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.
In a short essay titled “Age and Its Awful Discontents,” novelist and lawyer Louis Begley describes his mother’s and his own long lives, the early years forged in the hell of German-occupied Poland in World War II, the later ones in comfortable New York City apartments.
Imagine a bunch of 35 year olds and a bunch of 85 year olds. Which is happier? The 35-year-olds, right? That’s what each group answers. But ask each to assess its own well-being and the older people come out ahead. This fact surprises (even me! even though I’ve written about it a lot!) because we’re so deeply conditioned to envision life after youth as decline. Yet it turns out that “Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”
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.
I didn’t make up that battle cry, but I’m appropriating it. It’s Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s line, and I read it in Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, her superb screed against ageist practices that are being institutionalized by powerful cultural forces: free-market capitalism for starters, along with anti-unionism and eroding job seniority the weakening of ADEA and small-government dogma. An age scholar at Brandeis, Gullette has enlarged my viewpoint in the best possible way — and gotten me further riled up.
It wasn’t the well-worn topic of a recent New York Times lifestyle article that struck me. (White-collar baby boomers, dubbed the “Encore Generation” by Marc Freedman, are staking out do-gooder second careers.) It was the matter-of-fact way this trend was presented within a radically new demographic, biological, and cultural landscape.
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.”