That’s the witty title of an opinion piece by journalist Patricia Cohen, who’s just published a book called In Our Prime: The Invention of Midlife. I’ve been struck by how much her undertaking resembles the one I’ve set myself. The review in the New York Times opens with “An upbeat look at middle age? Patricia Cohen had her work cut out for her.” Sounds familiar.
Despite her dreary topic, nothing puts the author in “the grumpy mood she could so rightly claim,” the New York Times reviewer observes. That’s because, as Cohen writes, a narrow focus on disease and dysfunction skews our perceptions of midlife, which “continues to be used as a metaphor for decline or stasis.” Sounds familiar.
According to Cohen, middle age was invented around the turn of the 20th century, when people first began living decades past their child-rearing years. Capitalism, vanity, and fear of mortality all swiftly combined to pathologize this grim development and commercialize the remedies. Cohen rejects this view, instead finding grounds for optimism in the better health, creative and economic productivity, and neuroplasticity of middle-aged Americans. Sounds familiar.
The point, of course, is that all of the above applies to late life as clearly as to our middle years. Age is a continuum. Yet the punishing young/no-longer-young binary has enormous power. “When does middle age begin?” was always the first question asked of Cohen, with everyone anxious to be on the right side of that imaginary line in the demographic sand.
Middle age begins whenever we think it has, perhaps the first time we feel “not young,” or that death appears closer than childhood. Those markers are fluid, not chained to chronological age. As reviewer Laura Shapiro writes, “surely the elasticity of the concept [of middle age] is its best feature. After all,” she continues gloomily, “not much follows middle age except joining the ranks of the ancients — or, as geriatric specialists now say, ‘the old old.’” I suppose that’s a backhanded way of saying age is a continuum, and guess what, Laura? The view from there ain’t as bad as you think either.
Cohen’s other important point is that middle age is as much an invention as adolescence: “a cultural fiction, a story we tell about ourselves.” This script shapes us, but it’s also ours for the rewriting. She’s hoping today’s midlifers rise to that challenge. In fact, this critical task of reimagining the life course falls to people of every age.