Middle Age Is a Cultural Fiction
Book sees midlife as an invention that's forever subject to change
John Birmingham is Editor-at-Large at Next Avenue.
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Back in the late ’70s, I worked as a bartender in a New York restaurant where most of the wait staff were aspiring actors, right out of school. This was the heyday of Studio 54, which means my co-workers favored hits by the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. I didn’t own a Disco Sucks T-shirt, but as bartender I did control the tape deck and would sometimes indulge my own preference for vintage R&B.
That’s what I was doing one evening around 5:45, just before the place opened for dinner. The chef, an easygoing Puerto Rican named Victor, was at the bar nursing a Coke. After a minute, he took note of my dated taste in music. “John,” he said, “you an old cat.”
I was 26.
Now, more than three decades later, no one describes me as old (not in my presence, at any rate). Instead, people regard me as middle-aged, which these days is a good thing to be — as I learned recently from reading Patricia Cohen’s book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012).
It wasn’t always such a good thing — or anything at all. According to Cohen, a reporter at The New York Times, middle age is a “cultural fiction,” a fable Americans made up and keep revising to reflect the times.
Apparently the meaning of age is highly elastic and entirely relative, just as Victor’s long-ago observation suggested. And the idea of middle age is especially pliable. Here are just a few of the points Cohen makes about this still-unfolding story:
Before 1850, middle age didn’t exist. Age was “not an essential ingredient in one’s identity,” the author explains. The phrase “happy birthday” rarely shows up in books written before the Civil War. Until then, age groups blended together, as the vast majority of Americans lived in rural areas, where family members of nearly all ages worked hard and dressed the same.
Longevity is not the main reason for the advent of middle age. Sure, it’s a factor: As Cohen points out, dropping dead at 40 — the average life expectancy in 1800 — didn’t leave “much of a middle to enjoy.” But even more important is the fact that, as families migrated to cities, women began having fewer children. Suddenly there was “life after children.” In 1895, “midlife” entered the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary.
Categorizing people by age sparked interest in self-improvement — and the rise of consumerism. The U.S. Census Bureau started asking citizens their age in 1900, and by the 1920s the J. Walter Thompson ad agency was segregating consumers by generational groups. That was also when women took to cosmetics as a way of looking younger, giving birth to what Cohen calls “the Midlife Industrial Complex.”
Myths about middle age abound. Two cases in point: the midlife crisis, a term coined in 1965, and the empty-nest syndrome, an idea that caught on in the '70s. The reality? Midlife in the United States, an ongoing study based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, finds most middle-aged Americans to be “healthy, in control and satisfied.”
Middle-aged consumer equals big-time spender. Cohen cites a 2010 marketing presentation at which NBC executives introduced advertisers to the alpha boomer: “a member of the 55- to 64-year-old demographic, who number 35 million and spend more than $1.8 trillion annually.” Another study, by Hallmark Channels, shows the age of maximum consumption rising — to 54 in 2009.
The last point doesn’t matter greatly to me, since I’m not selling anything. What interests me more is, how long do I get to be middle-aged?
Given that middle age is an ever-changing fiction, the parameters are in flux. While the Census Bureau defines it as 45 to 64, the nonprofit Pew Research Center calls anyone 30 to 49 a “younger adult.” And in 2009 when Pew asked Americans 50 to 64 what age marked the end of midlife, most said 71.
The way they keep moving the goal post, I may never be an old cat again.