RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when being middle-aged was linked with being over the hill. Not so much anymore. Sixty is the new 40 after all. In her latest book, "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age," New York Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen explores the history of middle age and how our thinking of this time of life has changed since this whole middle age thing seeped into our collective consciousness. Patricia, welcome to the show.
PATRICIA COHEN: Thanks very much.
MARTIN: So first, I'm sure this is the obvious question everyone asks, but we all want to know what age is considered middle age?
COHEN: Well, I like to say that middle age is something of a never-never land. Younger people never want to enter it and older people never want to leave it once they get there. It's really one of those things that depends on what kind of job you have, whether you're male or female. Forty has always been a traditional entering point or start point of middle age. Lately, researchers have found that men think middle age begins earlier than women. Blue collar workers also think it begins earlier. The older you are, the later you think it starts. So, it really kind of depends where you sit.
MARTIN: I have to ask, how old are you, Patricia?
COHEN: I'm 51.
MARTIN: You knew you were going to get these questions when you wrote this book.
COHEN: I know, I know. I'm right in the center of it.
MARTIN: Is that in part what provoked you to delve into this subject, where you are in your own life?
COHEN: Yes. I have to say that the timetable that I and so many of our friends are on seem so different than the one my parents were on. When I hit 40, I was pregnant with my first child. I had just gotten married the year before. And I kind of hit the top job in my career that I had always wanted. Now, my mother's generation was completely different. I think she was in her mid-20s when she was pregnant with me.
MARTIN: In this book, you set out to dig into the historical origins of middle age. When was the first time that someone thought middle age was some kind of distinct period in a person's life?
COHEN: Well, I really date it to the 1920s when suddenly people are starting to write about it. It's a subject for magazine articles. Advice writers are beginning to talk about clothing that's appropriate for middle-age women as opposed to younger women.
MARTIN: I want to fast forward a little bit - in the 1980s, middle age really becomes something to be fixed, to be altered or reversed, at least the physical results of aging. Why was that happening?
COHEN: I think it was really the baby boomers. I mean, you suddenly had the largest generation really ever in history - 78 million people - who were reaching the middle years of their lives, who had grown up in the '60s warning not to trust anybody over the age of 30, and here they were over the age of 30. And so...
MARTIN: What do you do?
COHEN: Yeah, exactly. So, I think they were recognizing, hey, you know, I'm not really as boring and over the hill as I thought I would be or as I thought people in their 40s and 50s would be now that I'm here and, you know, now that we're at the top of our professions. We're not quite ready to move aside and give up those spots. So, I think that was part of it.
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that men and women have different perceptions about when middle age starts. But I'm curious what else you learned about how men and women perceive middle age in general.
COHEN: Well, a lot of the things that I discovered about women in middle age I thought was really interesting. From a historical point of view, middle age - or the discovery of middle age - really turned out to be an incredible boon to women, much more than men at first. Because middle-age men, as the country turned to industrialization, found that they were not as valuable in the workplace as younger men. But women were, at that point, having fewer children, and it was this whole new freedom that suddenly presented itself to them. And this combined also with the strengthening of the feminist movement. So, it turned out to be this real flowering for middle-age women at that time. And I think something similar happened after the women's movement in the '70s.
MARTIN: So, where are we now? What is middle age to us as a culture?
COHEN: I thought it was very interesting. When researchers asked people over 65 what age they would most like to return to, most of them bypassed their teens, their 20s and their 30s and they said their 40s. So, I think what we forget is that every age has its pluses and minuses and we have tended to look only at the negatives on middle age, not the positives.
MARTIN: Patricia Cohen is a culture reporter for the New York Times. Her new book is called "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age." Patricia joined us from our New York bureau. Patricia, thanks so much for talking with us.
COHEN: Thank you so much.
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