The prospect of middle age, a period with no universally established timeframe, is shrouded in clichéd assumptions. Around age 40, it seems as if Americans are legally required to lose their way. Everyone is a gray hair away from buying sports cars, dumping their spouses or dyeing their hair. Middle age is a years-long punchline, but why? And is there any truth to this unraveling?
More than an exhaustive history, Patricia Cohen’s In Our Prime illuminates an evasive truth: Middle age is an ever-evolving concept. What once was debilitating is now empowering. There are innumerable benefits to being over the hill. “Middle age can bring undiscovered passions, profound satisfactions, and newfound creativity,” Cohen writes. “It is a time of extravagant possibilities.”
The concept of middle age originally developed as a byproduct of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a time management pioneer who “roped modern man to the clock” starting in the 1880s. Taylor’s workplace doctrine of breaking tasks down into individual parts trickled down to “psychologists, educators, and doctors [who] dissected a single life into separate phases: childhood, adolescence, middle, and old age.” Of course, the glittery promise of youth became the most desirable phase, a notion supported by a “burgeoning marketplace [that] was able to exploit the fascination with the body. . . . A cult of youth seized the popular imagination after World War I and has kept a grip on it ever since.”
According to Cohen, the theories and research that freed middle age from its death sentence-like associations didn’t take shape until the 1950s. Researcher Bernice L. Neugarten recalls that in the early 1950s students in her graduate course “were amazed at the idea that no one developed throughout life.” As it turns out, people do evolve over time. The “world’s largest study on middle age,” spearheaded by Bert Brim, dispelled the typical notions of midlife crisis when results were released in 1999. Menopause was no big deal; an empty nest provided parents with independence, not grief.
Things are still not perfect. What Cohen deems the Midlife Industrial Complex is bent on creating conditions for men and women to fix through surgery or cosmetics. But what remains clear throughout Cohen’s fascinating work is that the middle years should be anticipated and savored. In Our Prime will inspire a lot of people to enjoy middle age—and save countless trips to Porsche dealerships.