between how men and women in midlife have been depicted. The good news is that the spending power of the baby boomer demographic means that the marketplace's approach to midlifers is changing for the better. Early on, Cohen writes that that "the twenty-first century belongs to the middle-ager.” By the book's end, however, the take-home message is more sober—the meaning of middle age changes with every generation, and what it will be in the future remains unknowable.
A cool, well-documented account that puts the concept of middle age into historical context.