"In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age" (Scribner), by Patricia Cohen: Most Americans tend to define middle age as the period between 40 and 60, give or take a few years either way. But they may be surprised to learn that the concept of middle age only took root at the end of the Civil War.
Middle age, it turns out, is not a fundamental law of nature, according to author Patricia Cohen, but rather a man-made invention that was viewed in years past as a time of decline and senescence but is now equated with wealth, power and influence.
Or, as the author puts it: "Middle age is a kind of never-never land, a place that you never want to enter or never want to leave."
"In Our Prime" is a fascinating study of this complex stage of life, a book whose appeal is likely to extend beyond the middle-age demographic to readers approaching or looking back on that key stage of life.
Drawing from leading thinkers in fields such as biology, psychology, economics and sociology, Cohen traces the evolution of the idea of middle age over the past 150 years. Whereas Sigmund Freud believed that one's personality was shaped by age 5, Erik Erikson diverged from his former mentor and came to see middle age as a meaningful period of development.
None of the conflicting theories about middle age had been subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny until 1999, when the MacArthur Foundation released the results of a nearly $10 million, 10-year study that debunked many myths about that stage of life. Another major study now under way is tracking the effects of aging on the brain. As part of her research, the author takes on the role of guinea pig in that study and undergoes a brain scan to record her emotional responses to various images.
The groundbreaking MacArthur study challenged many myths, most notably that of the so-called midlife crisis. Even so, Cohen notes, "this allegedly omnipresent affliction has remained a touchstone, a powerful presence in our imaginations if not our lives."
Meanwhile, the baby boomer generation's penchant for self-help and rampant consumption has given rise to what the author characterizes as the Midlife Industrial Complex, a network of interests that pushes products and procedures to remedy the purported afflictions associated with middle age.
The advertising industry and magazine publishers helped to promote an obsession with youth in which gray hair was seen as a social stigma rather than a natural condition of aging. Before the memorable Clairol ad campaigns of the 1950s that altered women's views of hair coloring, only 7 percent of women over 40 dyed their hair; today, that figure is 75 percent. The perception of aging as a disease also gave rise to a host of other products, such as supplemental estrogen, wrinkle creams and human growth hormone.
That mindset, however, may be on the wane. Cohen notes that advertisers and TV programmers are paying more attention to those in the 55-to-64 age bracket, whose spending power and receptiveness to advertising have gone unrecognized. So, too, perhaps, has the reality of middle age as a period of opportunity for change.
"Middle age can bring undiscovered passions, profound satisfactions, and newfound creativity. It is a time of extravagant possibilities," Cohen concludes.