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The Author Speaks

What Is Middle Age?

Author Patricia Cohen explains why boomers have a hard time defining the second half of life

Q. How we look in middle age clearly plays into our feelings about this time of life. What do we need to be aware of?

A. That it's useless to rail against the focus on physical appearance in our society. If there's the technology to make us look better – plastic surgery and such – people who can afford it are going to take advantage of it. And there are many studies showing that better-looking people are paid more and that people think better of them. This is an unfortunate aspect of human nature, but it's not confined to age. We need to emphasize the other aspects of middle age that are positive.

Q. Such as?

A. As you get older, you often develop more perspective. You're willing to take risks, to try new things. That can be everything from the decision to run a marathon or take up dance, to much larger things like changing jobs. The message I'm trying to share is that it's not too late.

Q. Why is the "midlife industrial complex," as you call it, critical for us to know about?

A. Whole industries such as advertising, film, TV and even print journalism celebrate youth. Look at Hollywood. It's a global giant. This affects us all. It's why you see people saying, "I'm experienced," rather than "I'm middle-aged," because putting it that way is much more positive. But I'm very curious to see how things develop in the next 10 to 20 years. There's going to be a huge demographic shift. The number of people in their 20s and 30s is going to shrink and become a much smaller population cohort.

Q. And middle age will become more the norm.

A. A much larger proportion of the workforce is going to be middle-aged. And those people will be in demand, one hopes, as the economy recovers.

Q. Yet they're also endangered in this economy.

A. It's the double bind. Bad economic times are bad for everybody, not necessarily the middle-aged in particular. We may hold on to our jobs. We're less likely to be fired, which is the good news. The bad news is that if we are fired, it's much harder for us to get another job.

Q. You include a chapter on middle-aged sex and urge us to "beware the tyranny of the normal." Meaning?

A. What's normal, anyway? This doesn't apply only to sex, although sex is one particular area where people are very concerned about falling into what's considered normal for this period of life. If you think, Oh my God, everybody just has the most amazing, fantastic sex life, then you worry about "what's wrong" with aging. Which is not to say that people don't have problems and that they shouldn't get attention if they do. We should just realize there's a very wide range of normal out there.

Q. We shouldn't be embarrassed about being middle-aged, you say. What's the message here?

A. If you don't give credit to the fact that, hey, we're 50, and this is the way 50 looks, and this is what 50 can accomplish, then we're not giving credit where credit is due. Chronological age is the least important in terms of how we actually live our lives. Where we are in our lives and how we're living them is what makes the difference.

Maureen Mackey is a writer and editor based in New York.

You may also like: Things to try at least once after 50. >>






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