In Our Prime: The Inven­tion of Mid­dle Age

Patri­cia Cohen
  • From the Publisher
April 30, 2012

For the first time, the mid­dle-aged make­up the biggest, rich­est, and most influ­en­tial seg­ment of the coun­try, yet the­his­to­ry of mid­dle age has remained large­ly untold. In Our Prime final­ly fills the gap. Thisim­por­tant and immense­ly read­able book by vet­er­an New York Times reporterPatri­cia Cohen, out­lines thecul­tur­al, sci­en­tif­ic and social forces that cre­at­ed this vital but­misun­der­stood stage of devel­op­ment.  In Our Prime is a biog­ra­phy of the idea of mid­dle age from its inven­tion in the latenine­teenth cen­tu­ry to its cur­rent place at the cen­ter of Amer­i­can society,where it shapes the way we view our fam­i­lies, our pro­fes­sion­al oblig­a­tions, andour inner lives.

Patri­cia Cohen ranges over the entire land­scape of midlife, explor­ing how­its bio­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and social def­i­n­i­tions have shift­ed from one gen­er­a­tionto the next. Mid­dle age has been a sym­bol both of decline and of pow­er andwealth. Explain­ing why, Cohen takes read­ers from ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry­fac­to­ries that refused to hire mid­dle-aged men to twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry­high-tech lab­o­ra­to­ries where researchers are cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing cut­ting-edge­ex­per­i­ments on the mid­dle-aged brain and body. The book com­bines rich archival­re­search with fresh report­ing on the movie, adver­tis­ing and health industries.

Cohen fits the sto­ry of mid­dle age into the larg­er con­text of tech­no­log­i­cal­ad­vance, social change, and shift­ing tastes in beau­ty and fash­ion. She has gonein­to the lab­o­ra­to­ry with researchers to report on what the land­mark study,Midlife in the Unit­ed States (MIDUS), has dis­cov­ered about the mid­dle-aged­brain, body and psy­che. Using up-to-the-minute research, she explains the­lat­est find­ings on health, hap­pi­ness and sex, and explodes ingrained belief­s­about the midlife cri­sis, emp­ty nest syn­drome and divorce. Indeed, midlife isoft­en con­sid­ered the hap­pi­est time of life.

Cohen has trav­eled to Las Vegas, where anti-aging char­la­tans and vision­ar­ies­gath­er to prac­tice a new kind of mid­dle-age med­i­cine, and inci­sive­ly eval­u­atesclaims about human growth hor­mones, testos­terone sup­ple­ments, beau­ty treat­mentsand more. She exam­ines how two of the most pow­er­ful forces of the last cen­tu­ry– self-help and con­sumerism – have cre­at­ed a Midlife Indus­tri­al Com­plex” that­ma­nip­u­lates our hopes and anx­i­eties about mid­dle age.

She has also inter­viewed direc­tors, exec­u­tives and actors to exploreHollywood’s treat­ment of mid­dle age in films and on television.

Through­out the decades, mid­dle age has been cast in a series of roles: amea­sure of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, a threat to beau­ty and sex­u­al­i­ty, a sci­en­tific­co­nun­drum, a mar­ket­ing tool, a stage of psy­cho­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, a social and­po­lit­i­cal metaphor, a lit­er­ary device. These frames have affect­ed howin­di­vid­u­als have under­stood and expe­ri­enced the mid­dle decades and influ­encedthe nar­ra­tives we con­struct about our own lives.

Show­ing there is not one mid­dle age but many, Cohen demon­strates how the­Great­est Gen­er­a­tion, Baby Boomers and Gen­er­a­tion X have all expe­ri­ence their­mid­dle years dif­fer­ent­ly.

Discussion Questions