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The Queen of My Self

OCTOBER 

October is harvest time, a time of maturity and fruition. The Queen time of the year. What have we sown? What have we reaped? Lessons, experience, mastership, wisdom.

By Laura Rowley 

Patricia Cohen’s “In Our Prime: The Invention Of Middle Age”
Reinvention Of Middle Age
Kim Cattrall epitomizes the reinvention of middle age.

Middle age is a cultural fiction — a construct that emerged in the last 150 years through a confluence of factors, including industrialization, modern medicine, government bureaucracy and, of course, media and advertising. That’s the takeaway from the new book “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age,” a cultural history of aging by New York Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen.

Cohen takes readers on an exhaustive journey of what it means to be middle-aged, from the first concepts of a distinct life stage in the 1800s to contemporary research on the midlife brain. She examines aging in media, medicine, marketing and mythology — finding no evidence for the “midlife crisis” or “empty nest syndrome.” (See slideshow below for the Top Seven Myths of Middle Age.)

Cohen sat down with The Huffington Post at the Times’ offices. Fair-skinned with striking pale blue eyes and a cascade of red curls, Cohen tucked her legs beneath her in a chair and spoke passionately about her project of the last four years. Cohen married at 39, was pregnant at 40 and was enjoying a professional peak — just a few of the factors that inspired her to reconsider midlife as “a time of extravagant possibilities” rather than decline.

“It’s hard to think of yourself entering middle age when you’re changing diapers and looking at preschools,” she said. “In many ways the chronological definition of middle age is the least useful in our own lives. A number means much less than where you are in your own personal journey — how old your children are, whether your parents are still alive, where you are on your career path.”

Advances In Health and Industrialization

Middle age wasn’t thought of as a separate life stage prior to the second half of the 19th century, Cohen explained. In the mid-1800s, 85 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. People harvested crops side by side, shared tiny homes, were educated in mixed-age classrooms, and socialized across generations at dances and church services. The word “midlife” didn’t appear in the dictionary until 1895.

Several factors conspired to demarcate middle age, starting with advances in health. In 1800, the average woman had seven children and spent 17 years pregnant or breastfeeding, Cohen notes. Half of all deaths struck children 15 and younger. With advances in hygiene, pediatrics and antibiotics, mortality rates declined sharply, and by 1900 women had just three children on average.

“By age 40 to 45 women were finally done, the last kid was out of the house, and a new expanse of time opened up for 20 years or more,” said Cohen. The Progressive Era followed between 1890 and 1920, and middle-aged women became the mainstays of social reform efforts and the suffrage movement, Cohen notes.

For blue-collar men, middle age was less of a gift. An industrialized world divided workers by gender and age, and the labor market put a premium on strength and speed. Cohen profiled management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose advances in efficiency revolutionized the workplace. Ford adopted Taylor’s principles on its assembly lines, and reduced the average time to build a car from 12.5 hours in 1913 to just over 90 minutes in 1914.

“Farm people worked from the time they were adolescents to when they dropped,” Cohen explained. “But factory work really valued speed, and gave younger workers an advantage. Blue collar men in their 40s were finding they were not valued anymore.”

A Shared Consciousness Of Image

A growing bureaucracy began to segregate people by age — in schools, clubs and civic groups. In 1900, the Census Bureau began to ask respondents for their date of birth for the first time. The turn of the 20th century brought a flood of magazines, movies and advertisements that disseminated youthful templates of beauty and style. “For the first time you had a national, shared consciousness of the way you were supposed to look,” said Cohen.

The American experience in World War I also inspired youth-worship. “There was an incredible reaction against the older generation which had gotten us into war, with so many of the younger generation wiped out,” Cohen explained. “Youth became very sanctified and sacred.”

The idea that youth had to be revitalized combined with another social development: mass consumerism. “Industry had reached a point where you could produce and distribute products on a national scale — and once it did, you had to have advertising,” said Cohen. Ads began hawking new products to deal with the infirmities of age — wrinkles, bad breath, sweaty feet.

In the 1960s, psychologists such as Erik Erikson came up with new framework for thinking about human development, introducing the idea of growth as a lifelong journey. “It’s something that seems so obvious now but at the time was quite revolutionary,” Cohen said. “Freud believed that most development occurred in first five years of life and nothing of much import happened after that.

“Erikson created a different kind of map of life stages,” she continued, “and the stage representing middle age was really the most important, because it was when people began to look beyond their own personal achievements to what they could give back in helping the generation after them.”

…to be continued…stay tuned for part 2 of In Our Prime on Wednesday 11/1…
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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

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