by michael on January 18, 2012

The pithy phrase coined by Yogi Berra, the famed New York Yankee catcher and manager, was correct: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!” 

I was clicking around on the web and found this intriguing article by Laura Rowley on Patricia Cohen’s new book, “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.” 

Seems, according to Cohen, the concept of middle age is more a function of marketing hype than a psychological and or physical condition. 

This article is relevant to parents and grandparents and, actually, anyone that is over the age of thirty. Here are a few key paragraphs. Here is the uplink to the article.

First Posted: 1/17/12 06:47 AM ET Updated: 1/17/12 06:55 AM ET

  Aging , In Our Prime , In Our Prime: The Invention Of Middle Age , Middle Age , Midlife , Midlife Crisis , Patricia Cohen , Patricia-Cohen-New-York-Times , Fifty News

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.

“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.

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.”

“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.”


A slide show of seven myths accompanies the article. I was most impressed by slide #6 The Myth: Health Inevitably Declines. Cohen writes: 

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. 

Coincidentally, I just read an uplifting article by Sharon Begley titled Buff Your Brain. See link.  One of the key premises of the article is that brain function and even IQ can be strengthened and improved and increased well into the 80s of a person’s life. 

Keep fighting, stay healthy and never surrender!!

More later

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