Today’s post comes to us from Patricia Cohen, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of the new book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age. She has previously worked at the Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.
After finishing Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, I felt that distinct combination of admiration and envy: I wished I had written it. When I did get around to writing my own book, a social and cultural history of middle age titled In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, I found his research extraordinarily useful. His insights informed a lot of my own thinking about how advertising helped shape views of what life’s middle years were supposed to look and act like.
This imagined midlife lies at the intersection of self-improvement and mass consumption, two of the most powerful movements of the twentieth century. Faith in the perfectibility of man through his own efforts, combined with the promise of the marketplace’s transformative abilities have created what I call (to crib President Eisenhower’s phrase) the Midlife Industrial Complex.
This amalgam is a complex in both the institutional and emotional sense: a massive industrial network that manufactures and sells products and procedures to combat supposed afflictions associated with middle age; and a mental syndrome that exaggerates angst about waning powers, failure, and uselessness in one’s middle years. Zeroing in on the physical body, the market whips up insecurities, creating a sense of inferiority, then sells the tools that promise to allay those fears.
The origins of the Midlife Industrial Complex date back to the 1920s, when America became a visual culture – what the poet Vachel Lindsay called a “hieroglyphic civilization” – and consumerism attached itself to the growing self-help movement. A perfect example can be found in the Marchand archives. “She looks old enough to be his mother,” two women remark about a friend in a 1928 advertisement for Lysol disinfectant. “And the pity of it is that, in this enlightened age, so often a woman has only herself to blame if she fails to stay young with her husband and with her women friends.”
The poor Lysol-less woman was not fated to a life of neglect and aging: she could have done something about it. In this democratic arena, youthful beauty is not confined to genetic luck or wealthy pampering; it is within everyone’s reach, part of an individual’s inalienable right to pursue happiness. As Helena Rubinstein reputedly said, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. In the language of self-improvement, middle age doesn’t simply happen to you; it is what you make of it.
What reviewers are saying about In Our Prime:
“A brilliant, wide-ranging book…Cohen’s lively prose and thoughtful insights make this a joy to read.”—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
“Very fine…lucid, straightforward and conversational… a thorough—and thoroughly fascinating—cultural history of aging.”—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
“Her book is a fascinating biography of the idea of middle age, ‘a story we tell about ourselves.’ — Gail Sheehy, The New York Times.