At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career. After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.
Most animals, from shrimp to shrews, decline swiftly after reaching sexual maturity. Humans, on the other hand, experience middle age: a several-decade plateau during which most biological systems deteriorate very little. This stage of life, argues writer and zoologist David Bainbridge in this excerpt from Middle Age: A Natural History, represents a remarkable evolutionary achievement that should gratify, not depress.
That’s the title of a piece in the fluffy Style section of yesterday’s New York Times, the one I turn to first on Sunday mornings. Being 45 puts writer Maria Russo in the “advance guard of Gen-X middle age,” and she describes her pleasure at beginning to encounter realistic exemplars of non-youthful beauty: Ellen DeGeneres, Diane Keaton, the dames of Downton Abbey. The trend is exemplified by MAC Cosmetic’s new line inspired by 90-year-old style icon Iris Apfel, pictured here in Scarlet Ibis, a “bright, high-drama red that approximates Apfel’s signature bold lip.”
That’s the witty title of an opinion piece by journalist Patricia Cohen, who’s just published a book called In Our Prime: The Invention of Midlife. I’ve been struck by how much her undertaking resembles the one I’ve set myself. The review in the New York Times opens with “An upbeat look at middle age? Patricia Cohen had her work cut out for her.” Sounds familiar.
A friend pointed me towards this insightful article in the Economist about what I’ve been calling the “U-shaped happiness curve." (In Britspeak, that’s “U-bend.”) It attributes widespread corroboration to “a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being,” and observes that the U-bend shows up consistently and globally across 40 years’ worth of data, even when scientists control for cash, employment status and children.
Reporter Pamela Paul kicked off a story in today’s New York Times Style section with the declaration that “most young people would prefer to be older and most old people yearn to be young.” Actually, that’s not the case. Aspects of youth do indeed appeal, but these are pangs, not ongoing yearnings.
A large Gallup poll of more than has found that “by almost any measure, people get happier as they get older.” The tone is skeptical: “[Getting old] sounds miserable, but apparently it is not.” The methodology is impeccable: researchers surveyed 340,000 Americans aged 18 to 85. The conclusion is clear: “good news for old people, and for those who are getting old.” In other words, for everyone.
Judith Warner’s “I Feel It Coming Together” post on her "Domestic Disturbances" blog, excerpted in Sunday’s New York Times, bemoans the fact that it’s all downhill after age 44. “I now see the passage of time more as a kind of bell curve,” she writes. “Years of ascension, soaring anticipation, followed by a plateau — which is not so bad, really — and then, no way to sugar coat this: a rather precipitous decline.” So long forever to “excitement, discovery, intensity.”