Feature

In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen

Cohen's “thoroughly engaging” book looks into the scientific and social forces that have shaped the idea of middle age, a stage in life that didn't exist until the mid-19th century.

(Scribner, $25)

“There is tremendous fluidity” in what any of us mean when we use the phrase “middle age,” said Christine Sismondo in the Toronto Star. Dictionaries claim that this life phase sets in at 40, but individuals in their 40s and 50s often define it as beginning just a few years beyond their current age. Society’s ideas about this in-between phase have also changed radically over time. As Patricia Cohen notes in her “thoroughly engaging” look into the scientific and social forces that have shaped midlife, the category didn’t even exist in people’s minds until the mid-19th century, when industrialists decided that factory workers’ most productive years ended at 40. Luckily, views of midlife are changing again, says Cohen, thanks in part to a cohort of middle-aged Americans who may be healthier than any generation before them.

It’s nice to learn that we didn’t always “make a blazing fetish of youthfulness,” said Laura Shapiro in The New York Times. Long ago, as Cohen notes, Americans even wore powdered wigs to appear older. But society has been disturbingly open to the idea that maturity is bad ever since an industrial-era decline in family size produced a small army of women who were empty nesters at 50. By the 1920s, women were already using cosmetic surgery to eliminate signs of aging. Men, too, were going to extremes. One popular pre-Viagra fix involved implanting monkey testicles in men who’d lost their verve.

Cohen is a cheerleader for the more sanguine view of midlife that social scientists have embraced in recent decades, said Kay Hymowitz in The Wall Street Journal. She points enthusiastically to recent research disproving the existence of the midlife crisis and promotes the emerging theory of “multiple intelligences” to argue that what midlifers lose in mental agility they perhaps gain in wisdom. Yet when she disparages the industries that prey on our fear of aging, she overlooks the fact that the affluence that makes those industries possible is also “the foundation for the middle age she admires.” If middle-aged Americans are healthier than ever, “they owe it to material progress.”

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