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The Invention of Middle Age

Excerpt from Patricia Cohen's latest book on defining and embracing middle age

Middle age has been cast in a series of roles: a measure of productivity, a threat to beauty and sexuality, a scientific conundrum, a marketing tool, a state of psychological development, a social and political metaphor, a literary device. These interpretations or frames have affected how individuals have understood and experienced the middle decades and influenced the narratives we construct about our lives.

See also: Patricia Cohen shares her thoughts on middle age

Our ideas about middle age are continually evolving, which is one reason it remains elusive, a changeling with no fixed entry or endpoint, clinging to youth and spilling over into old age. Forty has long been the traditional turning point in adulthood in the West, although there is no particular biological or sociological basis for it. Scholars believe the number's symbolic power in Western culture dates back to biblical times (i.e. the flood lasted forty days and nights; the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years).

The New American Heritage dictionary defines middle age as "the period between youth and adulthood, generally 40 to 60." The Oxford English Dictionary cites 45 to 60, while Webster's and the U.S. Census Bureau peg middle age at 45 to 64. The nonprofit Pew Research Center uses 50 to 64 (dubbing it the "threshold generation") and classifies those between 30 and 49 in its "younger adult" category.

Extensive surveys reveal that the definition shifts depending on a respondent's age, sex, class, and ethnicity. Those with more schooling tend to mark its onset later, as do those who are older; men thought it began earlier than women did. Males between 25 and 34 say middle age commences at 40 and ends at 56, for example, while females between 65 and 74 say it starts at 48 and lasts until 62. As life expectancy has increased (by more than three decades in the twentieth century), people have stretched the ribbon of middle age like a rubber band, extending it into their 70s. In 2009, Pew asked people between 50 and 64 when midlife ended. Most chose age 71. 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, © copyright 2012 by Patricia Cohen, is published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher.

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