What does it really mean to be “middle aged”? And why are so many of the connotations associated with this category so disparagingly negative? This question and many more are answered in New York Times’ reporter Patricia Cohen’s erudite examination of the stigma of midlife and aging in America, In Our Prime.
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We caught up with the author in between deadlines at the Gray Lady to assess her personal views on the general perceptions of a maturing population, what surprised her most during her research and some personal thoughts on getting older.
How did you come up with the idea to plumb the depths of “middle age”?
I was discussing it with some friends of mine while we were out on the beach with our kids about how different our lives were compared with our parents. In talking about it in a historical way, I realized nothing had been written about middle age from a social or culturally historical perspective.
The statistics on sex in the later years of life made for some eye-opening reading. What parts of your research on middle age surprised you the most?
Two things actually. The first was a lot of the research on the brain, which is very new partially because we didn’t have the technology before to look into the brain that we have now. I think this research has reversed a lot of the conventional wisdom about the way the brain functions—that it’s plastic and very changeable. There are amazing ways the brain compensates for failings you experience in middle age.
Secondly, I think even though we are aware of how advertising and movies creates and, in effect, molds our perception of middle age, I didn’t realize how thoroughly it had done so. It seems almost otherworldly to realize the in the 19th century, middle age was often viewed as the prime of life. I found it fascinating that when elderly people were asked which age they would like to return to if they could, most skipped their teens and 20s and went right to their 40s.
Do you think people in general worry too much about getting old?
Yes, absolutely. We are, as a culture, just obsessed with looking youthful, and there are obviously lots of downsides to getting older. We have this kind of unhealthy obsession that makes us neglect the positives about other stages in life.
In your book, you highlight the current wave of efforts to stem the tide of aging with creams, plastic surgeries and chemicals, which have the potential to backfire. Is it all worth it?
I think there are some that are obviously worse than others. It’s a natural instinct to want to look your best, and we’re all subject to that. But things like human-growth hormone are really very worrisome and have potentially serious side effects.
Why do you think the notion of middle age has gotten such a bad rap?
That question is precisely why I wrote this book. In lots of other historical cultures, that wasn’t the case. So that is the history which I explain in the book. Today it has so much to do with movies and magazines showing youthful images and in creating new ideals of beauty, as well as in mass consumerism, where modern advertising contributes more standardized notions of beauty. I think it was all of these varied forces coming together to creative a negative association with middle age.
How do you see the concept of middle age evolving for future generations?
Part of what I wanted to show in my book is how our notions of middle age have changed throughout history. I show how much things have changed compared with the baby boomers who grew up in a generation where youth was celebrated, how 20th-century factories used to hire based on age, and the structure of the labor market ties into it as well where as you aged, you were seen as less desirable in the labor market. Those examples will hopefully help people to see that the middle age of today doesn’t necessarily have to have the negative association that it does.
Are you personally frightened at all by the concept of getting older?
There’s definitely things that bother and scare me. I think writing this book has helped me to recognize some of the more positive aspects of getting older in terms of its satisfactions. It has made me take a more philosophical approach to the idea of aging and to see it as part of the natural cycle of life rather than so much scratching and struggling against it along the way.
Jim Piechota is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.