“New York Times” journalist Patricia Cohen says she wrote “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age” partly because she has always been interested in history and partly because, no surprise, she is middle-aged. She explains, “There have been books about childhood and books about adolescence, but there has been no book about this stage of development. No one had looked at middle age historically before.”
Cohen, who is 51, concedes that her middle-age experience, though no longer unusual, is not typical. She married at 39 and had a child at 40. “But that is part of the point,” she says. “We no longer walk in lockstep from education to marriage to having kids early, the way other generations did. In my middle age, I was changing diapers and worrying about preschools. Nowadays there is not one middle age but lots of middle ages.”
Cohen’s book traces the development of the concept of middle age--the term was not even used till the end of the nineteenth century--and knocks down some myths often associated with this time of life. No, women in middle age have never really suffered from an “empty nest syndrome.” They’ve almost always been glad when the kids were grown up and gone. And, no, the much discussed “midlife crisis” is more fancy than fact. “Research for over ten years has repeatedly found that a very small number of people have midlife crisis in midlife. Usually these episodes, when they happen, occur at different times.They are more likely to happen in the end of one’s twenties or early thirties. In fact, another life stage may be evolving , since teenagers are taking so long to grow up. That new stage may be an extended young adulthood. “
The most positive findings her research revealed: the qualities of the middle-age brain. Even though a younger brain may perform better at some tasks, in midlife we are more capable in significant ways. “We have had a giant leap in brain research in recent years,” she explains."Now we know that different kinds of skills come to the fore as we get older. Our judgment, our social reasoning, our vocabulary skills, and our assessment of risks all improve. “
The changing views of middle age, Cohen believes, have always been, to some degree, a double-edged sword, especially for women. In the early part of the twentieth century, middle-aged women were not expected to be as attractive or sexually appealing as women now can be, but they were respected and vital members of their communities. Often it was middle-aged women who were at the forefront of reforms and social change. Women now in middle age are healthier, with more opportunities than ever before, but at the same time they are expected to be youthful looking and energetic. What Cohen calls “the midlife industrial complex” has sold the Boomer generation on looking good and staying sexually attractive. She comments, “It is an oppressive burden to always see aging as a bad thing.”
What has writing the book taught Cohen? “It has given me an appreciation of the cycle of life and that every age has its pluses and minuses,” she says. And in the book’s final paragraph she writes, “Middle age can bring undiscovered passions, profound satisfactions and newfound creativity. It is a time of extravagant possibilities.”
Myrna Blyth is editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.
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