IN OUR PRIME “is truly a comprehensive look at middle age through the eyes of scientists, historians, psychologists, medical doctors, marketers and many more… That’s good and bad news. It could lead to the denial middle-agers are prone to (thinking 50 is the new 30 and other lies we tell ourselves). But it does reinforce a point Cohen’s data makes: each generation defines middle age differently.
So people born before American Frederick Winslow Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 not only attached no negative connotations to middle age, they generally attached no significance to age. If they thought of it at all, it was to consider age a positive, an acquisition of skills, knowledge and judgment.
For centuries before Taylor introduced scientific management to make industry more efficient, so little emphasis was put on age that many people weren’t sure how old they were. Celebrating birthdays, even recording age in the American census, are relatively new developments.
Taylor set the work world on a course to casting a critical eye at older workers. He timed production in factories, which stressed the point that with age we lose strength and speed. That was not good news for older workers, particularly men, who often found themselves on the scrap heap by age 40.
Adding to the injustice: some historians now say Taylor cooked his data to exaggerate his theory’s success. But at the time, Taylor’s ideas about efficiency and standardization revolutionized industry. Henry Ford embraced the ideas and between 1913 and 1914 was able to reduce the time it took workers to build a car to 1.5 hours from 12.5 hours. Thus, the assembly line was born.
From this new view of aging, sprang the promotion of hair dye and face-lifts and a frightening chapter in medical history when the implantation of monkey glands into men was widely hailed as the cure. The list of fixes for middle age grows ever longer: human growth hormones, estrogen therapy, Botox, Viagra.
Cohen’s work often heads off on interesting tangents, reminiscent of travel writer Bill Bryson’s style. Following a section on the effect movies had on attitudes to middle age, she describes how the invention of photography added to people’s awareness of their own awareness.
When portrait photography became popular around 1840, subjects often could not identify themselves in their photographs. Some picked out the wrong photo, mistaking someone else’s face for their own. Shown the right photo, they would reject it because they couldn’t possibly look like that.
On the heels of a new awareness of one’s appearance came the development of marketing and advertising, those industries of whippersnappers, which rely on portraying aging as a negative in order to sell their fountain-of-youth elixirs.
That’s one thing that’s refreshing about this work: its scholarly approach to middle age is not about finding a way to tighten skin, thicken hair or thin the waistline. Middle-aged readers may pick it up looking for that, but will find better relief in at least some of Cohen’s experts’ view that middle age is no worse, and maybe even better, than other ages.
If there is a message to carry away, it is that. In the last century and a half, middle age has become recognized as another stage of human development, even if each generation will define it differently, proving, as Cohen puts it, ‘just how malleable this cultural fiction can be.’”